When the final reckoning arrives this season, the comparison between the league positions of Cardiff City and Leeds United will be seen in terms of money spent. In some respects, rightly so.
But Cardiff’s victory at Elland Road on Saturday deserved a different context. The decisive goal came from a striker who cost £650,000 last month – more than Leeds invested in their clutch of January signings – but the Welsh club were not guilty of buying their win. It was sold to them by an error which showed Sam Byram to be human.
The 19-year-old has been Leeds’s find of the season, their player of the year by any rational judgement, but his rash clearance leading to Cardiff’s 64th-minute winner introduced him to the sharp end of the learning curve. Craig Bellamy teed the loose ball up for Fraizer Campbell who, on his debut and with his first touch, settled the game in a flash.
Taken clinically, the chance was as much as Cardiff created. Either side of it they left Leeds to dictate proceedings in the perfunctory way that United play. This, apparently, is what Cardiff do – nothing flash, nothing remarkable and nothing to mark them out as potential champions, aside from their results. They were 10 points clear of the field at full-time and 22 better off than Leeds.
All Neil Warnock could say was that the undeniable disparity between their positions in the Championship seemed at odds with the game he had watched. “If you looked at those 90 minutes, you’d probably think we were top of the league,” he said. “But that’s why they are.
“You get a little rub of the green, officials who don’t see a vital thing, mistakes like ours and their players get on the bus thinking ‘bloody hell, I’d better fill a lottery ticket in tonight’.”
The mistake was Byram’s and the rub of the green was Ross Barkley’s failure to score from point-blank range late in the first half while the game was goalless.
Tom Lees had as good an opportunity to level Campbell’s goal 10 minutes from time but drove a header down the throat of Cardiff goalkeeper David Marshall.
Warnock’s criticism of the officials was aimed predominantly at referee Mike Dean whose general officiating was not necessarily as “brilliant” as United’s manager claimed. He fell short in Warnock’s view in refusing to penalise Mark Hudson for handling the ball as the rebound from Lees’s 80th-minute header bounced around inside Cardiff’s box.
“Mike’s not seen it because he’s in a bad position,” Warnock said. “That’s my bugbear. Top referees should be in a better position than he was.
“If there were laces in the ball then Mark Hudson took them out, and from looking at it with the cameras we’ve got he deliberately handled it. The referee’s got three or four bodies in the way and the linesman could have helped him out. But they don’t, do they?”
Aggrieved as Warnock was, the cost of the result was evident. On reflection, it felt like a repeat of last season’s games at home to Southampton and West Ham United – moments when Leeds were short-changed but suffered the consequences of their mediocre standing in the Championship. They are six points short of sixth place and 10 behind fifth. The results have been such that Leeds can no longer afford unlucky days.
“It’s three points lost and we could be three points behind sixth,” Warnock said. “We should be three points behind sixth.
“In fairness to the referee, he didn’t miss the open goal and he didn’t pass the ball that Sam passed. All those things added together are very frustrating for me. This is probably as cruel as the game’s been this season.”
Barkley’s chance was the be-all and end-all of a first half in which Leeds harried Cardiff and Cardiff barely played.
At either end of the field, both sets of centre-backs were exemplary but when Byram flicked El-Hadji Diouf’s 35th-minute free-kick to an unmarked Barkley, the on-loan Everton midfielder was close enough to Marshall to do better than stab the ball against the keeper’s legs.
It was as much as either side mustered until Bellamy ran in to knock Tommy Smith’s header into United’s net in the penultimate minute of the half. An offside flag ruled his tap-in out.
The contest was tight and cagey but Warnock knew his players had had the better of the opening 45 minutes.
He preceded the start of second half by joining his team on the pitch for an impromptu huddle.
The match continued in the same vein until Cardiff began to find some space and possession shortly before the hour.
Smith broke through onto Kim Bo-Kyung’s pass but sliced a shot wide under pressure from Tom Lees and Malky Mackay showed his hand by calling Campbell from an option-filled bench.
The striker was waiting to lay a foot on the ball when Byram reacted to Matthew Connolly’s deep cross by hooking a clearance over his shoulder and directly to Bellamy on the edge of the box.
The forward’s downward volley ran kindly for Campbell who opened his body and side-footed the ball to the left of Paddy Kenny.
“Sam’s got to know that you put it into Row Z and he’ll do that now for the rest of his career,” Warnock said.
“You’ve got to know that you’ve got to take a goal when it comes along like it did for Ross. I think he’ll have scored that 20 times out of 20 in bed.”
United’s pressure was relentless from then on but less purposeful than it had been before Campbell’s goal. Tension crept into their football. Warnock threw on Habib Habibou – the only one of his deadline-day signings used on Saturday – with 20 minutes left but the striker was unable to get hold of the ball until the end of normal time. Lees, meanwhile, brought a desperate punch from Marshall when Barkley’s corner threw up an opportunity. The end of United’s consistent home form was nigh.
“We played against the top of the table and we were better than them,” Warnock said. “With all the big names they’ve got and all the money they’ve spent, we did really well. I’m proud of the lads and proud of the fans. There was no sarcasm today, thank goodness, and they got behind us.”
Leeds United: Kenny, Byram, Lees, Peltier, White, Barkley, Austin, Brown, Varney, McCormack, Diouf (Habibou 72). Subs (not used): Ashdown, Pearce, Green, Warnock, Tonge, Norris.
Cardiff City: Marshall, Connolly, Hudson, Turner, Taylor, Conway (Helguson 79), Whittingham, Gunnarsson, Bo-Kyung (Campbell 62), Bellamy, Smith. Subs: McNaughton, Cowie, Noone, Mason, Lewis.