Reports from the south coast will assure Massimo Cellino that in spite of what he might have been told about this fixture, he did not miss much.
A seat was reserved for him at The Amex last night but a cold, joyless defeat to Brighton vindicated the latest no-show from Leeds United’s owner-in-waiting.
These clubs have served up two spellbinding games at Albion’s new ground so a laboured scrap in the February chill was ying to the yang of their previous matches.
More compelling for Cellino and others at Elland Road will be his forthcoming hearing with the Football League and the end-game in his planned takeover of Leeds.
Football had threatened to vye with the Italian for column inches after wins over Yeovil and Huddersfield reinvigorated a Championship table which was running away from Leeds but United lost to a second-half goal from Leonardo Ulloa yesterday, playing a quiet second fiddle to a more consequential battle in a discreet London office today. Cellino awaits approval from the Football League as United, their manager and their season wears on.
Leeds’ last two visits to The Amex produced 10 goals and two engrossing draws but last night’s game had the look of a forgettable match from the moment Brighton’s early impetus subsided.
There was good reason for either to avoid conceding ground with both among the glut of clubs directly beneath the play-off positions, but Ulloa’s 64th-minute goal gave Brighton a priceless leg-up at the end of the clubs’ 30th fixture of the term. Their fluid play just about deserved it.
Leeds merited nothing better than a draw, though in context there would have been more for Brian McDermott to take from that outcome than Oscar Garcia, Brighton’s Spanish manager.
A week-and-a-half ago McDermott was being hastily and illegitimately sacked by Cellino with five straight losses and a draw behind him, but seven points from three games on the bounce would have given him a renewed feeling of security. As it is, Ulloa’s winner and United’s 12th league defeat summed up the problem – too many losses since their season began with an injury-time win over Brighton at Elland Road. How long ago that game seems now.
McDermott expected to work under Cellino’s watchful eye last night but, as he had twice before, the owner of Cagliari decided to make himself scarce after coming down with a minor illness.
Brighton prepared for his arrival as Leeds had ahead of their recent games against Huddersfield and Ipswich but Cellino did not appear, keeping a low profile in anticipation of his meeting with the Football League.
His camp were optimistic that his 75 per cent buy-out of Gulf Finance House would be approved and signed off before the end of this week but, with a first payment received by GFH and contracts exchanged, the Football League’s influence is the one thing that Cellino remains dependent on. The governing body is still not indicating whether it will move as quickly as Cellino wants it to.
Had he turned up at The Amex, the 57-year-old would have seen a manager gambling as Leeds and McDermott took the unusual step of temporarily breaking Cameron Stewart’s loan from Hull City and playing a tactical game with his contract.
Stewart’s 93-day deal stood to expire in mid-April, before the end of the season, but an interlude at this point and another when the second month of his loan ends will push his availability closer to the play-offs. It was a risk on McDermott’s part, taken at a time when Stewart’s form has started to blossom, but the absence of a fixture this weekend encouraged him to take it. Danny Pugh took Stewart’s place on the left wing.
Brighton’s aggressive approach made it difficult for any of McDermott’s forward line to step out of their own half with the ball for 15 minutes. In general, United went nowhere in the first half and Albion’s conviction eventually subsided too.
Luke Murphy was booked after a matter of seconds for a loose foul on Andrea Orlandi and the brief onslaught from Brighton was not unlike United’s visit to The Amex last season.
Paddy Kenny’s defence massed in front of him to protect him against an initial flurry of shots and attacks on United’s box.
Leeds looked for encouragement on the counter and discovered early on that Brighton would leave themselves exposed at the back as Oscar Garcia encouraged his team to throw bodies up the pitch. Pugh hooked the ball wide from the corner of Albion’s box with markers trailing behind him in the 17th minute and Leeds found signs of anxiety beneath deliveries into Albion’s area. It was as promising as the first half got for McDermott.
Brighton struggled to avoid dumping crosses into row z and David Rodriguez found the same area of seating with a 25th-minute shot which sailed high over Kenny’s crossbar.
There was no grave threat to either goalkeeper for more than half-an-hour and Alex Mowatt scuffed a tame attempt at Tomasz Kuszczak after Murphy’s lovely, flighted pass sent Sam Byram sprinting down the right wing. Murphy, again, gave the midfield their direction.
Kenny was the first keeper to stretch on 34 minutes when Leonardo Ulloa brought down a chip from Orlandi and volleyed the ball into the side-netting but McDermott and Garcia would have been equally annoyed to have reached half-time with a goal against them.
Solly March saw arguably the best opening after Brighton worked an Inigo Calderon header to him 18 yards from goal but his hurried, off-balance strike sailed wide. Orlandi’s injury-time free-kick was every bit as wayward.
The lacklustre state of the match seemed to resonate with both teams at the start of the second half, and Leeds in particular. More lively and controlling, they had Brighton where they wanted them for a while.
Kuszczak held a curling shot from Mowatt and punched away a Ross McCormack free-kick as Brighton struggled to reassert themselves.
But Garcia played a wild card in Kazenga LuaLua before the hour and the winger took six minutes to run away from Byram, square a pass to Ulloa and leave the reliable striker to stab the ball past Kenny with the help of a deflection off Jason Pearce. United’s keeper was completely flat-footed.
Leeds pressed for an equaliser but could not threaten Albion’s lead nor pressurise Brighton out of the game.
McDermott turned to Matt Smith and then pulled Noel Hunt from the bench but Smith’s weak header into Kuszczak’s hands was as easy a save for the keeper as another soft Mowatt finish, produced on the one occasion when Brighton’s defence lost their shape.
In that area of the pitch, it was all too easy.