Leeds United are owed a merry Christmas but Liam Cooper’s own goal made December 26 a show without Punch again. The club have not won a Boxing Day game for five years and they will rue yesterday’s defeat as the season turns for home.
The ground at Elland Road is already laid for a scrap but Leeds had the opportunity face up to the threat of relegation with a big head-start.
Their loss to Wigan Athletic was unflattering in its manner – invited by Cooper’s bizarre mistake 10 minutes into the match – but what mattered more was the state of the club who took three points away from Yorkshire.
Wigan were second bottom in the Championship prior to Boxing Day and seven points adrift of Leeds. United went in search of proper protection but finished up with other sides breathing down their neck at the wrong end of the league. The view in their dressing room is that this is not yet a relegation battle but it looks and feels like something similar.
For Wigan, yesterday’s game was everything they needed - a huge favour given to a team with no form or momentum at all. Leeds ran Malky Mackay’s players hard and fast from the start but Cooper killed the impetus by chesting the ball into his own net at the end of Wigan’s first attack. The game was decided there and then.
There were moments of promise for Leeds but the best of them followed the same sort of theme. Billy Sharp beat Scott Carson with a looping header in the first half and was denied by the frame of Wigan’s goal, and Mirco Antenucci saw a deflection deny him a near-certain equaliser early in the second half.
United were better after the interval – more cutting, purposeful and devoid of luck – but could not reduce the cost of a shot in the foot. Their season has seen a few of those. James McClean, a cut above everyone yesterday, sealed Leeds’ defeat seven minutes from time with a blistering volley but Wigan had already come through the worst when the ball hit the net for a second time.
The changes made by Redfearn yesterday were more pronounced than the changes for last weekend’s game at Nottingham Forest, despite the belief that his usual formula is better suited to matches at home.
Adryan attended Elland Road but did not make the squad as Redfearn chose to rest him. Lewis Cook took on the role of number 10 and his shift upfield made way for Michael Tonge, handed a league start for the first time since United’s 4-1 loss at Watford in August. In a squad without limitless depth, the 31-year-old is as close to a spare holding midfielder as Redfearn can find.
The pressure on Leeds’ head coach to get his team right was tangible against a Wigan side who were without a win in eight and a fighting to get away from the Championship’s plughole. Redfearn argued beforehand – with justification – that the sum of the individual parts at Wigan was greater than their woeful league position but the division had them in 23rd ahead of kick-off.
Mackay’s bench said most about Wigan’s failure to click this season, featuring Shaun Maloney, Callum McManaman and Emmerson Boyce; players who in better times would have been guaranteed picks. Redfearn’s full-backs tried to play on the visitors’ vulnerability by taking the initiative and positioning themselves halfway up the pitch.
Sam Byram provided the initial push on the right-hand side, linking comfortably with Cook and hemming Wigan in. Alex Mowatt whipped an early shot over the crossbar as pressure on Andy Taylor yielded a succession of cut-backs into Wigan’s box. By the 10th minute, Byram had taken two heavy fouls as Wigan fought to pin him down.
Redfearn looked satisfied regardless at that stage but Cooper changed the tone of the afternoon but throwing Wigan the gift of a bizarre own goal. James McClean’s pace took him away from Giuseppe Bellusci on the left wing and he attacked United’s box with a swerving cross. Cooper arrived with no pressure on him, met the ball with his chest and bundled it into his net. There was no attempt by him to share the blame with anyone.
The concession rattled Redfearn’s players and drew the sting out of a respectable Boxing Day crowd. It’s an irony that in a hard and strained season, attendances at Elland Road are holding up well. Stephen Warnock’s volley in the 18th minute was a hopeful hit which climbed into the crowd but Billy Sharp was inches away from equalising on the half hour.
The striker, whose penalty earned Leeds’ 1-1 draw at Forest, met Mirco Antenucci’s delivery with a floating header which beat Carson but came back off the face of the crossbar. Cooper attempted to bury the rebound but took a boot in the mouth for his trouble.
It was the only moment before half-time when Leeds were able to get at their former goalkeeper. A half-chance fell to Tommaso Bianchi but his hurried shot drifted a couple of yards wide and Sharp’s volley from the corner of the box did not require Carson to touch it. Marco Silvestri kept United in the game before half-time when he met Marc-Antoine Fortune’s effort with his legs.
Redfearn’s view of the first half was telegraphed to the stadium by the changes that followed it.
Bianchi and Alex Mowatt made way and Rodolph Austin and Steve Morison took to the field, giving Leeds a more heavyweight look.
Morison’s height alone gave Wigan more to think about than they had before the interval and Austin’s running was badly needed. Wigan wobbled for the first time eight minutes into the second half as Antenucci appeared to have levelled when Cook slalomed into the box and picked him out.
The striker’s awkward finish clipped a heel and beat the post with Carson a mile from the ball. The keeper’s fingertips then kept out Bellusci’s 30-yard attempt as Wigan fought to get out of their area.
They were promising minutes but the minutes ticked on. With 20 to go, Redfearn substituted Sharp and the striker showed his annoyance by kicking a bottle into the dug-out and walking straight down the tunnel.
Carson then flicked a Morison header over his bar and watched Byram drive the resulting corner over it from point-blank range.
Closer and closer but no cigar, and no Christmas cheer once McClean took Don Cowie’s pass on 83 minutes and smashed a finish past a helpless Silvestri.
Leeds United: Silvestri, Byram, Bellusci, Cooper, Warnock, Tonge, Bianchi (Morison, 45), Mowatt (Austin, 45), Cook, Sharp (Doukara, 71 ), Antenucci. Subs: Pearce, Berardi, Taylor, Montenegro.
Wigan: Carson, Perch, Ramis, Kiernan, Tavernier, Cowie, McCann, Watson, Taylor, McClean, Fortuné (Espinoza, 70). Subs: Riera Magem, Maloney, McManaman, Boyce, Espinoza, Al-Habsi, Forshaw.