Ross McCormack’s first goal for Leeds United was longer in the making than the royal wedding but, for a fleeting moment on Saturday afternoon, it appeared to have come in the nick of time.
The Scot has been part of United’s squad in name alone for much of the past eight months, under-used in what constitutes a wasted season on his part. Thrown a bone on the penultimate weekend, his finish against Burnley sought to sustain an adventure which, on the part of his club, seemed dead in the water five days earlier.
McCormack’s 33rd-minute goal – the only one of a Championship game played out beneath scorching sunshine and slim expectancy – did all that Simon Grayson asked of his players when he pleaded with them to prevent their pursuit of the play-offs from failing prematurely. Saturday’s win opened the door to sixth place for as long as it took Nottingham Forest to slam it in United’s face.
Grayson knew before the weekend that the fate of his club was dependent on both a lunchtime victory over Burnley and the constitution of others, and Leeds kept their side of the bargain. Millwall did likewise but the result which rolled in from Nottingham shortly before 5pm was unforgiving. No amount of optimism can depict United as anything other than a team with too many favours to ask.
Saturday, to coin a tired phrase, was Leeds’ appearance in the last-chance saloon, and Grayson’s line-up had that feel about it. McCormack appeared in a starting side for only the third time in 2011, elevated from obscurity after 19 appearances without a goal. Neil Kilkenny also received the nod which should have been his at Crystal Palace last Monday.
McCormack’s selection consigned Robert Snodgrass to a bench which featured three defenders, a goalkeeper and a thin array of attacking expertise. Bradley Johnson, meanwhile, took his leave of the centre of midfield and occupied the left wing to inspired effect. The experimental approach was destined to go one of two ways, and it fostered a sudden sense of freedom among Grayson’s players. McCormack, in thick of the game, looked perfectly at home.
United’s attitude offered a positive outlook from the start, submerging a soulless Burnley team for most of the game. Jonathan Howson created the first problem of note when he pinched the ball from Chris Eagles and picked out McCormack, whose chip found Brian Jensen waiting on the line. The goalkeeper looked more anxious two minutes later when Billy Paynter hooked a pass from McCormack a foot to the left of Burnley’s net. It was doubtless how Grayson had told his squad to proceed.
The need to go for broke was apparent, though reckless adventure carried its own risks. In the 12th minute, Eagles found United’s midfield stretched in front of him, and his pass to Wade Elliott pressed Richard Naylor into a crucial tackle inside his own box. A flat-footed Kasper Schmeichel watched the ball crash into the advertising boards directly to his right, a safer situation than the Dane dealt with six minutes later.
Andy O’Brien exposed his keeper by mistiming an attempt to clear Tyrone Mears’ free-kick, flattening Chris Iwelumo in the process. The dropping ball bounced through to Michael Duff whose fierce shot from point-blank range struck the large frame of Schmeichel. Duff held his head in his hands, aware of how inviting the chance had been. Eddie Howe asked later why O’Brien’s collision with Iwelumo had not been worth a penalty. Schmeichel was not required to deal with an ambitious Eagles shot in the 20th minute but, in tying Eric Lichaj in knots and attacking United’s goal, Eagles gave the impression that Burnley were beginning to settle. They were still relieved to see Paynter produce a scuffed, mishit finish after Kilkenny’s clever free-kick played McCormack into space in front of Jensen.
McCormack’s movement and positioning was as sharp as his series of performance with United’s reserves during March and April, a period which might have encouraged Grayson to make more of him in the Championship. His free-kick in the 27th minute – conceded by Andre Bikey’s needless foul on Howson – was a yard away from dropping into the side of Jensen’s net.
In the opening half-hour, Leeds failed to draw a save from Jensen. When it finally came, the save he produced deserved acclaim. Paynter’s awkward header from McCormack’s cross threatened to creep inside the far post until Jensen clawed the ball away with his right hand. The miss sucked the air from the crowd but a goal was coming.
With United’s next attack, Johnson hooked a pass through Burnley’s crooked defence and an onside McCormack drew Jensen before tucking a tidy finish beneath him. Bikey protested against the absence of an offside flag but replays showed a fatal dogleg across the field. On that incident at least, referee Phil Crossley and his assistants had no case to answer.
Duff’s prompt and cynical pull on McCormack after the striker outwitted him with a deft header was symptomatic of a team in slight disarray, and Burnley’s soft presence in the centre of the pitch constrained them badly. The second half did not auger any better.
Eagles clipped a free-kick into Schmeichel’s arms after another scuffle between O’Brien and the cumbersome Iwelumo, but Jensen looked in peril again when Paynter headed McCormack’s cross straight at him. Within seconds, Paynter was rounding Jensen with a heavy touch and dragging Kilkenny’s pass into the side-netting. The strain of the contest grew steadily and it gave way in the 57th minute to a brawl resembling the confrontation between Leeds and Forest at Elland Road on April 2.
Chris McCann provoked it by sinking his studs into Gradel’s waist, and Kilkenny heightened the argument by pushing McCann in the chest. Order was slowly restored and yellow cards were shown to McCann, Kilkenny and Lichaj. When McCormack got round to taking the resulting free-kick, O’Brien’s header found Jensen waiting on his line. Anywhere else would have found the net.
United’s pressure was overwhelming and the narrow scoreline started to grate. In the 62nd minute, a deflected shot from McCormack struck the base of a post, helped on by Jensen’s fingertips, and Burnley would have sunk without trace in the absence of a reliable keeper. Jack Cork almost took advantage of Jensen’s resilience when his shot from 25 yards flew over Schmeichel and, by inches, the bar. Twenty four crucial minutes lay ahead.
The dilemma for Grayson was whether to protect a necessary win or seek to improve United’s goal difference. Howson almost answered that question for him by breaking into Burnley’s box and driving the ball against Jensen’s body. It did not stop Grayson from withdrawing Paynter and investing in Snodgrass’ proven invention.
Second-best though they were, and by an unexpectedly wide margin, Burnley avoided another concession, helped by McCormack’s misdirected effort after Gradel fed a pass in behind Daniel Fox. They threatened a goal of their own but did not deserve one, and Schmeichel set their summer in motion with a brilliant save from Ross Wallace in the final minute.
Elland Road oozed sudden confidence, and the crowd remained in large numbers to applaud Grayson’s players on a lap of the pitch. The bubble was burst by the scoreline from Forest. Maybe, just maybe, Grayson said, but United’s manager knows better than that.
Leeds United: Schmeichel, Lichaj, Naylor, O’Brien, McCartney, Gradel (Watt 89), Howson, Kilkenny, Johnson, McCormack (Bromby 90), Paynter (Snodgrass 76). Subs (not used): Higgs, Connolly, Bruce, Livermore.
Burnley: Jensen, Mears, Duff (Wallace 74), Bikey, Fox, Eagles, Cork, McCann (Delfouneso 64), Elliott, Rodriguez, Iwelumo (Thompson 79). Subs (not used): Grant, Alexander, Carlisle, Bartley.