When Neil Redfearn and others at Leeds United look back at the end of the season, they might come to see this as the fortnight that saved it.
“It’s taken a bit of the pressure off,” said Redfearn after a late, late win at Huddersfield Town on Saturday. And the rest. United’s head coach was smiling and relaxed; no longer the tense figure who sat in front of the press without any answers on the penultimate day of last year.
Leeds finished 2014 as the target for every Championship club with relegation hanging over them, a team who were on an endless downward slide. Since December 30 and a 2-0 defeat at Derby County they are unbeaten in the league and at peace as a team. Redfearn has been given peace too since the banning of owner Massimo Cellino last week. How has life been without the Italian in situ? “Quieter,” he joked.
It has also been highly productive, coincidentally or not. A win over league leaders Bournemouth 13 days ago was a rabbit out the hat, much as Redfearn felt the result was coming, and he talked afterwards about “looking up the table now.” Billy Sharp’s glorious coup de grace at the John Smith’s Stadium has given him that luxury, even if United’s head coach won’t admit it.
Sharp met Mirco Antenucci’s flighted cross with a point-blank header on 90 minutes, his first positive touch of the ball after appearing as a substitute two minutes earlier. The incident created a contrast of emotion – explosive scenes in the away end but a horrible injury to Huddersfield’s Tommy Smith which left Chris Powell badly shaken – and the day belonged to Leeds in every respect. There were days very recently when Redfearn felt the Championship’s bottom three sucking his players in. Much as draws against Bolton Wanderers and Birmingham City were useful results against competent teams, United’s wins over Bournemouth and Huddersfield have chased the black dog down the road. Twice now Leeds have beaten those teams back-to-back. They have offered up a third of the club’s league points.
“It does lift the pressure,” Redfearn said. “The season’s very long and what usually happens at this stage is that everyone down near the bottom of the league starts winning.
“We’ve got to make sure we keep picking points up but in the last four or five games we’ve done that. It’s a good sign.” As if to prove his point, Millwall produced a win from nowhere later in the afternoon.
Saturday’s game, as Redfearn conceded, was no classic; not in a technical sense. “You could say it was a classic derby, with blood and guts and a lot of effort,” he said, “but there wasn’t a lot of quality.” It still ended sweetly when Antenucci – seconds after lashing Sam Byram’s cut-back over a vacant goal – picked out Sharp at the far post with perfect precision.
Sharp, a player who Leeds almost loaned to Ipswich Town this month, met the ball with a cushioned finish as centre-back Smith and Huddersfield goalkeeper Joe Murphy tried to scramble it clear. A desperate collision of bodies left Smith laid out on his goalline, motionless for almost 10 minutes. The Yorkshire Air Ambulance was called to airlift him from the stadium.
“Clearly there’s been major trauma to his head or his neck,” said Powell afterwards. When Town’s manager turned his thoughts to the derby he suggested that “a share of the spoils would have been fair.”
Town had the odd chance after Harry Bunn’s 26th-minute equaliser, with Sean Scannell dragging a shot inches wide in first-half injury-time and just failing to meet Jacob Butterfield’s cut-back in the second but Antenucci’s miss seconds before Sharp’s winner was glaring and Redfearn again felt the need to query penalty calls which referee Chris Foy chose to ignore.
“I’ve seen them given, put it that way,” Redfearn said, referring to challenges on Byram and Antenucci within seconds of each other in the 64th minute. At least on this occasion Foy’s view of the incidents counted for nothing.
“In the last four or five games we’ve been together and we’ve been resolute,” Redfearn said. “It’s culminating now in good performances and good results.
“We started well and for 25 minutes we were the better side. Huddersfield got a goal back and that put them in the ascendency. But we’ve come into a run where we’re playing sides in form. To come to Huddersfield and get a result like this is no mean feat.”
An away win, Leeds’ first since September, was on from the seventh minute when Byram opened the scoring. Luke Murphy’s chipped pass into the box caused Joe Murphy and Jack Robinson indecision, and Byram’s outstretched toe lobbed the ball into the net. Leeds were sharper and more fluent but their habit of inviting trouble still exists. In the 26th minute, under a small amount of pressure for the first time, keeper Marco Silvestri advanced beneath a Butterfield corner, watched it drop over him and stood as Bunn nodded the ball down into his net.
That moment sucked the wind from Redfearn’s players but on a hard and heavy pitch, the teams’ respective industry produced little. Sol Bamba, United’s debutant centre-back, fought through the game as if his match-fitness was exemplary. Rodolph Austin flirted with a red card as he and Joel Lynch went at each other but the strength in the middle of Redfearn’s side was critical at the end. David Edgar, Huddersfield’s holding midfielder, flagged badly. Scannell was Powell’s key outlet but Charlie Taylor, United’s young left-back, stayed on his heels throughout. “Charlie was outstanding,” Redfearn said. “Scannell’s a real handful but that’s as well marked as I’ve seen him for a while.”
With the game on the edge and time running out, Redfearn threw Sharp on. Sharp did his thing with a well-timed run and a flick of his forehead. The deflation of the home crowd was typified by a Huddersfield supporter sprinting onto the pitch and baring his backside at an away end who lapped up his anger. In Leeds they’ve been the butt of the jokes for far too long.