“Worse than losing a play-off final.” The sad thing about Brian McDermott is that he wasn’t being glib. The consolation of capitulating on the biggest of days at Wembley is the meagre satisfaction of being there in the first place.
In Rochdale there are no loser’s medals and no pride to cling to on a sour afternoon. Watching McDermott gesticulate towards players at the mercy of their own supporters, it felt that bad. Huge away crowds are the envy of the world until a squad are forced to answer to them.
Welcome to Leeds. They will wear red on their chests before they go quietly after a defeat as appalling as United’s at Spotland. Every manager before McDermott has felt the fury – Warnock away at Oakwell, Grayson in Hereford and McAllister in the mire of muddy Histon – but McDermott was visibly shaken as the insults flew.
“We got the reaction I expected,” he said, “and the reaction was right. For the people who travelled I’m desperately, desperately sorry. We’ll have to live with this result for a while.”
Histon are the sharpest comparison here; a less skilful team than Rochdale but a club as far below Leeds in the pyramid five years ago as Rochdale were on Saturday. The FA Cup has treated United well in the interim but there was horrible similarity between the debacle in a Cambridgeshire village and the 2-0 defeat in Greater Manchester –the vulnerability of Leeds, the absence of any superiority and the simple header which cut their throat.
They will call the scoreline in Rochdale a shock on the basis of rank in the Football League but this of all the FA Cup’s third-round ties was primed for an upset. As with the dark days of previous United managers, the anger at full-time was not the product of brief humiliation or supporters too precious to suck it up. It signalled the loss of patience after a spate of results which McDermott called “slippery”. His squad are on the slide and no mistake, suffering at every turn.
Fairly or unfairly the legacy of so many stagnant years at Elland Road is that sustained wobbles are seen in the context of another season slipping away. That, more than the cost of tickets and travel, is what provokes a crowd to react as they did at the final whistle on Saturday. Scott Hogan’s header and Ian Henderson’s late volley will be forgotten soon enough but the deflation caused by a miserable Christmas is more ingrained.
“We’re certainly in a rut and we need to get out of it,” McDermott said. “The team seem to have run out of steam. We will get out of this, we definitely will, but the change needs to come from outside.”
McDermott was in a similar position in October when his patient revolution hit its first pocket of turbulence. Back then he made the best of his squad, adapted their formation and came out the other side.
Two months on, the 52-year-old is adamant that the solution to the issues raised by league defeats to Nottingham Forest and Blackburn Rovers and an FA Cup exit at Rochdale will be found in the transfer market or not at all. He expects to make a start on his recruitment this week by signing Cameron Stewart from Hull City.
“We need to invest in this team,” he said. “I was convinced about that before Christmas.
“We’ve done well to get to 35 points in the Championship and the team needs help. This is the time. But I won’t distance myself from the players. I’m part of this.
“It’s very easy to start pointing fingers and that will happen because it’s human nature but I’m not looking to point fingers. I’m just looking to solve the issues we’ve got.”
There are several of those, not least the condition of numerous individuals who look tired and overplayed.
The strain of the weeks either side of Christmas was McDermott’s justification for using a weakened team at Spotland but United’s form prior to it told him not to risk more criticism by arriving in Rochdale half-cocked.
With hindsight he might wish that he had rested Rodolph Austin or Ross McCormack, players of whom so much as been asked. Austin in particular chased Rochdale with legs like dead weights.
Against teams managed by Keith Hill, fatigue is a virus. Rochdale’s pace lacerated Leeds and exposed an unfamiliar formation used by McDermott to accommodate Sam Byram up front. It passed as 3-4-3 and found United’s outermost midfielders – Danny Pugh and Lee Peltier – uncertain about when to cut loose and when to drop back.
In a five-man midfield their judgement seems more simple and Rochdale found space to work with for all but a short period in the second half. It was, as McDermott said later, their success and their day. Leeds conjured three chances of note: two headers from Matt Smith which Rochdale cleared off their goalline and a whipped shot from McCormack that whistled over Josh Lillis’ crossbar on 68 minutes. The rest of the invention came 80 yards down the pitch.
Rochdale drew first blood in first half injury-time, a goal indicative of the problem for Leeds. Peter Vincenti and the excellent Rhys Bennett exchanged several passes on one corner of United’s box before Vincenti decided to toss up a cross which Hogan glanced neatly into the far corner of Paddy Kenny’s net. Kenny had repelled two shots from Hogan earlier in the half and was the only light in the gloom, the barrier preventing a rout by four or five goals. But Rochdale killed the tie in the 85th minute, by which time the game was like Danny Williams felling Mike Tyson; blow after clubbing blow until the legs went. Vincenti whipped one shot wide and another from Henderson deflected past Kenny’s right hand post. The keeper’s one-armed block of a driven shot from Vincenti on 80 minutes was exceptional but Henderson put Leeds away when substitute Graham Cummins careered down the left wing and fed him with a hanging ball which the forward volleyed over Kenny’s head.
All that McDermott and his team had left was the gauntlet to run at full-time. “I told the players to remember that moment,” McDermott said. “Remember it because you never want it again.
“Rochdale beat us fair and square and it’s their day. But this is still a big season for us.”
Rochdale: Lillis, Bennett, O’Connell, Lancashire, Done, Henderson, Cavanagh, Lund, Vincenti, Hogan, Bunney (Cummins 72). Subs (not used): Thomson, Rafferty, Eastham, Donnelly, Allen, Dicker.