As advertisements for prospective new signings go, New Year’s Day at Elland Road was not the best. Or not for Leeds United anyway.
Blackburn Rovers had their fun and left behind a club who need their next win to arrive at the first opportunity.
Leeds have been better than this in the past four months but the here and now is far from pretty and Brian McDermott knows it.
Held by Barnsley and Blackpool and comprehensively beaten by Nottingham Forest and Blackburn, this has been the sort of Christmas which would push a club onto the side of the debate which calls for a winter break each year: two points from 12 and a flurry of backward steps from a team who were ticking over steadily a fortnight ago.
The damage was done yesterday by a dreadful first half in which Blackburn scored two goals and were permanently on the cusp of scoring more.
Tom Cairney, once a junior player at United, cut his old club to shreds.
Leeds are adept at fighting lost causes and they gave the crowd a reason not to desert en masse by tearing into Rovers on the other side of half-time, and Matt Smith’s tap-in rose the roof on 53 minutes.
Elland Road looked desperately for a repeat of Watford’s capitulation from 2-0 up last month but Blackburn’s bottle was more rigid. Even the second half was not one-way.
There were grievances about another unacceptably poor referee in Anthony Taylor – the spark to the fuse of an irate stadium – a shot from Alex Mowatt which hit the woodwork with the score at 2-1 and a demonstration of United’s capacity to keep themselves in any game, anywhere.
But United did not do enough to dampen the questions posed by the past four games.
McDermott needs new players and he needs them quickly. It is not in his interests or those of the club to be scrabbling about as the January deadline approaches, not with so many fixtures in between.
He also needs confirmation of the takeover which club managing director David Haigh has been promising for a month, along with an injection of funds. Leeds cannot move forward without either.
The tone around the club changed markedly in the week before the end of the year, no longer ringing with quiet confidence. In yesterday’s matchday programme McDermott again took issue with his predecessor Neil Warnock’s claim that the squad left behind by him in April needed only “icing on the cake.” “I fundamentally disagree with that comment,” wrote McDermott, encouraged to respond by a three-game spell which cast an unflattering light on his players.
Twice this season the weaknesses at United have been apparent – once in the second month of the season and again around Christmas – and there was a sense of Leeds soldiering on against Blackburn. Mowatt played after a short rest and an injection in his back but limped off in the penultimate minute; Paddy Kenny started too, still hindered by the ankle injury he suffered at Forest on Sunday.
There are sizeable straws to clutch too: a league table that could be worse and the crowds which Elland Road is sustaining. Yesterday’s was the fourth over 30,000 this season, recorded in spite of rain and wind which whipped from south to north. The weather threatened to give the game no chance at all.
Leeds seemed strangely oblivious to it at first and were possessed by more purpose than they had shown at any stage of Sunday’s defeat to Forest. Mowatt’s penchant for passing and moving made a swift difference but the dynamic of a cold afternoon was set by Blackburn’s opening goal on 12 minutes.
United had risked their neck when Kenny, whose fitness or lack of it required Marius Zaliukas to take his goal-kicks again, watched Hanley head Cairney’s corner over the crossbar from dangerously close range but they left themselves exposed to Rhodes soon after and suffered in a predictable manner.
Jason Pearce allowed the striker to sprint onto Cairney’s through-ball, looking hopefully for an absent offside flag, and Rhodes sized up Kenny before stabbing the ball under him.
The reaction of the crowd was one of rueful inevitability and United struggled through the twilight zone which followed. Lee Williamson drove a deflected shot into the side-netting beside Kenny’s left-hand post and Kenny punched a cross away from Scott Dann’s head before Rovers’ captain could cushion it over the line.
There was traffic in the other direction too, with Mowatt testing the handling of Simon Eastwood from 18 yards and Smith failing by inches to meet Danny Pugh’s swinging cross but Leeds were flat and the atmosphere no different.
The avoidance of a second goal in the 26th minute was fractional as Tom Lees arrived to stop the ball dead on United’s goalline after DJ Campbell popped up unmarked inside the box.
With McDermott’s strongest team on the field and the range of options on his bench limited, perseverance was Leeds’ only ally.
Smith claimed for a penalty on the half hour when two of Blackburn’s defenders converged on him but referee Anthony Taylor took no interest and United found themselves in desperate trouble when Rudy Gestede leapt to head home Cairney’s corner on 36 minutes.
Grant Hanley had missed an equally easy chance seconds earlier, forcing Pearce to concede a corner, and McDermott found himself staring at a worrying shambles.
Only a risky but beautifully timed tackle from Luke Murphy prevented Gestede from finishing off another slick attack before Taylor called a halt for half-time.
McDermott took it as his cue to withdraw the hapless Murphy, give Gboly Ariyibi his home debut and switch to a four-man midfield. Eight minutes into the second half, Leeds revived memories of their fightback against Watford when Tommy Spurr misjudged his positioning in front of Eastwood and allowed Byram to stab a pass to Smith. Unmarked and seven yards from an open goal, the striker did the rest.
The reverberations caused by that goal needed stronger officiating than Taylor could supply. The referee missed a clear trip on McCormack by Williamson and then found himself booking McCormack and Scott Dann after the pair stuck their heads together and exchanged words.
Zaliukas got away with a lunge which Campbell claimed had felled him inside United’s area and cautions for Zaliukas and Austin followed soon after.
With 72 minutes gone, Mowatt narrowly failed to create fresh havoc when his rising shot clipped the bar.
Blackburn were not reticent themselves and twice they had efforts cleared off the line. Rhodes then struck Kenny’s bar with a firm header in the 82nd minute, so nearly a coup de grace which Rovers were able to do without.
It was another compelling afternoon which shredded the nerves but as McDermott is fond of saying, football is about winning and this is not his idea of entertainment.