Elland Road spoke its mind on Saturday and the villains of the piece knew who they were. That is one thing about Leeds United. Even when all around them is warfare, the crowd can tell their friends from their enemies.
It took less than three minutes of a defeat to Blackburn Rovers for the club’s support to speak up for their head coach and his absent assistant Steve Thompson, suspended for unspecified reasons last week. They spoke up too for Mirco Antenucci, the Italian striker whose involvement in Saturday’s game was threatened by a clause in his contract. A clause agreed by the same regime who were trying to stop him play.
There was no mention of Massimo Cellino or Andrew Umbers and none of Nicola Salerno, the sporting director who put his name to the letter ending Thompson’s tenure. The afternoon began with a serene minute’s silence for Christopher Loftus and Kevin Speight, remembered as if their deaths in Istanbul were as recent as yesterday. The division was made on the basis of ethos; those who get Leeds United and those who don’t.
Neil Redfearn, United’s boss, called the atmosphere “touching” and whenever he bows out, as he surely will soon, he leaves in the knowledge that his work has been appreciated. Leeds were well beaten by Blackburn, in no small part because of a red card shown to Rodolph Austin, but the occasion on Saturday was about more than a solitary match.
The crowd saw what United’s hierarchy cannot – the bigger picture and the sight of a coach being poorly treated.
Redfearn was alone on the pitch before kick-off, laying out the cones for the pre-match warm-up as he did for several weeks before Leeds got round to appointing Thompson as his number two. For 90 minutes he cut a lonely figure in the dug-out, reminiscent again of the worst periods of his short stint as head coach.
Two days on from Thompson’s suspension, he was still in the dark. Had he been given an explanation for the removal of an assistant who had helped push Leeds far beyond relegation? “No.” Had he asked his board for an explanation? “Yes.” Did he think the club had done him a disservice by causing disharmony? “It’s a good question and one that needs answering.” And did he believe that the club had any desire to keep him as head coach. “I don’t know. You have to ask them.”
It was diplomacy from Redfearn or as diplomatic as he could bring himself to be. He was wary of Leeds folding against Blackburn – as they did eventually and in unflattering style – and he was aware too of how quickly this afternoon’s visit to Wolves would arrive. “We’ve got another game coming up,” he said. “There’s no time to talk about me.” People are talking about little else.
There are, even by United’s standards, so many loose ends at Elland Road. They have a head coach whose deal is up in the summer and who seems to have no disciples in the boardroom. They have a chairman in Umbers whose flurry of statements at the back of last week called his credibility into question. Above both of them they have a suspended owner in Massimo Cellino who may or may not be selling to Red Bull depending on which conversation he is having.
It would have been pleasing for Redfearn – and nice for Thompson – had Leeds taken Blackburn to the cleaners. For 40 minutes, until Austin was sent off for a high-handed push on Ben Marshall, it seemed that United might at least have the beating of them. But the club had earned a thrashing on the back of last week. Blackburn dished it out in the second half.
“You’re hoping that there’s going to be stability there so you can get on with your job,” Redfearn said. “It’s been a tough week. If you split anything up that’s been successful, it’s going to be disruptive.”
It took Austin’s dismissal to get Blackburn going, though their performance from then on was a lesson in how to play against 10 men. Prior to it, Jordan Rhodes hit the crossbar and drove a close-range volley over Marco Silvestri’s goal and Austin headed a cross from Charlie Taylor wide. “That’s a goal, Rudy should score,” Redfearn said. But the Jamaican failed to make half-time after raising an arm to push Marshall away as the pair waited for a corner to arrive in Blackburn’s box.
Referee Gary Sutton, who booked everything that breathed, missed the incident but was called over by one of his linesman and advised to show Austin a straight red card. The stadium and most of the players seemed mystified.
“I thought the linesman was flagging for a goal kick,” said Blackburn manager Gary Bowyer afterwards. Redfearn called it a “poor decision”. “It was basically two players pushing and shoving,” he said. “Rudy turned round and pushed the lad in the chest with his forearm.
“It should have been yellow cards each and ‘get on with it’. It changed the game and it’s a big call. In the circumstances the referee has to get a call like that right.”
Bowyer said afterwards that “the 10 men can really rally” but Rovers picked Leeds off, helped by direct running and some chronic defending from Giuseppe Bellusci. There was an element of self-destruction from Leeds in the final half hour.
Time ticked on but Tom Cairney opened the scoring on 61 minutes with a deft volley from the edge of the box after Bellusci leaped into a challenge on Rudy Gestede and missed the ball.
Redfearn turned straight away to Antenucci and the entire stadium – one or two people excepted – willed the Italian to claim the two goals needed to extend his contract by an extra year.
That clause had been the cause of disharmony between Redfearn and Umbers last week, with Leeds’ head coach put under pressure to leave Antenucci out.
“There’s a lot been said about Mirco,” Redfearn remarked afterwards. “I’d rather just leave it.”
As it happened, Antenucci faded from view quickly as Blackburn turned the screw.
Marshall rattled a post with a brilliant hit from 25 yards and Rhodes converted a diving header from Chris Brown’s cross on 68 minutes.
Jay Spearing added a third goal nine minutes from time after Marshall skipped past another rash challenge from Bellusci and Rhodes shook Silvestri’s other post in injury-time. Even the shots that failed to beat United’s goalkeeper were fractions away.
“In the first half we were the better side,” Redfearn said.
“In the second half we lost our way and I’m disappointed about that.
“But that’s the first time we’ve lost our way in a long time.
“The supporters were brilliant and they’ve stuck with us.
“Today was probably recognition of how far this squad of players has come in a short space of time. It was a nice touch.
“This club just wants some light.
“It needs some light at the end of the tunnel.”
Yet again so many are struggling to see it.