Leeds United 2 Middlesbrough 1: Whites into the top six as Boro see red

Ross McCormack  scores the opening goal. PIC: Simon Hulme

Ross McCormack scores the opening goal. PIC: Simon Hulme

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The ownership question at Leeds United raised its head again last week, a year after GFH Capital laid its cards on the table and bought the club.

In 12 months of measured, unsensational management there can hardly have been a less tempting time for the firm from Dubai to give it all up.

A £7m takeover bid dropped into United’s lap nine days ago and was promptly dumped in the nearest bin. “It was not something the board could take seriously,” wrote chairman Salah Nooruddin in Saturday’s programme. “The fairest thing we could say about this ‘offer’ is that it was a cheeky distraction.”

Not for United’s players and not for their manager, without question the best investment GFH Capital has made at Elland Road. In a week when Lucas Radebe dreamt of a boardroom seat and Ken Bates resurfaced in Beeston – an appearance unconnected to the £7m approach – the interests of stability were protected by a tight but valuable win over Middlesbrough.

These are days when shares in Leeds look valuable too, hence the recent offer for equity. United are close to a high watermark under their present owner, statistically and aesthetically. The last time they won three games back-to-back was in the week after GFH Capital took over the club from Bates. They were never a top-six team under Neil Warnock and have been so only once before under Brian McDermott. The motivation to cut and run cannot be overwhelming.

McDermott has his feet a long way under the table, here for the duration and no longer sounding like a manager who wonders whether his squad will shower him with champagne or blow up in his face.

Leeds made a slog of Saturday’s win after Middlesbrough lost their goalkeeper to a first-half red card but they had the feel of a side who would find an answer to anything their visitors could ask. Jason Pearce settled the match with a 57th-minute header, just as Boro seemed to have upset the applecart. Boro were more adept at upsetting their own.

Ten points stand between the clubs this morning, a gap which explains why Boro were in the hands of a new head coach at Elland Road. Leeds look down on them from the play-offs.

“I’d rather be top one than top six,” McDermott said afterwards, “but we’re in the top six with the points we’ve got.

“You’d rather be where Burnley, QPR and Leicester are but we’re chasing them and we’re making a good fist of it. We’re improving. I genuinely think there’s more to come from us.”

Boro’s boss, Aitor Karanka, stood close to the centre of attention in Leeds, a Spaniard who visited Elland Road as a Real Madrid player 13 years ago. Back then he had Raul, Iker Casillas and Luis Figo for protection. On Saturday Karanka had no discernible forward line and a keeper in Jason Steele who took the long, slow walk on 42 minutes for a professional foul on Dexter Blackstock.

Karanka’s team were a goal down by then, picked off by Ross McCormack. Who else. While journalists on Teesside welcomed Boro’s new manager last week, others in Yorkshire reflected on Boro’s committed but unsuccessful attempt to sign McCormack in August. The offers from Teesside climbed to £2m but Leeds saw themselves on the raw end of that deal and declined with thanks.

McDermott admitted in the lead up to Saturday’s game that he and Leeds would be answering awkward questions if McCormack was doing for another Championship club what he is doing now for Leeds. “Every time he plays he looks like he’s going to score a goal,” the United boss said. “Or two or three. That’s where he’s at.” His effort against Boro, the opening goal on 34 minutes, was his 13th of the season, his seventh in three matches.

It went down as a tap-in by the time McCormack scored it but the chance was taken with the poaching instinct that Boro, with Kei Kamara in front of Marvin Emnes, need themselves. Rodolph Austin set the attack in motion with a deep cross to Tom Lees who played the percentages and turned the ball across goal, inviting McCormack to convert it with a flick of his head.

The Scot teased Boro’s support with a gesture towards them but many of Boro’s problems stemmed from within, dominant though United were before half-time. A defence at sixes and sevens became a defence at fives and sixes when Steele, who had earlier parried a shot from Rodolph Austin and watched Blackstock scoop an easy finish over the bar, dithered over a ludicrous backpass from Daniel Ayala and flattened Blackstock on the edge of the box.

Referee Phil Gibbs red-carded the keeper and gave Karanka his first taste of Championship chaos. Boro sacrificed the ever-enigmatic Emnes and made space for Jayson Leutwiler, their Swiss reserve keeper. It was to their relief that injury-time had virtually started by the time Leutwiler took to the pitch.

McDermott thought the dismissal was justified and should have been the second of the match after Ayala cut out a pass to McCormack with his hand minutes earlier. “It was deliberate,” McDermott said of Ayala’s offence, “but the referee didn’t see it that way.” Karanka commented on Steele’s red card by answering a completely different question. He already has the Arsene-Wenger-sidestep honed and in play.

McDermott joked that a Boro side reduced to nine men would have caused him nightmares since Leeds did not cope brilliantly with a Boro side reduced to 10. “There’s an assumption when the opposition go down to 10 men it’s going to be easier,” McDermott said. “I think it’s harder, psychologically.

“The place gets edgy because you assume that you’ll win the game comfortably. But Middlesbrough have got pace in their team and they’re dangerous on the counter.”

Leeds found that out in the 52nd minute when Albert Adomah tore down the right wing and hooked a glorious cross down the throat of Mustapha Carayol who volleyed the ball past Paddy Kenny. It reminded Leeds of the fact that while Boro would take McCormack tomorrow, they would take Boro’s wingers. But five minutes later, Pearce averted any browbeating by jumping above Frazer Richardson and dispatching Lee Peltier’s delivery with a firm header.

Boro pressed on tirelessly a mile away from Kenny in a game which was less on edge than the tension suggested.

Two efforts from Alex Mowatt, both parried by Leutwiler, were the pick of the chances. McCormack eventually sucked the life out of added-time by breaking down the right wing, drawing a foul and rounding off another decent day.

“I wanted him to stay and I never wavered on that,” McDermott said. “He wanted to stay at Leeds and he never wavered either.” At the moment, you wouldn’t.

Leeds United: Kenny, Lees, Zaliukas, Pearce, Peltier, Murphy (Brown 89), Mowatt, Pugh (Byram 82), Austin, McCormack, Blackstock (Smith 81). Subs (not used): Cairns, Varney, Tonge, Poleon.

Middlesbrough: Steele, Richardson, Woodgate, Ayala, Friend, Adomah, Leadbitter, Smallwood (Jutkiewicz 83), Carayol (Main 67), Kamara, Emnes (Leutwiler 44). Subs (not used): Williams, Butterfield, Whitehead, Gibson.

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