When it came, David Hockaday’s strongest team looked suspiciously like the team that Leeds United promised to leave behind in May.
An able goalkeeper was in their midst and a gifted 17-year-old too but the line-up at Chesterfield was last season’s in essence, minus the presence of Ross McCormack.
Hockaday had five new signings to work with and started only one, a fact which countered the idea that Massimo Cellino is quietly pulling the first-team strings behind him.
United’s squad has changed in the weeks since Hockaday inherited it but on Saturday his trust was invested in players who found the Championship a grind last year.
This, as Hockaday said beforehand, is how his side would have looked had Leeds been at Millwall and starting the new season here and now but the two remaining weeks of the summer are long enough for his opinion and line-up to morph.
There was another injury at Chesterfield, this time to Aidan White, and the 11 chosen to start by Hockaday did not play well enough to close the door on the rest of the squad. The whole project is subject to change.
Chesterfield are a club with tails up and the League Two title in their cabinet, and the understanding among their players is symptomatic of an environment where the manager has been in a job for two kind years. Hockaday’s tenure spans four-and-a-bit weeks and he conceded on Saturday that both his late appointment and the rush to put a pre-season programme together had left his squad playing “catch-up.”
Leeds contested two games of sorts during their tour of Italy but nothing like the game given to them by Chesterfield in damp, sweltering heat.
Hockaday suspects that other teams are ahead of his, though close enough to reel in before the season starts, and Chesterfield’s superior fluency in the first 20 minutes said as much.
The match was more even by the end and two Rodolph Austin penalties earned Leeds a 2-2 draw.
“We’re trying to catch up with everyone because this is really our third competitive game,” Hockaday said. “Other clubs have had four or five. But it’s my job to get us ready and I’m seeing progression all the time.
“It’s working and we’re getting there so I’m not going to stop doing what we’re doing. But I know we’ve got a lot more work to do if we’re going to be as competitive as I want us to be in the Championship.”
Hockaday was critical of two things – Leeds’ failure to go for the jugular after Austin opened the scoring in the 47th minute and the sight of Chesterfield carving out their goals via long balls towards United’s box.
The effect of those issues will be found in Hockday’s team at Swindon Town tomorrow night and the number of changes he chooses to make.
One can be taken as read after White was stretchered off with an ankle injury midway through the second half at Chesterfield. Matt Smith also took a heavy thud to his back before half-time.
Added to Noel Hunt and Lewis Walters, the collateral damage of the past week has been unusually high. But form should register with Hockaday too, as should the need to bring the fitness of United’s foreign recruits up to scratch.
Gaetano Berardi – the right-back signed from Sampdoria – came out of his shell gradually in training last week and made his debut as a substitute on Saturday, used at left-back and quick to show that he likes a tackle.
In his time on the pitch, Tommaso Bianchi had the look of a midfielder who can pick a pass nicely with room to play, and Souleymane Doukara – United’s French forward – cannot be this rusty forever.
They are all short of the condition of Marco Silvestri who, at a very early stage, has been the pick of the transfers completed by Leeds. The goalkeeper’s excellent saves from Sam Morsy and Eoin Doyle – one with his legs and the other two-handed – were made as Chesterfield cut through Hockaday’s midfield and defence in the opening stages, and though Silvestri could do nothing about Chesterfield’s goals, his work either side of them was calm and tidy.
Hockaday most likely has an automatic choice in that position. Elsewhere in the side, the chemistry is less convincing.
His formation at Chesterfield was fluid and free, almost difficult to define, but certain players were eaten by it.
Steve Morison ran the left wing thanklessly and was jeered from the pitch when Hockaday substituted him in the 77th minute.
Cries of “you’re too s**t to play for Leeds” came from the away end but were quickly shouted down by chants of “support the team or **** off home”.
It was an inharmonious moment, speaking volumes about the uneasy mood surrounding United’s season and the club’s recruitment to date. The mess developing around Federico Vivani’s proposed transfer from Roma did nothing to help.
“Hand on heart, no-one can say that any of the players out there didn’t try their best,” Hockaday said.
“We started a bit slow but I thought we were the better team by the end of the first half.
“And by the end of the game, we were stronger, pushing for the win.
“But two things I’m unhappy with – one, we’ve gone ahead with a penalty and then just stopped playing.
“That can’t happen. If you’re in a fight and you’ve got someone on the floor, you don’t pick them up and say ‘have a free swing.’ But that’s what we did.
“On top of that, Chesterfield are a passing team but it was two long balls that they scored from.
“We should be able to defend that. They haven’t worked hard enough for their goals and that’s not good enough. But it’s something we can fix.”
Chesterfield conceded in the 48th minute after Jimmy Ryan threw himself at Luke Murphy and conceded a penalty which the referee gave without hesitation. Austin stepped up and slotted the ball to Tommy Lee’s right.
United retained their lead until the 55th minute when substitute Armand Gnanduillet collected a high ball and worked it around the edge of United’s box, giving Sam Morsy time to lash a shot past Silvestri from 18 yards.
Twelve minutes later, Gnanduillet met another lofted pass with a downward header which Doyle dummied and Morsy dispatched from close range, without a defender near him.
Leeds benefited from the substitutions that followed and fought on, looking again like a team who could play for hours without creating much.
But an equaliser came four minutes from time when Daniel Jones – an old friend of United’s – took Sam Byram’s legs with a ludicrous tackle and gave Austin a second penalty to bite on.
The Jamaican’s finish was firm and clinical.
Hockaday settled for that, calling it a “fair result”. “I’m seeing good things,” he said, “but it’s not my job to be happy. If we’d won that game 4-0, I’ve still got to expect more. I’ll keep pushing.”
Chesterfield: Lee, Darikwa, Evatt, Cooper Jones, Hird (Gnanduillet 46), Morsy (Humphreys 77), O’Shea (Gardner 46), Ryan (Morison 83), Roberts (Featherstone 82), Doyle. Subs (not used): Anyan, Raglan, Onovwigun, Dawes, Clarke, Daley.
Leeds United: Silvestri, Byram, Wootton, Pearce, Warnock (Berardi 75), Murphy (Norris 69), Cook (Tonge 69), Austin, Morison (Dawson 77), Smith (Doukara 46), White (Bianchi 65). Subs (not used): S Taylor, Lees.