Not for the first time in Dennis Wise’s reign as Leeds United manager, football became an after-thought on the day of a crucial derby against Sheffield Wednesday.
The game was highly significant in the context of United’s battle against relegation, but Wise barely had time to discuss it afterwards. His attention was devoted to a peculiar episode involving club captain Kevin Nicholls.
The midfielder had been Wise’s choice as skipper following his appointment as manager five months earlier, but Nicholls came to him ahead of the clash with Sheffield Wednesday and asked for permission to leave the club on loan.
Luton Town, the side who sold him to Leeds in the summer of 2006 and Queens Park Rangers were both interested in signing him, but Wise had given no thought to the idea of making him available, less still to the possibility that Nicholls might want to move on.
Confusion about Nicholls’ future overshadowed a derby in which Leeds were outplayed by 10 men and United striker Ian Moore summed up the mood perfectly.
“It’s one thing after another at the moment,” he said. “Everything seems to be snowballing.
“The club are going through some of their worst days ever and things don’t look good.
“Kevin’s the captain and he’s got to rally the players. He’s such a good lad and one of the chirpiest in the dressing room. But obviously something’s not right.”
Wise stripped Nicholls of the captaincy prior to kick-off and did not go easy on him after full-time.
“I spoke to Kevin and he told me that he’d like to go to Luton,” Wise said. “I was gobsmacked. He felt he’d made the wrong decision by coming to Leeds.
“I’m very disappointed in him. There are still 11 games to go and he was captain of this club. I expected him to dig in like the rest of the players and get us out of this mess, not jack it in.
“Does he think I’m mad, to go and loan him to Luton for the rest of the season? Is he seriously crazy or what?”
Luton were as heavily involved in the fight against relegation as Leeds and both clubs looked doomed ahead of their Championship encounter at Elland Road on March 10.
In the end, both were playing League One football the following season.
United’s display against Wednesday, minus Nicholls, was another woeful one, starting badly with a goal from Marcus Tudgay after seven minutes.
Chris Brunt doubled Wednesday’s lead with an audacious lob after dispossessing Frazer Richardson on the left wing and not even Tudgay’s dismissal early in the second half could alter the flow of the game.
Jermaine Johnson finished off a sweeping attack to leave United three goals adrift and two efforts in the closing minutes – one from Richard Cresswell and the other an own goal from Lee Bullen – failed to disguise Leeds’ many failings.
But a defiant Wise defended his side afterwards, saying: “Please don’t knock my players. They’ve been fantastic.
“I genuinely believe we’ll get out of trouble and I don’t regret taking on this job, not in a million years.”
United: Stack, Richardson, Marques, Heath, Lewis, Howson (Blake 46), Douglas, Kishishev (Carole 83), Moore, Healy, Cresswell.