Neil Warnock must wish that it was cup football every week. For so long a manager who took knockout competitions with a pinch of salt, he has relied on them for Leeds United’s better performances this season.
League Cup quarter-finalists before Christmas, United advanced to the fourth round of the FA Cup last night after emerging from their shell at St Andrews and fighting back from a goal down to win a tight replay against Birmingham City.
Two strikes in the space of six minutes ensured that the earnings and exposure of a tie against Tottenham Hotspur will belong to them on January 27.
Leeds were fortunate to avoid an early elimination at Elland Road 10 days ago, mustering an equaliser to Wade Elliott’s goal with their only shot on target, but they dug themselves out of another hole with more conviction in Birmingham.
Elliott warmed up a freezing atmosphere by drawing first blood in the 36th minute but replies from Ross McCormack and El-Hadji Diouf, the latter’s produced from the penalty spot, enlightened a manager who needed the respite of a win and a creditable display.
Warnock’s players took until the second half to get a grip of a laboured replay but their goals were the result of sustained and concerted pressure, pressure which Birmingham could not withstand.
Blues boss Lee Clark left Elland Road feeling aggrieved but he had less to complain about at full-time last night. Warnock was merely pleased to have steadied the ship after Leeds’ hellish defeat by Barnsley.
The 63-year-old listened to calls for his head towards the end of a pitiful loss at Oakwell on Saturday but criticism of him was less audible in Birmingham.
In truth, there was none at all.
Leeds limped through the first half but came to life in the second, wearing Birmingham down with persistent attacks.
They did not even need Luciano Becchio to rescue them.
In amongst another spate of changes, Becchio’s absence at St Andrews was the most intriguing.
Four days on from comments from Warnock which suggested that agents were nibbling at the striker’s earlobes, his exclusion caused many ears to prick.
Leeds said the Argentinian had been left behind after a bout of illness on Monday evening.
The cynicism generated by that announcement on social media was understandable and predictable, not least because Warnock and his assistant, Mick Jones, contrived to cast doubt on his future twice in the space of a week. There is pressure for incoming signings at Leeds but anxious attention on Becchio too, with the transfer window 16 days old.
Like several other players before him, he has the look of an endangered asset at a time when United could choose to cash in.
Warnock’s team at St Andrews was weaker without him and some way from full strength, whatever full strength now entails.
Birmingham rested few senior players while contending with transfer gossip of their own due to the non-appearance of England international goalkeeper Jack Butland.
For more than an hour, his stand-in Colin Doyle had even less to do than he did in the initial meeting at Elland Road.
United’s football in the first half was neither here nor there – aggressive enough but lacking precision beyond the halfway line. Birmingham were little better.
Warnock found himself turning to his bench after only nine minutes after Adam Drury twisted an ankle and forced Aidan White to strip down hurriedly, and the game’s first chance fell to City after 15 minutes. Elliott made nothing off it, dragging the ball wide from an unmarked position on the edge of the box.
In the opening half hour, it was all either team could offer a crowd which peppered swathes of empty seats on a freezing night in the Midlands.
United pulled in fewer than 12,000 for the initial tie and 1,500 away supporters swelled last night’s attendance to almost 9,000.
They stirred briefly when Chris Burke’s shot from 25 yards sailed over Jamie Ashdown’s crossbar. More time was spent running through a lengthy rendition of ‘We all dream of a team of Michael Browns.’
The midfielder, to his credit, denied Birmingham’s more skilful players the same run of St Andrews as they had of Elland Road and the game suffered on a greasy, heavy pitch.
Penalties loomed from the earliest moments, though only until Elliott scored.
Leeds finally threatened after 32 minutes when Luke Varney’s glancing header from Diouf’s corner provoked a brief scramble in front of Doyle but to no avail and Birmingham’s next chance – a close-range free-kick given after a debatable foul by White on Burke – bounced tamely against the wall.
But Marlon King, a striker so popular among United support, showed his face for the first time on 33 minutes when he picked up Burke’s through-ball and forced a low save from Ashdown, and the forward’s touch was responsible for the opening goal which came three minutes later.
King picked out Nathan Redmond’s drifting run in behind White and the young midfielder steadied himself before presenting Elliott with a delivery which his team-mate could hardly miss. A side-footed finish flashed past Ashdown, raising a cheer from the shivering crowd.
United should have equalised in the next passage of play but Varney’s free header beneath Diouf’s hanging cross bounced wide from six yards out. McCormack also failed to test Doyle with a mis-hit free-kick from 25 yards, a half-hearted effort which signed off the first half.
If Birmingham deserved their lead, it was marginal.
Invigorated by the break, Leeds took no time to take hold of the second half. Rodolph Austin’s low shot forced an unorthodox parry from Doyle, and Warnock’s players were often a clinical pass away from exposing City’s goalkeeper more seriously.
Their pressure built steadily and beneath it, Birmingham cracked. In the 70th minute, Diouf collected a high cross at the far post and squared a pass to McCormack who drove a shot under Doyle before the defenders around him could intervene. City had been stretched once too often.
Doyle was called upon to maintain parity shortly after as Paul Green met Varney’s cross with a downward header, bringing a two-handed save from the keeper, and Leeds turned the game on its head with 15 minutes to play when Paul Robinson handled a cross from Austin.
The penalty was awarded on the say-so of linesman Barry Holderness, much to City’s annoyance, and Diouf converted it with a sublime chip, the man for that sort of pressurized moment. Others played their part at the death with White nodding Nikola Zigic’s header off the line and Ashdown reacting brilliantly to tip Peter Lovenkrands’ volley over the bar. What Warnock would give for more of this.