No wins under Darko Milanic but a spring in his step and signs already that he has the job at Leeds United under control. He’d have missed his first fortnight as the club’s head coach if he’d taken the time to stop and blink, and two weeks of quiet will do him good.
It would not have been in Milanic’s mind to reach the international break without a victory behind him but at the end of Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Sheffield Wednesday he looked liked a man who had taken a difficult pass and run with it. In no way has the Championship given the Slovenian an easy entry into English football.
Three games in eight days and no real opportunity to train at length; you could not blame Milanic for thinking that his work so far has been against the odds and deserving of praise. His team have improved in piecemeal steps and the philosophy emerging is not so unlike the mentality of Neil Redfearn. Sheffield Wednesday would have gone the way of Huddersfield Town at Elland Road last month were it not for the excellence of goalkeeper Keiren Westwood.
Saturday’s derby was nothing like the mis-match of Huddersfield’s visit to Leeds and a draw did not feel criminal at the end of a match which United could have won. But Westwood took a bottle of champagne home after resisting everything except the cheeky talent of Giuseppe Bellusci. Bellusci’s equaliser on 78 minutes earned Leeds a draw and the point was well-earned by the time the defender threaded the ball through the eye of a needle.
Leeds are some way from perfection but Milanic is fostering patience and support with the right ideas and sensible management. His defence were tight in all but a couple of moments and United worked the ball patiently from back to front, more in touch with Mirco Antenucci and Souleymane Doukara than they had been in their goalless draw with Reading. Casper Sloth’s inadequacies were spotted in the first half and Milanic had the sense to hook him at the break, though Sloth’s stand-in – Luke Murphy – experienced problems of his own.
“We played a good game,” Milanic said. “There was a lot of energy and good play in the last third – which we missed in the last game. We talked about playing quicker going forward and getting the ball to the strikers.
“When you see all the game, I think that we could also have won it. We had some very good opportunities but their goalkeeper was good – extremely good.”
Westwood has done this before at Elland Road. In 2008 he was the keeper who kept a League One play-off semi-final between Leeds and Carlisle d on edge during the first leg. He made necessary saves from Rodolph Austin and Alex Mowatt in the first half but his involvement in the second was more telling. A block with his foot and a one-handed parry, in the face of shots from Mirco Antenucci, threatened to deny Leeds anything from a game they saw plenty off.
The second of those blocks came seconds after Chris Maguire opened the scoring for Wednesday on 52 minutes. The midfielder beat Marco Silvestri with a crisp finish from 20 yards after Jacques Maghoma’s cross flashed through the box, eluding Gary Madine and everyone else around him.
Maguire took his goal well and then inexplicably took the proverbial in front of the Kop. The crowd reacted in kind and the tone changed as yellow cards and tempers began to mount. Leeds kept their performance in order nonetheless and Bellusci equalised 12 minutes time with a typically Bellusci goal. Invited to smash his head through Mowatt’s free-kick, the centre-back chose instead to watch the ball drop and roll it cutely through a crowd of players.
“After they scored their goal, it was very difficult for us,” Milanic said. “We lost a bit of calm and we were nervous but after we scored and it went to 1-1, I still believed that we could win the game. Giuseppe is very calm, he has great technique and he takes a lot of risks in his game. I’m very happy for the team that he scored, and for him.
“The team here has quality, there are a lot of players with quality, but we have to do a few things better and with games and sessions I hope we will play better. This performance was okay. It was okay.”
Wednesday manager Stuart Gray did not argue with much afterwards, apart from his team’s football. “That wasn’t us,” he said. “We didn’t pass it well and our ball retention wasn’t good. At the end of the day you’re not always going to get it your own way.”
Stevie May almost nicked a goal at the end of the first half with a glancing header which whizzed past Silvestri’s far post but Gray replaced the humongous frame of Atdhe Nuhiu with Madine at half-time, admitting that he needed a “physical presence” up front.
Milanic’s removal of Sloth was solely on the grounds of a lack of creativity. “In the first half he had a little bit of a problem,” United’s boss said. Milanic had Adryan up his sleeve but adjusted his team by moving Mowatt into the number 10 position, a role the 19-year-old’s passing and movement suited.
“Alex was very good in the first half,” Milanic said. “When we had opportunities, he made very good passes and he did a good job. I thought about Adryan but we have enough games this season. He will (get) his chance.”
Milanic had United owner Massimo Cellino 30 yards away from him for much of the second half, positioned at the end of the tunnel, kicking every ball. It might have been all and sundry on the pitch had Milanic’s first win come in five minutes of injury-time but the search for that result resumes away at Rotherham United in 11 days’ time. Milanic is a bit like his boss; a man who gives the impression that he is not easily satisfied. “My job is to improve the team,” he said. But privately, quietly, he must like the way it is going.
Leeds United: Silvestri, Byram, Bellusci, Pearce, Berardi, Bianchi, Austin, Mowatt, Sloth (Murphy 46), Doukara (Sharp 69), Antenucci (Morison 80). Subs (not used): S Taylor, Cooper, Warnock, Adryan.
Sheffield Wednesday: Westwood, Palmer, Loovens, Lees, Mattock, Maguire (Helan 70), Semedo (Coke 83), Lee, Maghoma, May, Nuhiu (Madine 46). Subs (not used): Kirkland, Buxton, Drenthe, Dielna.