Could this be the week, the moment when the reluctant takeover of Leeds United proves itself to be more than a lingering myth?
GFH Capital is hopeful, if not certain, of announcing its purchase of Leeds in the next 72 hours and the firm from Dubai has no more patience left to test among the followers of the club it plans to buy. Now or never for this season and the takeover’s own credibility.
None of the main protagonists in the deal were present at Elland Road as sections of the walls caved in on Saturday. United’s chairman, Ken Bates, was at home in Monaco and GFH Capital’s staff remained in the Middle East, crossing and dotting more letters. Salem Patel, the company’s director, had an eye on Yorkshire, however, tweeting beforehand that he was “hoping for a more attacking line-up.” Perhaps he knew what Neil Warnock had in mind.
Those who look to GFH Capital for money, direction and a full buy-out of Bates are hoping for more than that.
After a defeat to Watford which amounted to far more than a painful scoreline, the 19,000-plus people who paid for the privilege were left to ask if this process, this season and their own faith can withstand the strain of the past six months.
The defeat itself is the least of Warnock’s worries, horrendous though it was. He lost centre-back Jason Pearce to a straight red card and Rodolph Austin to a worrying injury which sent the midfielder directly to hospital.
Leeds had used three substitutes by the time Austin was taken to hospital in the 47th minute, an indication of how much trouble they were in, and Paddy Kenny’s goal became a shooting gallery in the second half. All that followed was inevitable.
To some extent it was immaterial too. When Pearce incurred a red card in the final minute of the first half with Leeds already 1-0 down, the brewing storm was impossible to miss.
It is in the weeks ahead that the implications of United’s defeat will be keenly felt; when the club roll into Millwall this weekend minus Pearce, Austin, the suspended Michael Brown and with bruised egos throughout their squad. “Not a single pundit will expect us to win there,” said Warnock afterwards, charitably describing the long odds as a reason “why I love the game.” He almost meant it.
What help he will have before then is for others to know. Warnock expected to sign a forward on loan before Saturday – believed to be Stoke City’s Cameron Jerome – but failed to do so, seemingly because Stoke risked a shortage of strikers by releasing him.
GFH Capital say money will be given to Warnock when its takeover is complete but May has become November and still he waits. The Football League’s emergency loan deadline passes in 11 days’ time and January is, well, January; nine league games away to be exact. Warnock was not being flippant when he said last week that he wants to reach the turn of the year with a “fighting chance” of qualifying for the play-offs.
Patel at least had his wish granted on Saturday as United’s manager invoked a substantial tactical change: David Norris, Paul Green and Luke Varney in, Brown, Luciano Becchio and Adam Drury out. Leeds’ 3-5-2 system was a mirror image of Watford’s but less familiar and less establish than Gianfranco Zola’s preferred formation. It did not work.
There is a raw and naive edge about Watford’s squad but burgeoning ambition too. There were lucky to see Norris hit a post when Austin set up Sam Byram to slide the ball towards the penalty spot in the ninth minute and indebted to goalkeeper Manuel Almunia after he closed the angles in front of Varney and parried the forward’s close-range shot, but Watford’s commitment to quick counter-attacking did not give way to negativity.
Played on the right-hand side of a three-man defence, Green looked vulnerable from the outset and as uncomfortable as a central midfielder might.
He was caught out of position in the 28th minute when Matej Vydra exchanged passed with Alex Geijo and advanced on Kenny’s goal. Lee Peltier waved for an offside flag and Vydra looked himself to the touchline before sizing up Kenny and smashing the ball into the net.
Two quick chances for Almen Abdi followed – both wasted from close range – before the implosion began. In the 44th minute, El-Hadji Diouf sold Pearce short with a weak pass and the centre-back caught Vydra with a late tackle. Referee Trevor Kettle pulled a red card from his top pocket.
“I’m convinced it’s not a sending off,” said Warnock. “Both linesmen told the referee they thought it was a red but they’re 55 yards away. I find that very difficult to accept as a manager.”
Warnock’s answer was to withdraw Green and replace him with Tom Lees, remarkably recovered from damage to the retina in one eye. He went further at half-time and substituted Diouf and Aidan White, playing his entire hand in an effort to “try and win the game.” Brown and Ryan Hall took the field but had barely touched the ball when Austin was trapped in a nasty collision with Marco Cassetti.
The Jamaican international received treated for a suspected broken leg for several minutes before leaving the field on a stretcher. He was carried out of stadium to a waiting ambulance. Warnock addressed his remaining nine players and gave what orders he could but they huddled together like General Custer’s men, doomed to the arrows in spite of their willingness to fight.
Abdi scored Watford’s second goal by dropping his shoulder and beating Kenny from 20 yards on the hour and Mark Yeates’ sweet free-kick added a third on 75 minutes.
Michael Tonge replied with a penalty after Joel Ekstrand fouled Varney and controversially escaping a second yellow card but Watford did not twitch excessively. Vydra converted a chip on the break and Sean Murray and Troy Deeney both beat Kenny from outside the box during 10 torturous minutes of injury-time. Kettle called a halt 30 seconds early.
Warnock tried to apply perspective at full-time, saying: “The game of football was irrelevant after Rudy’s injury. I’m just concerned about him.”
His concern was shared by the thousands who stayed on to see the bitter end but there are other worries too, all of them related to the money which sits in a bank account, waiting to buy GFH Capital into this drama and a club where nothing is ever done by halves.
Watford: Almunia, Doyley, Ekstrand, Cassetti, Hoban, Yeates, Anya, Abdi (Hogg 68), Smith (Murray 81), Geijo (Deeney 60), Vydra. Subs (not used): Thompson, Bond, Chalobah, Forestieri.