A real future. So says Leeds United’s imaginative season-ticket campaign and so there should be while the academy floods the club’s first team in the way that it has this year.
It is easy to see where the weight of talent in United’s squad lies – with the fresh-faced players who embody their tradition of youth development – but defeat to Cardiff City on Saturday was a warning about the danger of loading impossible amounts of faith on them.
The scoreline told a less of a story than the game itself, particularly a second half in which Leeds vanished and allowed to Cardiff to maintain their dominance of this fixture with an ambling win. The young vein in Neil Redfearn’s side is an undisputed asset but it is not enough on its own. Mediocre at the sharp ends of the pitch, there was no disguising the work that is needed.
Leeds had a foot in Saturday’s game after 45 minutes, level at 1-1 through a goal from home debutant Kalvin Phillips, but it was telling that Redfearn felt the need to give his team “a rocket” at half-time. The first half was nothing special but it felt close and competitive enough. The period that followed was what truly merited a reading of the riot act.
United’s head coach had talked beforehand about preventing the season from “fizzling out” but it threatened to do so over the Easter weekend and it ground to a halt on Saturday. There is much ado at Elland Road – much about the top-level management of Leeds which can be used to mitigate spiritless performances – but blaming Cardiff’s win solely on extraneous issues wouldn’t have washed.
City scored in either half and in similar circumstances, picking United off from two corners which Redfearn’s defence did not make a pretence of clearing. Marco Silvestri kept the score down, a last line of resistance which was needed too often and called upon by hideous errors, but the worst moments angered Redfearn less than the apathetic mood of his team.
“It was poor performance,” he said, “and the thing that was missing more than anything was desire and effort to try and get back in the game.
“It’s a strange performance for us because all the things we stand for, all the things we did in the run we went on to get out of trouble – that was totally the opposite.
“We were slightly the better side in the first half but if I’m being honest, there were two poor sides. The performance was strewn with bad decisions and mistakes.
“At half-time they needed a rocket and they got a rocket. I always say to them ‘it’s not personal’ but it’s important they understand when I’m not happy. You’re looking for a reaction. Some things in football are a given, things you’ve got to produce and the playing public have got to see. That’s not acceptable.”
Phillips at 19 was the youngest of a green midfield, a midfield in which Luke Murphy is made to look like a veteran. A lack of pace notwithstanding, that area of United’s team has much to offer and enough ability to build around.
Silvestri, too, is earning his place in goal but Leeds have problems at either end of their team; a defence which has lost its marbles in the past three matches and a set of strikers who, in Redfearn’s system or at this club, do not look like scoring. Redfearn said afterwards that the summer transfer window needed to bring “four or five players for the first XI.” He won’t hear much argument with that.
It has been noted too that whether by coincidence or not, three defeats and the concession of nine goals has followed on from the suspension of his assistant, Steve Thompson. Redfearn spoke his mind about Thompson’s sudden departure again, saying: “All the uncertainty it’s caused hasn’t helped. We work well as a pair and the input and the bouncing off one another helps. It’s disappointing because we were on a good run and things didn’t need changing. Obviously they have.”
At full-time a satisfied Cardiff camp were able to leave the recriminations to Leeds. The Welsh side had no more than six or seven supporters with them at Elland Road – a boycott of a bubble trip which virtually held – but their hold over United remains intact, 31 years after they last lost in this fixture. It would remain intact forever with Leeds playing as they did.
Centre-back Sean Morison opened the scoring after 14 minutes amid a scene of messy defending which repeated itself ad nauseam. The defender slid in unmarked at the far post after Peter Whittingham’s corner deflected through the six-yard box. His finish was met with the sound of total silence.
Within three minutes, Leeds were level as Cardiff goalkeeper David Marshall misjudged the flight of Charlie Taylor’s cross, lost his footing and left 19-year-old Phillips to side-foot the ball into an empty net on his first appearance at home. Football is fickle in that respect; 83 games for Taylor to claim his first professional goal last week, 107 minutes for Phillips to do the same. Phillips’ reaction was just as euphoric.
“You get back to 1-1 in a game that’s not great,” Redfearn said. “Sometimes in the Championship they’re not great games but you’ve got to come away with something. The worst case scenario’s got to be 1-1. I was more disappointed with the seniors than anybody. The kids are going to play and the kids will give you the effort and endeavour. They’ll make mistakes. But from your seniors you expect a level of consistency and a level of performance that helps the kids. It wasn’t there.”
Sol Bamba in the centre of defence had an acute meltdown, prone to errors from the start. One blind pass into the path of Eoin Doyle forced Silvestri into a marvellous fingertip save on 36 minutes and the Italian bested Doyle brilliantly – albeit while an offside flag rose – as a corner in first-half injury-time caused more havoc.
Leeds were in the game at the interval despite Redfearn’s scathing team talk. At the start of the second half, they disappeared. Cardiff eased through 17 quiet minutes and then scored in the 62nd as Peltier headed on another Whittingham corner. Morrison drew a save at the first attempt and Aron Gunnarsson smashed the rebound into United’s net.
Billy Sharp and Steve Morison stepped off Leeds’ bench immediately and both produced a header apiece, the former’s looping off the top of the crossbar from Taylor’s cross, but the changes were uninspiring. Souleymane Doukara, who came on in the 86th minute, was the antithesis of an impact substitute and with nothing doing, booing greeted the final whistle. Just when Leeds were starting to forget what that sounded like.