Leeds United in two words: not working. Not working on too many levels. There was no other way of describing the club as Giuseppe Bellusci hovered in the firing line, waiting to face a last-minute penalty which he had brought upon them.
A makeshift goalkeeper, with gloves thrown on hastily and a second shirt hanging out, was a good metaphor for the state and the season Leeds are in. They are coming up short across the board, returning with telling frequency to moments of harsh reckoning like Saturday’s.
They have a head coach whose performance has been no better or worse than several of his recent predecessors and who, it appears, is drawing offers of employment from elsewhere; from clubs who clearly think that Leeds and their owner, Massimo Cellino, will replace him in the summer. As of last Friday, they have no academy director and still no head of recruitment. And in amongst the peaks, their squad are prone to tripping landmines as they did at Rotherham United.
Rotherham’s 2-1 win on Saturday was almost impossible by the time a late penalty produced it. They were down to 10 men – reduced in numbers after Matt Derbyshire did to Gaetano Berardi what Leon Best had done to the right-back at Elland Road in November and split his head open – and barely willing to commit beyond halfway when a counter-attack in the penultimate minute yielded space and possession to Danny Ward.
Ward crossed, Bellusci tried and failed to clear with an overhead kick and United’s keeper, Marco Silvestri, took out Lee Frecklington four yards from goal. A red card followed and so did Bellusci’s cameo in net. All three substitutes had already been used.
“You make a cardinal sin defensively and you get punished,” said Evans, pointing the finger at Bellusci for failing to attack Ward’s cross with a header. “Not for one minute in that last 25 minutes did they think they’d get a goal. Not for one minute.
“But the crowd want their team to get a goal and when we make the mistake, they get a goal.”
Greg Halford stepped up, saw Bellusci flat-footed and poked the ball to his right. Rotherham felt safety come closer and reacted accordingly.
Evans, the former Rotherham boss, had happy days and nights at the New York Stadium, many of them, but Saturday was nightmare material in the plot that developed and the way the game ended. Having trailed to a first-half tap-in from Frecklington, he was right to say that Leeds should not have lost the game after Derbyshire’s 61st-minute dismissal or after Luke Murphy levelled the match with the help of a big deflection 11 minutes from time.
“In the second half we must have about 80 per cent possession, of which 80 per cent is in the Rotherham half,” Evans said. “Probably 70 per cent of it is in the last third. You would be right to say we didn’t pick people out with the final ball. But we didn’t lack anything apart from a big mistake.”
To a neutral eye it was less encouraging than that. Leeds saw plenty of the ball – endless amounts of it after the interval – but their approach play was languid, lacking adventure or invention until Derbyshire walked.
It felt in periods as if Evans’ midfield were waiting for doors to open and Chris Wood’s return to the starting line-up provided no satisfaction. When a chance to snatch a point presented itself to him in injury-time, his shot on the turn sliced well wide.
There were other chances for Leeds, by far the best a low finish from Mirco Antenucci which Lee Camp clawed beyond his right-hand post, but not enough.
Limited creativity paired with defensive mishaps is the combination which has dragged their season down and it took Murphy’s strike from 25 yards – driven against the body of Lloyd Doyley – to find the bottom corner of Camp’s net as the keeper moved the other way.
“If you’re asking me ‘did we have enough quality from the wide areas when we had the opportunity to put the ball into the box’, if there’s a criticism it’s that we didn’t find people in the box,” Evans said.
“We put the ball into hopeful areas, rather than picking people out.
“But when you look around the dressing room, there’s an honest bunch of guys in there who know we should at least not lose that game.
“Three or four Rotherham lads who’ll remain nameless at the top of the tunnel and met me when I came up said ‘how have we won that?’ And that’s their opinion as the home side.”
Even Neil Warnock, Rotherham’s never-changing manager, conceded that three points had been “bonus” in the circumstances, even though his side had led initially.
Rotherham scored the only goal of a very even first half when Charlie Taylor was left trailing by Gavin Ward’s 27th-minute cross which struck the left-back in the nether region and took his breath away.
Sam Mattock whipped the ball into the box and found Frecklington a yard ahead of Taylor, unmarked and free to slide a finish under Silvestri. For most of the first half, there were no fireworks. Evans ventured occasionally from his dug-out and Warnock stood up the touchline, largely quiet with his hands in his pockets.
But with 61 minutes gone, a clash between Derbyshire and Berardi drew a furious reaction from Leeds’ right-back as blood streamed from above his right eye. Best had smashed Berardi’s nose in at Elland Road before Christmas and Berardi was understandably incensed.
Warnock claimed the red card shown by referee Kevin Friend was “harsh” and said Rotherham would appeal.
“He wasn’t going to send him off until he saw the blood,” Warnock said. “Then he changed his mind.”
The streaming blood seemed like all the justification Friend needed to send Derbyshire off. Evans had provoked booing in the away end by withdrawing Lewis Cook moments earlier but the addition of two wingers to his side in the second half, Stuart Dallas and Mustapha Carayol, made a difference. Camp denied Antenucci twice before Murphy beat him with a free hit from outside the box. Fortuitous or not, Rotherham were defending too deeply by then to expect to hold out.
They were thinking only about holding out when Grant Ward dispossessed Antenucci and then squared up to him inside United’s half on 89 minutes. Friend was about to stop the game but played advantage and Rotherham exploited it, wreaking havoc with a handful of touches of the ball.
“I’ve looked and I think it’s a penalty,” Evans said when asked about the trip on Frecklington. “But there’s one other Rotherham player within 70 yards of him. That tells you there wasn’t too much commitment to score a goal but Danny (Ward) capitalised on a mistake. I didn’t want to come back to Rotherham and lose. I wanted to come back and win and for a lot of time in the second half, as night follows day, I thought that was going to happen. But you make a mistake and you get punished.”
Silvestri’s red card and one-match suspension with leave 19-year-old Bailey Peacock-Farrell in goal against Queens Park Rangers tomorrow night.
Warnock, the former Leeds manager, revelled in the victory and in Rotherham’s strong form under him. He spoke afterwards about his time at Elland Road, the problems he encountered, the pressure he came under from the media and an owner in GFH who he described as “10 times worse” than Ken Bates. There were no words of sympathy for Evans.
“It’s hard enough managing Rotherham without worrying about other people,” Warnock said.
Warnock’s comments brought to mind the question of how much Leeds have changed since he was removed as manager by GFH in 2013. No-one since Simon Grayson has served longer than him or made it into a second season. No squad have finished higher than the one he took to 13th on Grayson’s coat-tails in 2012. No owner has looked in genuine control of the club and where Cellino is concerned, the list of necessary work in front of him is growing bit by bit.
“When you cough at Rotherham, it’s a cough,” Evans said, reflecting on the magnified pressure at Elland Road. “When you cough at Leeds it’s pneumonia.”
That may be true. But the room for improvement in numerous respects is not a figment of the imagination.