DCSIMG

Leeds United: Whites on the receiving end

A test of mental toughness was Richard Naylor's way of describing Leeds United's 28th league game of the season. So it proved as he and his club succumbed to the last throw of the dice.

United's captain could have counted on two hands the remaining seconds when Antony Sweeney intervened with immaculate timing to grasp the point that Hartlepool United had threatened to claim throughout the closing half-hour at Victoria Park.

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Sweeney eluded Leeds' defence in the third minute of injury-time and applied his head to Hartlepool's final opportunity, whipping the ball over Casper Ankergren and inviting United's players to kick themselves black and blue for the length of their short journey home.

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Simon Grayson declined to beat himself up, defending a 2-2 draw as a point gained.

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The scowl on Naylor's face as he walked out of Victoria Park said otherwise, giving his own appraisal of the loss of two points that were at United's fingertips. By the end of Sweeney's celebration, there was barely time for the game to restart.

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How greatly Leeds will rue his goal is difficult to say. Demoralising though it was, League One did what it could to reduce the cost of their concession on a weekend when the division's prominent clubs stalled en masse.

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United's draw at Victoria Park was not, in the circumstances, a fabulous result, but it was no more punishing than Charlton's scrambled draw at Swindon or Norwich's defeat at Millwall, the end of eight successive victories for League One's leading team.

A break in the Canaries' ceaseless momentum was overdue and it was unfortunate that Leeds lacked the bloody-minded resilience to properly exploit it. Sweeney's header denied them a priceless victory; it also prevented Leeds from joining Norwich in first place, albeit reduced to second on goal difference.

At least the gap had narrowed, Grayson said positively. There was an air of realism about United's manager at full-time and a reluctance to dwell too long on Sweeney's goal or the timing of it.

As the coach of a team who laid claim to an FA Cup replay against Tottenham Hotspur with a penalty scored six minutes into stoppage-time, any mention of luck on Saturday evening would have sounded precious and not a little hypocritical.

Leeds have had their share of late goals this season, so often the sign of a confident team, but what goes around comes around. Hartlepool were worth their draw regardless of how dramatically it arrived.

It was that replay against Spurs which concerned Grayson beforehand and led Naylor to predict that the result at Victoria Park would hinge on United's concentration and resilience at the end of a tiring week.

Leeds went out of the FA Cup on their shield on Wednesday night, and the likely consequences of that performance were apparent to their manager. Having eased his squad through light training on Thursday and prepared them thoroughly the following day, Grayson could only hope the strain of handling Tottenham would not show itself in Hartlepool.

For an hour, an uninformed spectator would have struggled to spot fatigue among United's players. Grayson made an attempt to freshen his line-up by selecting Max Gradel, Gary McSheffrey and Shane Lowry – players who were ineligible on Wednesday – and the first half came and went without so much as a wobble.

Pools trailed by a goal at the interval and cannot have been shocked by the scoreline. Their record against Leeds – historically and recently – is woeful, and the only surprise was that United's inspiration came from Luciano Becchio rather than Jermaine Beckford, Hartlepool's traditional nemesis.

Grayson made a point after Leeds' loss to Spurs of highlighting Becchio's performance and suggesting the Argentinian was about to reassert himself following a period in which his influence had diminished steadily.

It is never possible to take issue with Becchio's effort or his contribution outside the box, but his strike rate was less than agreeable for one of Grayson's preferred centre-forwards.

Five goals before Wednesday's FA Cup tie was an ordinary tally; three in two games is more in keeping with his job description, and Becchio's brace on Saturday relied heavily on the instinct which Leeds have worked to help him rediscover.

Scott Flinders, the home goalkeeper, had already clawed a Becchio header against his crossbar when the striker rose to meet a hanging cross from Beckford in the 23rd minute and flick an emphatic finish into the net.

United's creation of that goal was sublime, the end result of a sweeping move which saw Grayson's side move from one end of the field to the other in a matter of seconds. Doyle spread the ball to the right wing and Beckford did the rest, supplying a delivery that Becchio could not fail to dispatch.

The first half was lacking in moments of such quality, though Leeds cannot have cared. Their only brief on Saturday was to get in and out of Hartlepool with three points and leave behind a gruelling week.

There was nothing in the home team's display to suggest a fightback was imminent and Chris Turner's introduction of Denis Behan as a substitute with 45 minutes played was a reaction to his team's failure to trouble Ankergren once. The change was astute and Behan would later have a hand in both of Hartlepool's goals.

No less significant was Beckford's failure to reappear at the start of the second half, withdrawn by Grayson after feeling tightness in a hamstring. Robert Snodgrass took his place and a minor reshuffle saw Gradel move forward alongside Becchio, a position from which he almost converted a skillful volley two minutes after the break.

For a while United's organisation was unaffected, but Turner played his hand successfully again by calling Ritchie Jones from the bench. His impact was immediate, altering the balance of a midfield which Leeds had marshalled for an hour and giving Pools the width and invention they had sorely lacked. A flurry of chances around the 60th minute was a demonstration of the pressure that Leeds would come under for the remainder of the match.

Ankergren showed his customary reflexes to turn away a shot from Adam Boyd and was grateful to see Jones drive the ball wide of his goal with the help of a deflection.

United's lead survived that passage of play but could not see out the 71st minute when Boyd lashed Behan's lay-off past a helpless Ankergren. Victoria Park found its voice and the game came to life, producing a memorable and frantic conclusion.

Within seconds of each other, Andy Monkhouse hit a post and McSheffrey swept a volley inches over the bar. As Flinders recovered from that near-miss, a lob from Doyle came back off the woodwork and left Becchio to rifle the rebound into the roof of Hartlepool's net.

Still Turner's players threw themselves forward and Boyd looked to have wasted their last opportunity by drilling the ball into Ankergren's grasp from 10 yards. Hartlepool were given one more when referee Scott Mathieson penalised Leigh Bromby dubiously for a soft foul on Peter Hartley, wide on the left wing.

Bromby claimed not to have touched him but Jones took the free-kick and guided it towards Behan, whose flick to the far post found Sweeney waiting to thud a header through Ankergren's grasp. Like White Hart Lane, there was no time for a response.

 
 
 

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