With an empty mind it was possible to think that all was well in paradise. The sun shone, Leeds United gave Derby County a vigorous warm-up for the Championship play-offs and Michael Brown tickled Elland Road with a Cruyff turn in front of the Kop.
Certain things were missing – a win, a dog in the promotion fight and Ross McCormack’s 30th goal of the season – but Saturday brought a year of madness to a steady, cordial end. Much as the peace cannot last forever, a kickabout in no-man’s land did no-one any harm.
What happens next is the burning question and Brian McDermott had no certain answers as he wrapped up his first season as manager and considered the likelihood of him starting another.
There was a hint of optimism in his voice afterwards and a wholly ambitious claim that three wins and a draw from United’s final five games was promotion form by a different calculation but he is at Massimo Cellino’s mercy now. United’s owner had four weeks to kill while the Championship run-in petered out but the start of the summer is a watershed for him and his grand plan.
Leeds have numerous players out of contract, though only two played in an engrossing if meaningless draw with Derby. Those who didn’t make McDermott’s squad can draw their own conclusions but Saturday’s fixture arrived without the release of a retained list or any direct talks between McDermott and Cellino. Cellino – a keen guitarist – played alongside the Pigeon Detectives at the club’s player-of-the-year awards ceremony.
McCormack took the main prize on Saturday evening, as he was bound to do after an immense term, and he stressed at full-time that he would not demand the lucrative transfer which this summer could easily offer him. In general, everybody said the right things. McDermott spoke like a manager who, in the absence of any surety from Cellino, was proceeding under the assumption that his job would be safe. He sounded more hopeful than he has for a while.
The final weeks of the season have given him confidence, largely because Cellino’s takeover of Leeds on April 7 coincided with an upturn in form. Ten points from five games is comparable with and better than most of the patches of United’s form, a break from a sorry period when – to quote McCormack – the club “couldn’t seem to buy a win.”
“Since things settled down on the ownership side we’ve had five games, won three, drawn one and lost one,” McDermott said. “That’s the equivalent of 92 points over the season. That would definitely get you up.
“There are lots of reasons for this season going the way it did. Reasons, not excuses. We aren’t where we want to be yet, not at the moment, but I’ve had a year here now and I’ve been able to have a really good look at the club. Sometimes you need that.”
His calculation for promotion raised a laugh – a counter-argument to the equally flimsy suggestion that eight defeats from nine matches as Leeds suffered in the spring is the same as a final total of 15 points – but it was McDermott’s attempt to say that when the atmosphere at Elland Road is settled, he and his squad are more equipped to cope.
Derby had the play-offs to think about on Saturday and rested six players with that game of chance in mind, but results elsewhere – notably Brighton’s injury-time win at Nottingham Forest – made Steve McClaren glad of a stress-free afternoon. He was pleased nonetheless that Leeds ran his weakened side hard, hard enough to deserve more than the draw which Matt Smith’s second-half goal earned them.
“The season is beginning for us,” McClaren said, with the play-off semi-finals due to start this weekend. “We’ve got a ticket and I hope the lucky one comes out.”
McCormack was not predicting any lottery numbers after the final whistle came without his 30th goal materialising. The striker has been defiant of United’s poor results, scoring at every turn until the home straight when he struck only once in eight games.
The odd chance fell to him against Derby and he had County’s net at his mercy in the 87th minute when Danny Pugh launched a cross from the left wing into space at the far post. McCormack met the ball cleanly enough but thudded a header into Lee Grant’s gloves.
“We were willing Ross to get his goal but he’s had a fantastic season,” McDermott said. “Look at the other senior players too. Michael Brown covered every blade of grass. If the fans see performances like this – with effort, commitment and desire – whatever the result, they’ll be fair. They know their football and they understand football.”
Brown was exemplary, driving Will Hughes – the sprightly England Under-21 midfielder – into the ground with a performance designed to make a point to somebody. The pair had almost 20 years between them but Hughes, a teenager, had a ruffled look on his face by half-time and soon disappeared. Brown, 37, is out of contract and likely to leave Elland Road but a cheeky dummy midway through the second half gave the North Stand a nod.
The crowd pushed close to 30,000 which, in the circumstances, beggared belief. “Leeds United’s fans don’t give up,” McDermott said. “They’re a credit.” But most felt a sinking feeling in the sixth minute when Jack Butland, who had already produced a sharp, one-handed save from Craig Forsyth, beat a shot from Jeff Hendrick into the path of Simon Dawkins who bundled the ball into the net.
The teams went end-to-end immediately and should have finished the first half with three goals each. Grant denied Smith twice and Hughes appeared on Derby’s goalline to keep out touches from Scott Wootton and Jason Pearce. Another low save from Butland dealt with a second effort from Dawkins.
County’s lead at half-time was harsh on Leeds but Smith redressed the scoreline on 50 minutes when he read McCormack’s threaded pass into the box, drew Grant and chipped a lovely finish over him. McCormack craved the same service but only Pugh supplied it and Grant was on hand to pluck McCormack’s late header from the air. Injury-time did not proffer another chance.
A few weeks ago the customary lap of the pitch by the players would have taken place in front of empty stands. On Saturday, sections of the crowd were minded to stay behind. Saturday brought Leeds a bit of light relief. But the real fun starts now.
Leeds United: Butland, Lees, Pearce, Wootton, Pugh, Tonge, Brown, Austin, Murphy (White 46), McCormack, Smith. Subs (not used): Cairns, Poleon, Walters, Dawson, Thompson, Hunt.
Derby County: Grant, Wisdom, Keogh, Whitbread, Forsyth, Eustace, Hughes, Hendrick (Bryson 90), Bamford (Russell 90), Dawkins (Bennett 78), Sammon. Subs (not used): Legzdins, Naylor, Thorne, Buxton.