An all-Yorkshire play-off semi-final would comfortably sell itself but two legs against Reading no longer feels like a benign alternative for Leeds United. There is friction between them and much to settle if the last seven games take Leeds back to the Madejski Stadium next month.
It is going some to speak of rivalry in the context of two clubs who have played 24 times in 90 years but in this particular season there is no love lost. Few on either side are letting bygones be bygones and Reading’s 1-0 victory over Leeds on Saturday left enough of a mark to ensure some acrimony in the play-offs. Jaap Stam and Garry Monk exchanged a quiet handshake at full-time, sensing that this is far from over.
Neither club is guaranteed a top-six finish but there was an air of two expectant teams jostling for position, knowing that Newcastle and Brighton have gone and that the chasing pack have ground to make up in what is left of the season. There was also a suspicion of scores being settled after all that was said after the first game between the clubs in December. With one win apiece there is nothing between Leeds and Reading, save for a single point in Reading’s favour.
Yann Kermorgant, who last week accused Leeds of possessing “no plan B” beyond depending on Chris Wood’s finishing, scored the only goal with a first-half strike which spared him from any post-match embarrassment. Stam, who was disparaging of Monk’s tactics and United’s support after Reading were humiliated at Elland Road before Christmas, was on message again, taunting an away end which abused him from the off. “If you need to shout about the opposition, maybe it tells something about yourself,” Reading’s manager said, with no hint of irony.
Tyler Blackett went unpunished for an elbow on Wood early in the match and Liam Cooper got away with what looked like a stamp on Reece Oxford towards the end of it. In between, bottles were lobbed onto the pitch from the away end and a Leeds fan was ejected. Goodwill was in short supply and several people trod a very fine line. Leeds fell on the wrong side of it with a first defeat in eight games.
Monk had tormented Stam in the clubs’ previous meeting by teasing a win from that fixture with a weakened squad and 23 per cent of possession but Kermorgant summed up Leeds’ afternoon on Saturday, smashing a 21st-minute shot into the roof of Rob Green’s net after Charlie Taylor lost track of Chris Gunter. Onside from a throw-in and hovering inside United’s box, Gunter forced Taylor to nod a diving header to Kermorgant who smashed the ball in off Green’s arms.
Leeds were negligent too often before half-time, as Monk conceded afterwards. Green denied Garath McCleary one-on-one at the edge of his box just before half-time and was relieved to see John Swift waft two good chances over his crossbar. Kermorgant rattled a post with the last kick of the half. At the other end, Pablo Hernandez and Alfonso Pedraza had opportunities to equalise but both applied weak finishes at close range and Monk had no argument with the scoreline after 45 minutes.
“In the first half we made too many mistakes,” he said. “It was uncharacteristic of us. They led to Reading’s chances and you can’t afford to do that. If you make one or two then you might get away with it but we made four or five. They ended up punishing us. If a team cut you open then you accept it but to make mistakes ourselves and give them their opportunities was disappointing. But we’ve been on a good run and we’re having a fantastic season. One loss in eight isn’t a bad return.”
If Wood had intended to answer Kermorgant’s criticism then he was held back by a first half in which he hardly touched the ball. He did not see a chance at any stage. Monk was without Pontus Jansson, who withdrew with a hamstring strain on the morning of the game, but had decided to start Cooper regardless after dropping Jansson for Leeds’ 2-0 win over Brighton before the international break.
Reading were more direct with their early possession than they had been at Elland Road and slipped through the offside trap when Leeds tried to spring it. Green’s save from McCleary on 40 minutes was textbook goalkeeping, something Green is specialising in, but there were enough brittle moments to reiterate the value of a fit and in-the-zone Jansson restored to the centre of defence.
Having conceded to Kermorgant and rode several near-misses, Monk’s backline went missing again early in the second half when Kermorgant’s cross found Roy Beerens unmarked at the back post after Ronaldo Vieira lost the ball in his own half. Only Beerens’ indecision allowed Green to sprint out and sweep the ball up but from there, the balance of the game changed.
Leeds waded forward gradually and pressed Reading into their own half, seeking the sort of chance that Wood regularly tucks away. Even Stam was concerned about that. “He’s a great player,” Stam said. “If you give him only a little bit of space in the box, he can finish.” The best of the openings fell to Vieira who, at the end of a laboured performance, stabbed Taylor’s cross into the hands of Ali Al-Habsi with six minutes left. Al-Habsi had a good go at spilling a Souleymane Doukara shot into his own net but was more bothered by a few bottles thrown on the pitch from the away end behind him.
Those were not the only moments of unrest or the only incidents which the Football Association might pick up on this morning. Wood was flattened by a first-half collision with Blackett and signalled to referee Keith Stroud that he had been elbowed in the face by the Reading centre-back. Replays of Cooper catching Oxford in the face with a boot as Reading defended a late corner did not look good.
“I don’t know if he (Cooper) did it on purpose,” Stam said. “Of course he’s not going to say he did it on purpose.” Monk defended the centre-back and was unsighted during the incident involving Blackett and Wood. “I saw Chris go down but I didn’t see the challenge,” Monk said. “If it was (an elbow) then it was.”
Monk took comfort from the second half and the pressure Reading were under, despite Al-Habsi’s straightforward outing. “We played a slightly different game to put them under pressure and put them in a situation where they felt uncomfortable,” Monk said.
“We put them on the back foot for the majority of the second half, and in their own half. We had pressure that we should have done better with but had we got an equaliser, I don’t think anyone would have begrudged us it.”
At the end, he and Stam shook hands. As Monk walked down the tunnel, Stam turned and gave a member of his coaching staff a bear hug. ‘Boring, boring Reading’ had been the chant at Elland Road, to Stam’s obvious annoyance, and there was undeniable satisfaction in his body language afterwards.
“Our philosophy is to play like this and it gave us the win,” he said. “Their philosophy is playing in a different manner but they’ve won their fair share of games as well, to be fair.”
Monk took the defeat at graciously as he could, accepting that Reading had delivered on their pre-match rhetoric. “We’re not going to lose any confidence from this,” he insisted. “We trust in what we’re doing and we’re having a fantastic season.” Neither he nor Stam were fooled into thinking that Saturday had resolved anything.