Simon Grayson was once a manager with problems but at present he will find only those he invents.
A first away win of the league season carried Leeds United into the Championship’s play-off positions last night, far removed from the corner they once occupied.
Grayson sounded words of encouragement amid signs of an impending crisis at the back end of August and United’s appearance in the Championship’s top six underlined the strength and conviction of his side’s response.
The club were liable to lose fifth place today as the division’s other fixtures played out but Leeds will feel that their point has been made regardless.
Danny Pugh instigated their victory at Doncaster Rovers, converting Robert Snodgrass’ first-half free-kick, and doubt was erased by a sublime overhead kick from Ross McCormack, his 10th goal of the season scored early in the second half. From there, a fourth league win in five games was wrapped up with a swagger, sealed by a Tom Lees header.
McCormack’s finish aside, Grayson’s players rarely dabbled in the spectacular but their boss has seen too much of that in his time as a Championship manager at Elland Road.
Their shape and organisation was faultless and Doncaster were annihilated by United’s brutal front six.
Clean sheets, meanwhile, are behaving like proverbial buses with two arriving in as many games after 11 without one.
McCormack, in contrast, is in the form of his career with Leeds and his acrobatics poured more scorn on Scotland’s decision to omit him from their most recent squad.
The striker’s goal was due reward from a game in which he and his partner, Andy Keogh, ran Doncaster tirelessly and wore them down. Keogh later struck the crossbar, a mean stroke of misfortune at the end of a telling performance, but Lees gave the scoreline the width it deserved in the 64th minute.
With Snodgrass fit, Grayson’s team was as easy to name last night as it had been all season. A certain amount of doubt surrounded Keogh’s position with Luciano Becchio breathing down his neck but United’s manager seemed keen to avoid change for change’s sake.
In the end, Keogh was more than worth his place.
Doncaster, by comparison, threw in goalkeeper and new signing Chris Kirkland and included Herita Ilunga, their loanee from West Ham United, at left-back.
The notable omission was Pascal Chimbonda who took a seat on Rovers’ bench after missing a number of training sessions earlier in the week.
In all, only 10 of the players used last night started August’s Carling Cup tie between the clubs, explaining why Grayson was happy to disregard that game entirely. Dean Saunders’ line-up scarcely looked like a team condemned to a season in the bottom three, and Doncaster’s most recent results did not give that impression either.
Their strikeforce alone, consisting of Billy Sharp and Jon Parkin, had danger about it, and Lees was given the task of containing the imposing Parkin.
The 20-year-old had been safely on loan at Bury when Parkin ran riot at Elland Road with Preston North End last season but Grayson remembered that evening well.
All United’s manager could promise was that his strikers, Keogh and McCormack, would cause trouble in return.
McCormack had the sniff of his 10th goal of the season after only eight minutes when Paul Connolly found Keogh’s sly run onto the right wing, and McCormack’s attempt to covert Keogh’s cross with his heel was repelled by Richard Naylor’s uncompromising tackle at the near post.
The sliding challenge from Leeds’ former captain left McCormack clutching an ankle and Grayson remonstrating with the fourth official about a defender whose aggression he once relied on.
Grayson’s faith at the Keepmoat was placed instead in Lees and Darren O’Dea who saw off Parkin’s first opportunity by standing up to the striker’s close-range volley in the 13th minute.
Amid a patient examination of each other, neither team were able to fashion a more promising opening until the 20th minute when Pugh scored.
As he had against Portsmouth on October 1, the midfielder appeared on cue as Snodgrass flighted a contentious free-kick into the box and his emphatic volley swept beyond Kirkland before the keeper could move.
Doncaster bemoaned the decision to penalise George Friend for bringing down McCormack on the touchline but Saunders had as much to say about the marking inside Doncaster’s box. Leeds saw an opportunity to squeeze Rovers out of the contest and Keogh threatened Kirkland again with an ambitious shot from 30 yards which swung away from goal.
At that early stage, Doncaster’s committal of players to attack was leaving their defence badly stretched.
Keogh and McCormack both had chances to punish Rovers, the former wasting one counter attack with a stray pass and the latter dispossessed by Naylor at the vital moment, and the rising heat of the game provoked a clash between Adam Clayton and James Coppinger on the half-hour. Coppinger was booked for swinging a knee in Clayton’s direction.
The final warning shots of the first half came from Leeds, with Pugh failing to pick out a Leeds player six yards from goal and McCormack testing Kirkland with a long and hopeful free-kick.
Only a glancing header from Parkin in the 41st minute forced Lonergan to scramble across his line and ensure that his far post was covered.
But when Snodgrass looped a misguided cross over Doncaster’s box with Saunders’ defence in disarray again, it seemed that United were dithering over an invitation to kill the match before half-time.
That fear was banished in the 52nd minute when Keogh guided Clayton’s pass to McCormack who controlled the ball in the air and, without pausing to think, whipped an overhead kick beyond the reach of Kirkland and into the back of the net.
It was something for Craig Levein to ponder as he and Scotland prepare to twiddle their thumbs next summer.
Doncaster’s heads dropped but Lees kept his when Snodgrass steered a cross into his path on 64 minutes, inviting the defender to rise and nod the ball beyond Kirkland.
It is many months since Leeds were able to showboat as easily as they did in the time that remained.
REFEREE: Kevin Friend (Leicestershire).
ATTENDANCE: 12,962 (4,209 United supporters).