The last time these two clubs played at Molineux, Leeds United lay at the mercy of relegation and Wolverhampton Wanderers were flapping around beneath the Championship play-offs. So empathy on Saturday should not have been hard to find.
There are days when disenchantment spreads through both dressing rooms and this was one of them. Danny Batth’s header in the second minute of injury-time spared Wolves from the disgrace of a place in the Championship’s bottom three but their manager, Dean Saunders, looked and sounded ill with worry. On this evidence, he ought to be.
As for Leeds United and Neil Warnock, their concession at the end of a game in which they trailed 1-0 and led 2-1 epitomised their season: not quite there, despite the graft and the refusal to accept that promotion is suffering a death of a thousand cuts. Warnock clings to the thought of breaking into the Premier League but he sounds ever more like a manager who feels the pot of gold slipping through his fingers. “Games are running out,” he said, “and I’m frustrated. It feels like a defeat.”
The 64-year-old offered some defiance after a 2-2 draw at Molineux but, out of contract in June, this is all or nothing now. Five points behind Middlesbrough, a club who continue to hold sixth place while losing their grip and losing their marbles, Leeds dare not lose at The Riverside tomorrow. The developing debate about Warnock’s position will be all-consuming if they do.
He was asked again about his future on Saturday and gave an insight into his mood. “I’ve spoken to our owners and they’re aware of my situation,” he said. “It’s true to say that I’m not really happy living on my own with my family 300 miles away.
“It’s a difficult situation but my wife Sharon wants me to get promotion. That was the whole reason for coming to Leeds. I want to get in the play-offs and I want to go up. I’m more frustrated than anyone. It’s all right for the players. They’re young. They can play for years to come. I want to get in the play-offs and I’ve been frustrated by the last two games.”
United’s defeat to Cardiff City nine days ago was the unlucky outcome of a cagey game which Leeds made more of but Cardiff won. Their draw against Wolves felt more like one of those afternoons, featuring an own goal by Lee Peltier, ample opportunity to put Saunders’ side away and an injury-time equaliser for which the blame was widely shared when Batth nodded home.
How deserving Wolves were of a late point was a matter of debate. For a club of stature and, apparently, financial stability, their plight and brittle confidence took some believing.
Their passing was nervous and, on occasions, recklessly extravagant as goalkeeper Carl Ikeme fired short balls to centre-backs who had no desire to receive them with Ross McCormack and Steve Morison breathing down their necks. Relieved or not at the final whistle, Saunders admitted he had no faith in his existing squad escaping relegation, criticising them and Leeds in one breath.
“If you can’t defend goal kicks, long throws or free-kicks then you’re going to concede,” he said. “I’ve got to do something about it. Three managers have got the sack here over the past year and I’m not going to be the fourth.
“It (United’s football) is the easiest football to defend against and we outplayed them with the ball. But they were never out of the game. They just played for long throws, corners, free-kicks and that’s the Championship. We’ve got to have the equipment to deal with that type of football.”
His comments did a disservice to the way in which the first half and parts of the second played out. United’s system was more considered than Saunders let on and the bulk of the chances before half-time fell to them.
David Norris’s shot in the second minute deflected onto the roof of Ikeme’s net and McCormack, Morison and Paul Green all failed to force saves from Wolves’ keeper in positions where they might have done. Kevin Doyle and Bakary Sako both stung Paddy Kenny’s palms at the other end of the pitch but Wolves were caught between United’s pressure and their own twitchy demeanour.
On the touchline, Warnock watched as a team containing two debutants – Morison and Stephen Warnock – dictated an away fixture in the way that they have not done in the Championship for months. He seems happier with his squad now than he ever has been, late in the day though it is for him and the club.
“We should have been in this situation months ago,” he said, harking back to the influence that the takeover by GFH Capital exerted on United’s season. “Things have been disappointing in that respect. But I’ve got the players I want now. There are no complaints. We haven’t spent a lot of money but the new owners are supportive. We’ve got players who want to play for the club and I think that’s half the battle.”
The end of the first half created a pregnant pause and the second flew by in a flurry of drama. It began in the 57th minute when Stephen Ward, the Wolves left-back, found space out wide and ran at Kenny before producing a fierce cutback that Peltier could only knock into his own net.
Wolves fed on the feeling of drawing first blood, with Sako bringing a diving save from Kenny, but Leeds were always dangerous. Norris slashed a volley over Ikeme’s crossbar and was on hand again in the 64th minute when his deflected shot fell first to McCormack and then Luke Varney who picked out the corner of the net with a deft, curling finish.
Ikeme denied Varney a second goal in the 70th minute but United’s chance came again in the 78th minute after Sako and Sam Byram collided inside Wolves’ box. Saunders called the award of a penalty “scandalous” but referee Roger East took advice from a linesman and pointed to the spot. McCormack casually slipped the ball to Ikeme’s right.
Wolves persisted long enough for Kenny to needlessly nudge behind a weak shot from Bjorn Sigurdarson which was dribbling wide and invite a last spell of pressure in injury-time.
Leeds repelled the first corner but were caught out by the rebound from the second as Jamie O’Hara beat Paul Green and delivered a cross which Batth converted unmarked.
“Paddy definitely touched the ball but there’s no reason either for Green not to stop the cross or for Morison to lose his man,” Warnock said ruefully. It was a comedy of errors that amused no-one. Tomorrow’s game at Middlesbrough is no laughing matter either.
WolveS: Ikeme, Foley, Batth, Berra, Ward, O’Hara, Henry (Edwards 87), Doumbia (Sigurdarson 79), Sako, Doyle, Ebanks-Blake. Subs: De Vries, Margrietter, Davis, Hunt, Cassidy.
Leeds United: Kenny, Byram, Lees, Peltier, Warnock, Green, Brown, Norris, Varney, Morison, McCormack (Barkley 90). Subs: Ashdown, Pearce, Habibou, Tonge, Hall, White.