Fifth in the Championship, another win on the board but still Saturday night ended in an inquest.
They are easier to hold when the result reads right and Garry Monk skilfully drew the line between necessary home truths and an all-out rant.
His temper would have frayed had his players conspired to draw with Rotherham United and only by virtue of Dominic Ball’s improbable miss did their 2-1 lead hold in injury-time but a joke about dropping all 11 for tomorrow’s League Cup quarter-final at Liverpool gave Monk away: ruffled but philosophical and not unduly irate. This time last year Leeds United were 17th.
What he felt in Rotherham, perhaps for the first time, was the creep of complacency and a casual attitude as Leeds were encouraged to cruise by a team who tried to strangle themselves. Already eight points adrift in the league, by half-time the Millers had lost one player to a red card, two to injury and conceded to both of Leeds’ shots on goal. “Hell fire”, muttered a supporter sat near the press box and Kenny Jackett’s team are roasting in it but it was Monk who felt his fingers burning as the mood changed late on.
Richard Wood, Rotherham’s centre-back and captain, stirred an audience who were losing the will to live with an 86th-minute header which Rob Green palmed against a post and over the line. In the madness that followed, Green pulled off three desperate saves and watched Ball emerge from a royal rumble to whip a shot over the crossbar from two yards out. So it was that a potential cakewalk finished with Leeds running possession in the corners.
Monk’s body language towards the end of the first half – shouts and gestures betraying some dissatisfaction with the reaction to Peter Odemwingie sending-off on 29 minutes – suggested that he would refrain from pulling punches at full-time.
“We brought it on ourselves,” said United’s head coach, relieved by the fact that two points had not slipped through his fingers. “We deserved to win that game, no-one can really doubt that, but the only thing that could have hurt us was us taking our foot off the gas. That’s exactly what we did.
“We started to make mistakes and we’re not good enough to play at anything less than 100 per cent. We’re not good enough to take our foot off the gas. You give teams a sniff and they’ll take it. We’re happy with the three points but it’s a lesson learned.”
It was ultimately a lesson learned at no cost. Rotherham’s manager Kenny Jackett tried to find meat on the bones of another loss, the club’s 13th of season, but in the light of day the collateral damage was endless. The scoreline aside, Greg Halford was taking to hospital after damaging his ankle in the fourth minute and goalkeeper Lee Camp left the field with a knee injury before the break. Odemwingie’s dismissal for a crude elbow on Liam Cooper will result in a three-match ban unless the Football Association takes a dimmer view of it. It is raining and pouring in Rotherham and on the balance of probability, Jackett’s team are relegated.
Leeds had them where they wanted them after 14 minutes as Charlie Taylor discovered that news of Rotherham’s defensive weakness had not been exaggerated. The left-back made easy work of a half-hearted effort by Stephen Kelly to track his run and laid a square ball on a plate for Chris Wood. The striker beat Camp with a sharp, low finish.
Rotherham were as frail then as Odemwingie was dense before the half-hour in following through with an elbow as Cooper – a very tidy replacement for the suspended Pontus Jansson – headed a clearance upfield. Referee Stuart Attwell quickly went for his red card, ensuring the obligatory dismissal which this fixtures seems to yield. Replays showed Odemwingie clipping Cooper’s chin without leaving the ground and his apology on Twitter, posted before the final whistle, stretched the boundaries of plausibility. “We all normally jump with our hands up to protect each other and (I) expected his to be up as well,” Odemwingie wrote. Jackett pursued that line afterwards too but admitted: “We can’t complain if the referee’s seen it that way.”
The extra man did little for Leeds until deep into seven minutes of first-half injury time when, in another moment of lucid play, Kemar Roofe fed Souleymane Doukara and Doukara forced a low shot into the far corner of Rotherham’s net. Lewis Price had replaced Camp by then and as he fished the ball out the contest looked finished. Leeds’ lethargic approach to the second half, littered with errors and Hollywood balls, gave that impression.
Monk’s side go to Anfield tomorrow, a first appearance there since 2003 and a rare outing in the last eight of the League Cup. Monk banned his players from talking about the draw until the tie was upon them, an order strictly followed, and it was largely forgotten amid recent league games against Norwich City and Newcastle United but there was a risk after 45 minutes on Saturday of Jurgen Klopp’s cheerful face infecting a few minds.
Were any of the players thinking of Liverpool? “You’d have to ask them,” Monk said. “I’m sure they’d tell you no. But we can’t accept that. They’re as disappointed with the second half as me.” What was his plan for Anfield with the Rotherham game in mind? “Drop them all,” he quipped. “No, we have to assess everyone. But we have to play like we did in the first 25 minutes to have a chance there.”
At no stage until Rotherham rallied did the second half show much direction. Monk sent on Stuart Dallas and Marcus Antonsson at staggered intervals but by the 90th minute he was feeling the need for an extra defender in Gaetano Berardi. Green had been beaten by Richard Wood’s effort after Isaiah Brown’s header across goal found the defender unmarked but the keeper’s fingertips dealt with the best Will Vaulks could throw at him and he twice denied Rotherham on his line as a corner caused panic and disarray. Ball’s dramatic shot, a sitter even allowing for the tension, was a get-out-of-jail-free card; not unlike the chaos seen under Uwe Rosler at MK Dons last season.
Back then, Rosler was scratching around for results. Monk has a knack of uncovering them and a trip to Rotherham these days is all about the scoreline; about beating a club who everyone else is turning over. A poor showing or not, Leeds finished Saturday higher up the table than they had been before their defeat to Newcastle.
“It was important to bounce back but it’s hard for me not to keep coming back to (Rotherham’s onslaught),” Monk said. “When teams go down to 10 they do become a bit more dogged and compact but that’s when you need to keep doing what we did in the first 20 minutes. We moved them around and picked the right time to attack but that’s where good teams sense blood. You don’t let the rope around the neck go loose. You go after it.
“In the second half we played into their hands and they used the last 10 minutes through our mistakes. We can’t accept that and we’re not happy. They felt like they had something coming and we put it on a plate for them. It could easily have been worse than it was.
“I expect the best from the players and when they don’t match that we have to be critical. We’re very clear that we’re moving in the right direction but the only way to get better is to hold ourselves to account.”