Three games of the season was what Massimo Cellino set aside for a decision on where Leeds United are in relation to promotion but the club’s owner and president has his answer in one.
The twilight of the transfer window could push Leeds in that direction but the squad as it stands is not there and not especially close. Cellino exchanged a brief handshake with David Hockaday after Saturday’s 2-0 loss at Millwall and spoke with him at length yesterday, and if the two men were honest with each other, they should both have agreed on that fact.
It will hardly come as news to Cellino, who decided that promotion was unfeasible this season months before the season began, but a defeat in London might adjust his view of how the Championship works and what it is United need. In the words of their head coach, they need more: more quality, more know-how and more options.
Know-how is Ian Holloway’s strength and Millwall’s too whenever Leeds go to Bermondsey. United’s first league fixture looked nothing other than a short straw when the Football League announced it in June and the game went the way of so many of their visits to The Den. An early goal and a late penalty saw Millwall home, coming either side of a long passage of football which reminded Leeds – 15th last term – that they do not have the luxury of complacency.
Hockaday does not have that luxury either, though it is unfortunate for him to be in a position where every poor result is seen as a black mark against his name. Afterwards, as he tried to talk up the second-half performance while openly criticising the first, United’s coach was asked as much about Cellino as he was about the football or any of the questions arising from it.
One game down and one game lost, the silent tally people will keep. Already the troublesome elephant in the room is the matter of how many defeats Hockaday can really afford. But more established managers than him have taken Leeds to Millwall and come home with nothing. Losing there is a habit going back to 2008.
Other things about Millwall are predictable and before Hockaday had his chance to reflect on the result, Ian Holloway engrossed the press room by tearing into his own supporters and the poisonous chanting which is established as a sorry tradition at this fixture.
The Istanbul obsession is slowly blowing itself out at The Den but Jimmy Savile’s name was everywhere on Saturday, used for cheap and obscene insults. Holloway, who is waging a war to convince West Yorkshire Police to end their enforcement of bubble-trips whenever Millwall come to Leeds, spoke as frankly he often speaks but was passionate and genuine, sticking his neck out. “It’s disgusting and disrespectful,” Holloway said. “Let’s think about what he (Savile) has actually done. I don’t like the banter. It ain’t funny.”
Sane voices are hard to find in these skirmishes and The Den was jacked up above its usual level, virtually full and deafeningly loud. Hockaday suggested that his team had played the occasion before half-time, and the first half was where the game was lost.
“We didn’t perform and we didn’t stick to the game plan,” Hockaday conceded. “In the second half we were better but it’s easier to react at 1-0 down because you’ve got nothing to lose.”
Leeds were a goal down after eight minutes, beaten in familiar fashion. Unmarked players were a niggle for Hockaday throughout pre-season and Mark Beevers found himself in that position when Lee Martin took a short corner and lifted a cross in his direction. The defender’s finish, a low sweep from 12 yards, was his first goal for two years but the absence of any marking helped. “I lost my man,” Beevers said. “That’s the point.”
Millwall had the run of the pitch for most of the first 45 minutes.
Leeds’ attempt to play their way into the game was disrupted by a five-man midfield which came together quickly and converged on Hockaday’s players whenever they collected the ball. Luke Murphy had the only chance to equalise before half-time but pulled his shot across a busy box with only David Forde to beat. At the other end of the field, Alan Dunne’s free header was plucked out of the air by a relieved Marco Silvestri seconds before the break.
“We wanted to stop them carrying out their game plan, which is lots of diagonal balls, but we allowed them to play,” Hockaday said.
Offensively, he could have done with the passing ability of the suspended Tommaso Bianchi. This is a changed team, or so it is said, but the entire back four was here last season – a year of defensive blow-ups – and full league debuts on Saturday numbered only three.
Hockaday said: “Although our lads worked, they didn’t work with the intelligence I’d expect of them. When you step over the white line you have to perform, no excuses, and there are no excuses – because of the first half.”
The second-half gave Hockaday more to cling to. Noel Hunt should have scored in the very first minute after Forde and Beevers collided with each other and gave Nicky Ajose possession on the left wing. United’s new signing – a definite plus on Saturday – picked out Hunt but he watched the Irishman strike a shot against Dunne’s legs on an otherwise empty goalline. Hunt’s agonising reaction was that of a man who cannot bribe the ball across the whitewash.
Leeds had more chances besides and came into the game properly after Matt Smith and Lewis Cook arrived from the bench, allowing a change of formation and the birth of variation. Smith headed one chance wide and United’s third substitute, Dominic Poleon, was a fraction away from scoring after Smith’s glancing header sent him running into the box. Poleon’s inch-perfect chip from a hopeless angle was kept out by a desperate swipe of Forde’s right glove.
“We got a bit tight and Smith coming on made us make mistakes,” Holloway said.
Poleon’s chance came six minutes from time with Millwall starting to backtrack but Holloway’s team were freed of their nerves by a penalty four minutes later. Lewis Cook, a league debutant at 17 years of age, erred momentarily with a crossfield pass which dropped out of Jason Pearce’s reach and left Leeds in danger. The teenager attempted to clean up his mess but was penalised after Lee Gregory went down under his challenge. “There was no contact,” Hockaday said. “He hasn’t touched him.” Referee Oliver Langford stood accused of making amends after failing to award a more obvious penalty for Murphy’s trip on Martyn Woolford earlier in the half.
Shaun Williams took the penalty and stroked it beautifully to Silvestri’s right, beyond the Italian’s reach, and with that the game was gone. “The second half gives me hope,” Hockaday said, “and the good thing is that we reacted. Chances-wise, I thought we shaded it in the second half. But football is about moments and we didn’t take our chances.”
Holloway thought otherwise and seems to be on a mission already. There is palpable annoyance at Millwall – grievance, really – that they are being tipped for relegation, though Saturday’s win should not rank them as anything more than long outsiders for the play-offs. Hockaday says Leeds will get better. He must know that the opposition will too.
Millwall: Forde, Edwards, Dunne, Beevers, Malone, Abdou, Williams, Martin (Gueye 67), McDonald, Woolford (Easter 67), Fuller (Gregory 81). Subs: Bywater, Wright, Briggs, Webster.
Leeds United: Silvestri, Byram, Pearce, Wootton, Warnock, Austin, Murphy, Tonge, Ajose (Poleon 80), Hunt (Smith 57), Doukara (Cook 64). Subs (not used): S Taylor, Killock, Berardi, Benedicic.