Sky Sports made it into Elland Road eventually and only they can say if the game they got was worth the stress or the hassle. Steve Evans had no doubt at all, happy to run Derby County close in a game he feared would be a step too far for Leeds United.
The club needed more than a draw and Ipswich Town’s win at Brighton last night cut United nine points adrift of the Championship play-offs but Derby County give away precious little and Evans sensed that much was in their favour. A 2-2 scoreline was respectable in the end, even though Leeds came within 12 minutes of victory.
Their head coach was wary of fatigued legs, two days on from an end-to-end game away at Nottingham Forest, and a soft goal conceded to Jeff Hendrick 13 minutes into yesterday’s match barely helped but Leeds raised themselves and fought back with an equaliser from the returning Sol Bamba and a second-half header from Chris Wood.
Bamba – absent for the best part of two months after suspension and a fractured toe – was pencilled in to return after Christmas and his influence was felt at both ends of the pitch. Having allowed Hendrick to evade his tackle and beat Marco Silvestri early on, Bamba redeemed himself on 42 minutes when he popped up under Derby’s crossbar to make the most of woeful goalkeeping from goalkeeper Lee Grant.
Grant has previous at Elland Road – remembered for virtually throwing the ball into his net on the day in 2012 when Leeds beat Burnley and saved Simon Grayson’s job as manager – and United were ruthless when an error came again. In a match of relatively few chances they were deserving of parity and Wood’s finish 19 minutes from time looked to have set up a home-and-away double over County. Tom Ince quickly spoiled the night with a clinically-taken chance. Derby have lost only twice all season, once to Leeds in August and again at Forest in November, and Evans was not about to complain about the scoreline in the circumstances but his squad are paying for the ground between them and the Championship top six. A gap of nine points is a greater margin than Evans wants to offer owner Massimo Cellino when the transfer window opens in a few days’ time.
Cellino, yesterday, was otherwise engaged by his battle with Sky and the Football League; away in Miami but in control of a situation in which Sky seemed in genuine danger of failing to broadcast a match which had been booked in for television coverage several weeks earlier.
That fight is not over or even close but a temporary truce was established around 3pm when Sky’s employees – many of whom had been kicking their heels in Fullarton Park for hours – received word that Cellino had unlocked the gates and began unloading their vans. If the Italian was bluffing then he had the Football League concerned enough to bring Shaun Harvey, the governing body’s chief executive, to the ground as the stand-off went on.
In the circumstances, and after so much uncertainty, Evans’ players were under pressure to round off a strange day positively. The complication for him – and one element of United’s frustration with Sky – was a fixture list which forced Leeds to play twice in little over 48 hours while Derby enjoyed a Saturday-Tuesday schedule, not unlike their average week.
Evans countered tiredness among his players by resting Lewis Cook in favour of Tom Adeyemi and bringing Bamba back into the side in place of Giuseppe Bellusci. The United boss toyed with the idea of using two strikers up front but played the percentages by leaving Wood alone in attack. Derby had enough resources to drop Ince and Chris Martin, their two leading scorers.
Leeds’ lowest ambition was to make sure that Paul Clement had reason to turn to his bench as the match wore on and County were prevented from getting into the game immediately. It was niggly for a while and broken up by fouls but Evans was not bothered about the contest being combative while it remained goalless. His goalkeeper, Silvestri, had nothing to do until Derby scored 13 minutes in.
The concession was weak and tired, inflicted by Hendrick who walked through one tackle from Liam Bridcutt and another from Bamba before dinking the ball over Silvestri. It was clear to see in that moment why a new centre-back is one of Evans’ priorities next month, a means of fixing a defence which has caved in too easily and too often this season.
United found themselves chasing a contest with one of the Championship’s strongest sides but they settled again and kept Derby’s lead to a single goal until just before half-time. There was no obvious sign of an equaliser but Adeyemi might have made more of a header after Bridcutt’s pass down the right teased a hanging cross from Sam Byram on 22 minutes. As United dug in tackles flew and Byram, Bridcutt and Luke Murphy picked up bookings for sliding fouls in quick succession. Adeyemi was soon warned not to infringe again as the crowd began to berate referee Mark Heywood. Suddenly, a goal down, Evans was yearning for more structure and fluency, frustrated by how little Derby had done to establish their lead.
County, however, were hampered by the loss of centre-back Jason Shackell to injury before half-time and Hendrick found his way into Heywood’s book after taking out Adeyemi on halfway. From the resulting free-kick, United drew level.
Their goal owed plenty to Lee Grant who, for 42 minutes, had been completely uninvolved. The keeper flapped at a high ball into his box but looked to have been rescued when Byram’s shot at an empty net was blocked but Byram had the presence of mind to float the ricochet back over Grant’s head. His desperate flap merely pushed the ball to Bamba who battered it over the line.
There was one significant change at the interval as Heywood bowed to a pulled hamstring and fourth official Richard Clark stepped in and took charge. The game maintained its earlier theme, offering a win to whichever side managed to turn the screw. In the lulls a crowd of 23,000 took a pop at Sky, accusing the broadcast of “killing football”. Evans kept his mind on the job and thrust Cook into the fray after the hour.
With 19 minutes to go, his players served up a second goal and put a priceless victory within touching distance. Byram instigated it again, picking out Wood with a perfect cross which United’s maligned striker – under pressure and out of form – nodded down past Grant. For the briefest of moments the points were there but Ince stepped off the bench and did what he does with a sharp left-foot strike which beat Silvestri from the edge of the area. Evans was able to claim a moral victory, over Sky and United’s schedule. What he really craved was the real thing.