WIGAN is where it started for Massimo Cellino and Wigan might be where it all ends.
Leeds United failed to sign off the season with the win – it finished 1-1 – Garry Monk asked for but their result at the DW Stadium, much like 2014, was a precursor to more crucial events to come.
Leeds were at Wigan on the afternoon three years ago when Cellino outmaneuvered the Football League and sealed his takeover of the club on appeal, and he came full circle yesterday with what could be the last game of a strange, colourful tenure as owner. He was not in town to watch it but time is being called on more than just the Championship.
The final fixture of Leeds’ season played out against the backdrop of Andrea Radrizzani’s attempt to buy Cellino out of Elland Road and planned negotiations between Radrizzani and Monk about the latter’s future as head coach.
The first of those processes is advanced but the issue of Monk’s job and an extension of his contract requires more discussion. After a vibrant season wrecked by a ruinous last month, Monk goes into those conversations with a tally of 75 points behind him and enough progress to fight his corner.
The away end at Wigan were calling for his signature before a ball was kicked and long after the final whistle.
Leeds’ points total mattered to Monk insofar as what it stood for: sufficient in many years since the inception of the Football League play-offs for a Championship club to qualify for them. His bad luck was to enter the division in a season when the entire top six accrued 80 or more.
It is one of several statistics which United’s boss can hang his hat on as he tries to negotiate the renewal of a deal which ends this summer. The “mathematical miracle” he joked about working at Wigan, the 14-goal swing needed to catapult Leeds above Fulham into sixth, was never going to happen and didn’t.
Instead, Chris Wood’s 30th goal of an immense individual term levelled Ryan Tunnicliffe’s early strike and averted a losing end to a horrible run-in.
Wigan were in a similar boat mentally yesterday, already relegated and at the end of what their young chairman, David Sharpe, called a “difficult, challenging experience”. Sharpe admitted in the matchday programme that “the team have fallen short”, a reality which Monk can sympathise with, and for Wigan the task of escaping an equally ruthless lower league beckons.
Chants of ‘sign Garry Monk’ reverberated around the ground at full-time and the club will remember his first season as head coach with suitable fondness.YEP chief football writer, Phil Hay
Leeds will tell themselves that their own near-miss and a healthy year of Monk’s management is a staging point for a more clinical push for promotion next season.
Other matters lurk in the background, not least the retention of certain loanees and players with dwindling deals. Charlie Taylor, whose contract expires next month, was absent from the squad at Wigan at his own request and will not be seen in a Leeds shirt again.
His refusal to play dominated proceedings afterwards and irked a normally placid Monk. Kyle Bartley, at the end of his year-long loan from Swansea City, started in the centre of defence and might yet. Bartley captained Leeds again with Liam Bridcutt injured and has been a surrogate in that role for months.
In the circumstances, the DW Stadium was treated to more engaging football than a dead rubber deserved. Leeds started as if goal difference might genuinely be a factor and Kemar Roofe’s scuffed shot wide in the second minute set a good enough tone.
Pablo Hernandez should have scored three minutes later when he wafted a defence-splitting ball from Eunan O’Kane wide but it was a pass of equal quality at the other end which produced the opening goal for Wigan on six minutes.
Monk’s defence, minus the suspended Pontus Jansson, were caught ball-watching as Michael Jacobs threaded it in behind Luke Ayling and Tunnicliffe rounded Rob Green before steadying himself and driving a shot into an empty net. Monk has lived with that demoralising sensation since the start of April.
Wigan’s three-man defence swarmed around Wood, denying him any early chances to breach the 30 mark, but the striker saw a strong penalty appeal ignored in the 18th minute when he went down under Jacobs’ challenge having controlled a lofted pass from Hernandez.
In amongst heavy tackles by Dan Burn and Stephen Warnock on Stuart Dallas and Lewie Coyle - the sort of challenges Taylor must have been trying to avoid - the game refused to go quietly and the first half broke from end to end. Green was booked after straying long way from his net in pursuit of a loose ball and preventing Tunnicliffe from taking a quick throw-in.
Green found himself one-on-one with Wigan’s players too often before half-time and only his resistance to those openings kept the scoreline down. Monk’s side were made to look ragged by a team who have been worthy of that description far more often and Leeds’ early reappearance from the half-time team talk suggested that harsh words had been used in the dressing room.
Within five minutes of the restart, United were level. O’Kane drove into the right side of Wigan’s box and drew a foul which referee Scott Duncan penalised.
Wood’s unerring finishing held with his 30th goal beckoning and a low penalty to the right of Matt Gilks gave the goalkeeper no chance. In all the machinations of the summer, keeping Wood at Elland Road and in the Championship will be as crucial as most other priorities.
Moments later, as Leeds mounted their customary post-interval surge, Roofe shook the crossbar with a curling finish from 20 yards. United were as unlucky in that moment as they were fortunate seconds later when Ronaldo Vieira unintentionally played Omar Bogle in with a stray pass.
Green held his ground and got a touch to Bogle’s first shot, allowing Bartley to dive in on the forward as he tried to tuck away the rebound. Duncan was not tempted into awarding a second penalty.
There were other opportunities to turn the scoreline on its head – Roofe glancing a close-range header into Gilks’ hands with no defenders around him and Dallas testing the keeper from 20 yards – but Leeds’ habit of shading the percentages has slipped since March and their tendency to drift through the first half before running the second has rarely been more pronounced.
Chants of ‘sign Garry Monk’ reverberated around the ground at full-time and the club will remember his first season as head coach with suitable fondness. The state of play at Elland Road leaves no time to dwell on it.