After 11 long years and nine short minutes Gaetano Berardi got his goal and Leeds United thought then that all would be well but a red-letter day for their loveable defender was dismal for the club, dripping with the embarrassment the FA Cup prides itself on dishing out.
Leeds have swallowed it before, as recently as last January, but the punishment inflicted by Newport County yesterday was every bit as humiliating as their fourth-round loss to Sutton United 12 months earlier, compounded by a red card shown to Samuel Saiz in injury-time for spitting at Newport’s Robbie Willmott. A lame, 89th-minute defeat tasted worse as Thomas Christiansen contemplates the loss of Saiz to suspension.
The reasons for Saiz’s dismissal were unclear at first – his red card shown as Leeds prepared to kick-off after Newport’s late winner – but the result took no explaining; the effect of Newport’s spirited drive and Leeds’ half-hearted attempt to put the League Two side away. Berardi’s early goal was an invitation to the fourth round but hell broke loose after Conor Shaughnessy bowed to Newport pressure by slicing a 76th-minute clearance into his own net. United’s nerve went with it and Shawn McCoulsky set Rodney Parade alight by nodding in a corner. Within seconds, an angry Saiz was being ordered from the field by referee Mike Dean.
The drama of the closing stages made Berardi’s moment in the sun feel very distant. It cannot have been his childhood dream to score at Rodney Parade, Newport’s modest home deep in the south of freezing-cold Wales, but after an entire career without a goal the defender would have taken one anywhere.
Huge celebrations followed his 25-yard strike in the 10th minute, a reaction at odds with a third-round tie against a lower-league club but wholly appropriate for a player who had been waiting for this since turning professional in 2006. Newport, after ample opportunities, found a way of ruining the story amid the lingering feeling that Leeds are guilty of bringing these cup debacles on themselves.
Much rested on Berardi yesterday: captain of a line-up showing nine changes, centre-back for the afternoon and goalscorer in a game which yielded the better openings to Newport. The debate has raged about the right-back’s impact on the left side of defence but the trip to Wales was a different proposition altogether, shifting him further out of his comfort zone. His effort stood out as United struggled to keep themselves in the FA Cup, beset by game opposition and a nasty pitch. A feeble display caught up with them.
County had shown a knack for causing trouble prior to Berardi’s strike and the 1-0 deficit facing them at half-time was a reflection of their finishing rather than Leeds’ dominance. The second half kept Christiansen on edge as BBC Wales got the levelled contest they were looking for when kick-off was moved to Sunday lunchtime. United’s football boasted as few frills as Rodney Parade itself and Newport’s advance to the fourth-round draw was a due reward.
There was obvious temptation in Christiansen’s mind to try and bypass Newport with a minimal smattering of first-team players but last year’s debacle at Sutton was fresh enough in Leeds’ memory to steer him a little closer to the middle ground. Pablo Hernandez, Pontus Jansson, Gjanni Alioski and Kemar Roofe were spared from the cold but Saiz, United’s prized asset, was in tow and named on the bench in case of an emergency. As it turned out, his 75th-minute introduction came at a high price.
Christiansen’s side had a large element of risk running through it; Berardi partnering Shaughnessy in the centre Leeds’ backline and Vurnon Anita and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson either side of them making their first starts for almost three months. Newport manager Mike Flynn laid his cards down by naming an unchanged team. Eventually, and after much persistence, Newport’s commitment paid off.
With 53 Football League places between the clubs, Christiansen at least had the benefit of their prior meeting in the Carabao Cup this season, a clash which Leeds won at a canter after falling behind in the first half at Elland Road. Newport had requested a change of venue for that tie amid the relaying of the pitch at Rodney Parade but the surface which greeted Leeds in South Wales yesterday was suitably patchy and designed for an upset. It cut up badly before long.
Leeds’ best chance either side of Berardi’s goal arrived just eight seconds after the kick-off, via a ricochet to Jay-Roy Grot which the Dutchman stabbed into the arms of Newport goalkeeper Joe Day with no-one else to beat. Grot was the sort of fringe player who Christiansen wanted to profit from a full appearance but the landmark in Newport belonged to Berardi as his search for a goal finally bore fruit two games on from his 100th Leeds appearance.
Through spells at Brescia, Sampdoria and three-and-a-half years at Elland Road, Berardi had never scored as a senior footballer but there were nine minutes on the clock when he sized up a clearance after a spell of Leeds pressure and thundered a low shot beyond the reach of Day. A deflection off the heel of Pierre-Michel Lasogga barely registered as an ecstatic Berardi sprinted towards an away end which reneged on a long-standing promise to invade the pitch if the Swiss hatchet-man scored. Dean booked him for leaving the field.
Newport, however, were more than willing to make a game of the contest. Padraig Amond, their top scorer, was denied when his shot on the turn was blocked on the line by Mateusz Klich and Joss Labadie, the scorer of Newport’s goal during their League Cup defeat to Leeds in August, let United off in the 21st minute when his free header from Matty Dolan’s cross bounced weakly towards Andy Lonergan.
There was inevitable frailty in the middle of United’s defence but County took time to exploit it. Amid the focus on Berardi’s strike, it was apparent at half-time that almost every opportunity had fallen to Newport. Amond sent another over the crossbar with a well-hit volley from 12 yards.
Newport’s momentum continued to yield little openings after the break. A cross from Dan Butler skipped inches wide of Lonergan’s far post and Amond buried an overhead kick into the side-netting after Willmott hung a ball up from the right.
Christiansen was moved to add Liam Cooper to his defence on the hour and after Lasogga, a vague presence throughout, stung the palms of Day from long range, Labadie lashed another good opportunity over Lonergan’s net.
The strain built steadily and when Nouble drilled a low, hard cross into Lonergan’s area on 76 minutes, Shaughnessy swiped at a clearance and smashed it carelessly into his own net. A flat-footed Lonergan had no chance of stopping it and could do even less in the penultimate minute when substitute McCoulsky charged into nod a corner over the line. Newport were all over Leeds and as United broke, Saiz’s composure did too. A lengthy ban awaits as his club lick their wounds.