ONE step forward and a quick step back as is so often the Elland Road way. The euphoria of Billy Sharp’s debut against Middlesbrough blew itself out last night as Brighton dragged Leeds United down to earth.
The club know better than to leave the ground for long but their head coach, David Hockaday, will wonder how the buzz created by his team on Saturday was lost so comprehensively four days later. The journey from appreciation to booing inside Elland Road was nothing if not quick.
There was disquiet at half-time after Brighton waltzed around the pitch unhindered and again at the end of the match as an attempt to redeem those 45 minutes came to nothing. An early goal from Joao Teixeira, a loanee from Liverpool, separated the teams for most of the match but the disparity in dominance and technical proficiency was far wider. Albion had problems before yesterday, or so it was said. Their visit to Leeds was an easy way to get their season going.
Teixeira struck with the first chance of the game, beating Marco Silvestri from a tight angle, and Leeds were denied a shot on target for well over an hour as Brighton spread the ball around the field and challenged United to do the same.
The balance of the game swung eventually and Brighton were compelled to dig in but other teams have had harder appearances at Elland Road. Middlesbrough for one. Michael Tonge saw the only chance of note for Leeds, albeit one which should have earned the club a point, and Kazenga LuaLua killed the game by converting a free-kick six minutes from time.
There is something afoot in Brighton and unhappy noises emanated from the south coast over the weekend. The summer that followed their appearance in the play-offs has been an odd period in which the club achieved little more than the sale of their better players, the most recent Will Buckley to Sunderland for £2.5m.
Two defeats in as many games brought Albion to Elland Road in a chastened mood and without a point to their name. The pressure before kick-off was unexpectedly weighted in United’s favour, despite a fixture list which promised them trouble, but Brighton found solace in Leeds and quickly rediscovered their touch.
United’s late win over Boro bought Hockaday some grace, increasing the swell of people who seem willing to reserve judgement of him, but yesterday’s result was limp retreat. Hockaday tweaked his team before kick-off, using Matt Smith to fill the gap up front left by Souleymane Doukara - a player who arrived at the ground with a protective boot on his injured ankle - and Tonge also came into the team, a fair decision in response to his influence in the closing minutes of the victory against Boro.
As the days pass, Hockaday is finding himself with more and more to work with. Another striker could sign this afternoon if Leeds successfully conclude negotiations with Ternana’s Mirco Antenucci, and the chase of Brazilian midfielder Adryan goes on. On the evidence of last night and two previous league games, the midfield is where most attention is needed before the transfer window shut and where United’s deficiencies lie. Brighton’s possession in the first half ran to 70 per cent.
The game did not reach the fifth minute before Hockaday’s team were asked a question they failed to answer. Brighton broke from midfield after Stephen Warnock committed himself to a sliding tackle near the halfway line and Teixeira ghosted in behind Liam Cooper before driving the ball across Silvestri and into the far corner of the net.
The tension in United’s football was palpable and the lack of width painful as Brighton ran the contest. Adam Chicksen lashed a volley over the crossbar with enough space on the edge of the box to do better, and David Stockdale - the Albion - was alone in his box for the first 20 minutes as Leeds’ midfield struggled with their ball retention and gave Brighton free rein.
The possession Albion saw did not amount to much, even though Leeds looked at certain junctures like they were waiting for Sami Hyypia’s players to cut them open again. Kemy Agustien scuffed an effort wide without worrying Silvestri and the match was almost half-an-hour old by the time Luke Murphy tried to test Stockdale with a shot which struck a defender. Tonge’s 20-yard effort soon after came no closer to forcing an equaliser.
The rest of the half followed a familiar pattern as Brighton hogged the ball without finding a route to Silvestri. Chicksen became Albion’s regular outlet, appearing unmarked on the left wing so often that even the crowd began pointing the problem out. Billy Sharp was belatedly used to offer some resistance as Leeds limped to the interval.
Smith was sacrificed at half-time - an unlucky victim in the circumstances - and Nicky Ajose took his place. With a different system, Leeds worked their way into the match and left Brighton to look for chances on the counter, and the opportunity that Hockaday hoped for came in the 69th minute.
Sam Byram created it by producing a trademark sprint towards the visitors’ byline and cutting the ball back to Tonge who bundled it against Calderon on the Albion goalline. Stockdale was nowhere but other defenders were waiting to see off the danger as Sharp grimaced.
Brighton substitute Rohan Ince did the same 10 minutes from time after he galloped onto Craig Mackail-Smith’s through ball and shook Silvestri’s right-hand post but the cost to Albion was not high. Soon after, Jason Pearce conceded a foul on the edge of his box and LuaLua drilled the free-kick under the wall and into an unguarded net. Game over, as it seemed to be from the outset.