“Talking is cheap,” said Brian McDermott in a manager’s programme column short enough to double as a tweet. Cheap it is and none was needed after Leeds United left their boss exposed to the worst the game can thrown at him.
A year and a day has passed since he was sacked by Reading and a horrible defeat to his old club – the club where so much went right for him – increased the possibility that Leeds will do the same unless the squad and their form turn a corner.
There were fewer goals last night than there were in Saturday’s 5-1 thrashing by Bolton Wanderers but a similar capitulation, and McDermott – a reticent man by nature – is fighting his corner too often for his liking. Talk is his only weapon at present, with league losses numbering 14 and the play-offs effectively gone.
Reading held sixth place before last night’s match and are far away in the distance now, not that anyone at Elland Road believed the top six was truly attainable for a squad who have waded through mud for two-and-a-half months.
United’s biggest game of the season left is the attempt by Massimo Cellino to convince the Football League to sanction his takeover and send them hurtling into a new era of ownership. All else is meaningless in relation to promotion.
Leeds were undone last night by an opening goal which wrapped their frustration and failure into one moment; a strike from Garath McCleary which was no more than a tap-in after Jack Butland and Jason Pearce – two players who McDermott would gamble his mortgage on –left a loose ball for each other and turned the evening sour. It was never likely to take much and the crowd were lost before long.
Royston Drenthe and Nick Blackman scored within three minutes of each other at the start of the second half and Hal Robson-Kanu added a fourth to bring poison spilling from the stands. There will not no redeeming this four-day spell, or not this season.
A Matt Smith goal on 63 minutes and a Rodolph Austin bullet from 30 yards seconds later created a sudden sense of crazy theatre as United’s players fought back against ridiculously long odds but it was a show of defiance only. Reading held on.
Again, the question of what happens next hangs in the air like an unpleasant smell.
The debacle against Bolton was serious enough to draw a cutting rebuke from Cellino, a rebuke aimed at McDermott’s players rather than McDermott himself, but Cellino will accept appalling results as happily as single-minded owners – or potential owners – do.
The Italian missed last night’s game and is back home in Miami, awaiting news from a Football League board meeting on Thursday and the outcome of his tax evasion case in Sardinia next Tuesday.
His lawyer in Italy, Giovanni Cocco, told the YEP yesterday that Cellino is not planning to attend court personally but his takeover of United hinge on the verdict in no small way.
While he and Leeds look for it, a pregnant pause consumes the club.
McDermott was proactive nonetheless and hacked away at both his team and his formation yesterday. Marius Zaliukas was pulled from the cell he’d been shut in since Leeds’ humiliation at Sheffield Wednesday, one of three centre-backs, and Danny Pugh took up residence as a wing-back. Stephen Warnock, Lee Peltier and the embattled Jimmy Kebe were ousted from the squad completely, Kebe spared the threat of another shellacking from the home crowd. In all it was the mass rethink promised by McDermott, to no effect at all.
Complicating matters was a serious accident on the M62 which shut the motorway for hours and forced Leeds to delay kick-off by 30 minutes. Pugh was among the hundreds caught in the traffic and joined the warm-up just as the original start time passed. The Royals by comparison had an age to kick their heels and wait for the game to come.
Their strategy was apparent from the outset – to counter-attack at speed with Robson-Kanu up front alone and quick support in behind him. There was a sense of Reading playing the way McDermott would like Leeds to play, and the way that some of the same names played for him at the Madejski Stadium.
Even so, their football gave Butland little to worry about until Leeds shot themselves in the foot. After that, all hell broke loose.
United were themselves speculative at the other end of the field.
Rudy Austin clattered the advertising boards after five minutes and Connor Wickham’s strike in the 10th was too distant and too central to cause Alex McCarthy a problem. When Reading’s pace told for the first time in the 20th minute, Zaliukas appeared in time to see off Drenthe’s left-footed shot.
The game was going nowhere fast when, with 25 minutes gone, McDermott’s defence conspired to give Reading a leg up. Zaliukas knocked a backpass towards the edge of Butland’s box where the goalkeeper and Pearce dithered over the ball. As they looked to each other to deal with it, McCleary crept in, pinched possession from Butland’s feet and rolled the ball into an empty net.
Reading smelled blood as Nigel Adkins hoped they would. Butland pulled off a fine save to send Robson-Kanu’s fierce volley high over his crossbar and was lucky immediately after to miss the resulting corner and see Alex Pearce nod a header into the side-netting.
It was enough still to incite the crowd and Leeds limped to half-time. A header from Alex Mowatt which drew a simple save from McCarthy earned sarcastic applause, and the collapse that McDermott watched with gritted teeth in the second half on Saturday repeated itself again.
Drenthe scored a minute after the break with a sweetly-hit free-kick from the very edge of Butland’s box, driven into the top corner of the net. Nick Blackman then rose to meet Danny Guthrie’s cross with a free header two minutes later, a feeble goal which flew beyond Butland, and on 54 minutes, Zaliukas misread the flight of the ball and allowed Robson-Kanu to run free. The forward, for three years a player who McDermott depended on, beat the keeper clinically at his far post.
McDermott stood motionless and isolated with his hands in his pockets, the picture of a manager nearing the end. Smith’s bundled effort and Austin’s piledriver brought him to life again as the stadium warmed up but those goals failed to magic a result and left their manager wondering why it had taken a deficit of 4-0 to wake United up. Only time will tell for the 52-year-old now.