Leeds United were in no way sad to see the back of Craig Mackail-Smith on Friday but the striker met his match in Paddy Kenny and the mind-games waged by the charismatic goalkeeper.
Last week’s animated meeting between Brighton and Leeds belonged in large parts to Brighton and to Mackail-Smith in particular – the scorer of two goals and the player who troubled United’s defence most. But he struggled to raise a smile at the final whistle after his missed penalty allowed Leeds to leave the south coast with a 2-2 draw.
The former Peterborough forward was denied by his own lack of conviction and Kenny’s reaction in diving to his right to smother a tentative effort on 74 minutes. Kenny earned due acclaim afterwards and credited himself with tempting Mackail-Smith to abandon his usual penalty tactics.
Earlier in the game, Mackail-Smith had beaten Kenny from the spot after Lee Peltier tripped Will Buckley in the 15th minute. A firm finish down the middle of Kenny’s goal flew into the net as the keeper dropped to one side.
Kenny had watched both of Mackail-Smith’s previous penalties and seen him use the same strategy. Later in the first half, he took an opportunity to tell the forward that he would be wise to a similar effort if Albion were awarded a second penalty.
The psychological trick told in Mackail-Smith’s failed attempt to win a game tied which was tied at 2-2.
Kenny said: “I’d actually told him after he scored his first one that I knew he was going to send it down the middle.
“I’d seen his last two penalties and I said to him that the next time he hit one he was going to have to go to one side. Luckily enough I guessed right and got the save.
“Sometimes it comes down to things like that. I put something in his mind and I’ve gone the right way. I was happy with that.”
It was one of two critical saves made by Kenny as Leeds soaked up a final spell of pressure in a Championship fixture which Brighton dominated heavily.
The keeper was called upon in injury-time to beat away a strike from substitute Andrew Crofts after a cross from the left wing caught United’s defence in disarray.
Like Mackail-Smith before him, Crofts held his head in his hands as a glaring chance went begging.
“It was within reaching distance of me,” Kenny said, “but I’m pleased that I made it because I didn’t think we deserved to lose. Not with the way we battled.”
United’s manager, Neil Warnock, knew from the moment he signed Kenny in July that the keeper would serve him well on nights when Leeds were forced to rely on his shot-stopping ability.
Warnock sold Andy Lonergan to help finance the £400,000 signing of Kenny from Queens Park Rangers and in spite of the odd mistake made by his established number one this season, has not had cause to regret that exchange.
It surprised Warnock that QPR and their manager, Mark Hughes, were willing to sell Kenny and replace him with Rob Green and latterly Julio Cesar.
The 63-year-old previously described Kenny as the “best keeper in the Premier League, never mind the Championship” and was not about to change his opinion after United’s frantic draw at the Amex Stadium.
“I wouldn’t have swapped him in the Premier League,” said Warnock, Hughes’ predecessor at QPR and the coach who originally took Kenny to Loftus Road.
“I don’t know how much it’s cost them to replace him but I think he’s a gem. He does that every week and it’s great to have him on board.”
The point claimed by Leeds at Brighton was as much as they deserved, and more than they were worth in the opinion of Albion manager Gus Poyet.
Annoyed by the loss of two points from a game which was asking to be won, Poyet was harsh in his criticism of Leeds and a number of their players.
He accused Luke Varney of diving to win the 35th-minute penalty from which El-Hadji Diouf replied to Mackail-Smith’s opening goal, and Poyet argued that Michael Brown should have been sent off before his deflected finish equalised for the second time midway through the second half.
But Kenny claimed the schedule imposed on Leeds last week had been an influential factor, forcing the club to play on the south coast three days after their Capital One Cup win over Southampton.
Kenny was the only player rested in midweek who started at the Amex Stadium – Warnock’s line-up was otherwise unchanged – and the strain of back-to-back matches appeared to take its toll against an impressive Brighton side.
“I thought it was a good game – a good, entertaining game for everyone watching.” Kenny said. “We showed great character to come behind twice. It’s been a tough week.
“We had a game Tuesday, travelled Thursday and played Friday. It was hard and we did well to come through it.
“It’s definitely a point gained for us. We’ve had to do a lot of travelling and there were a few tired players out there.”
Fatigue is the product both of Warnock’s thin squad and a relentless fixture list which will foist another midweek game on Leeds at Burnley tomorrow.
Kenny had the rare opportunity to play behind an unchanged back four on Friday but an eye injury suffered by Tom Lees might force Warnock into a alteration he would rather have avoided at Turf Moor. The need to a settle defence has been underlined by United’s tally of two clean sheets in the Championship this season.
“It’s nice to have the same back four week in week out but injuries make it difficult,” Kenny said.
“You saw Leesy go off at Brighton and I don’t know how he’s going to be. That might mean another change tomorrow but it would be nice to keep the same back four for a while.
“At the same time, you do what you’ve got to do. We’ve had the weekend to rest and we’ll all look to fire at Burnley.”
Kenny, meanwhile, made the surprising admission that he expects to be left out of United’s League Cup quarter-final against Chelsea next month.
Leeds landed a fascinating tie in the draw for the last eight, a match which will be staged at Elland Road on December 19, but Kenny said Warnock would be justified in fielding second-choice keeper Jamie Ashdown who played in previous cup wins over Oxford United, Everton and Southampton.
“It’s a great draw for everyone,” Kenny said, “and it’s up to the manager what he does.
“But I’m sure Jamie will be playing and I don’t have a problem with that.”