An impossible surface or not, Leeds United will have no cause to moan about Blackpool’s pitch next season. It was scarcely to their liking on Saturday afternoon but Blackpool are sliding out of the Championship, much to the league’s satisfaction.
Eleven teams have won at Bloomfield Road this season, one of numerous statistics behind the sorry demise of a disenfranchised club, but the mud, the divots and small patches of grass are provoking universal annoyance.
It was, as Neil Redfearn admitted before and after, the same for everybody and his team came to terms with it with great difficulty.
An imaginative cameo from Mirco Antenucci and the Italian’s 10th goal of the season spared United from the ignominy of defeat to a side who have hardly won at all.
The pitch at Bloomfield Road calls for percentage football but Antenucci found a way to climb above an unattractive scramble, changing the pace of Leeds’ display as a substitute and forcing a 1-1 draw with a crafty lob in the 62 minutes.
United’s performance was, predictably, their most disjointed for a while. Antenucci has not made such an impression for some time either.
The 30-year-old is the club’s top scorer and the only player in Redfearn’s squad to have reached double figures for the season.
In spite of that he has spent the past few months kicking his heels and gnashing his teeth; shut out of United’s starting line-up by their results and their formation. Others around him have suffered in the same way and reacted in their own fashion.
Antenucci complained on Instagram, as is the way of the world these days, and did not attempt to hide his dissatisfaction around Thorp Arch. Given the chance to justify his attitude, he took it by punishing some horrible Blackpool defending, with his second goal in four days.
“Mirco started getting free and causing problems,” Redfearn said. “His finish was a quality finish.
“What’s he’s done and what’s he doing is coming on and answering in the right way. He’s doing that with his performances and performing like this, he’s going to play his way back into the team. That’s what you’re asking for.”
Antenucci had answered a call from Redfearn in the 54th minute, introduced alongside Steve Morison.
Redfearn had resolved to give his starting side “the benefit of the doubt and another five minutes” after a slog of a first half but the need for a rethink was glaring at the interval.
The opening 45 minutes were almost chanceless in the sense of opportunities created rather than given away. Michael Jacobs almost slid home an early cross from Andrea Orlandi and Sam Byram whipped a volley narrowly wide with half-an-hour gone but the scrap was absolute.
United’s main attacking assets – Byram, Alex Mowatt, Billy Sharp – rarely strayed into the game.
“I felt a bit sorry for Billy,” Redfearn said. “That lone striker is a bit of a graveyard shift if you don’t get the quality into them.
“Blackpool played the conditions better than us. They’d obviously trained on the pitch and you could see that but they managed the conditions better.
“We talked about it, about how we needed to play and where we needed to put the ball and how we needed to get the midfield facing the right way, but we didn’t do it.
“The number of times we played little five-yard passes across the back and nearly got caught or gave away goals was a problem.
“Luckily enough we got in only 1-0 down so we could do something about it.”
Blackpool scored a minute before half-time with a neatly crafted goal.
Lewis Cook – everywhere in front of Redfearn’s defence – tripped Jose Miguel Cubero outside his own box, leaving Orlandi in prime territory. His free-kick smashed off the bar, struck Marco Silvestri and sat up nicely for Gary Madine to head home from point-blank range.
The interval came quickly and so did Redfearn’s changes. He took issue with the pitch – “all it needs is a path across it and it’s like a public park pitch” – but he did not pretend that his players had initially found a way to cope. Blackpool at least looked like they knew their way around it. Antenucci could have levelled before he beat Tangerines’ keeper Joe Lewis, smashing a volley high over the bar after Gaetano Berardi picked him out with a cross but the forward was instinctive with his finish on 64 minutes as Cubero and Peter Clarke got in a tangle trying to clear Silvestri’s long clearance.
Antenucci was stood in behind Blackpool’s defence, apparently out of the game, but his careful lob found their goalkeeper several yards off his line. Former United defender Darren O’Dea’s attempt at a lunging clearance merely carried the ball into the net.
It set up a last half-hour in which both sides pressed for a win, little though that result mattered to either of them. Blackpool are virtually down and Saturday’s game saw protests against their owner and Football League board member, Karl Oyston. A portion of their fans headed down the road to watch AFC Blackpool instead. Leeds, equally, are looking to next season but after Silvestri pulled off a diving save from Jacob’s free-kick, Bellusci appeared to have won the game with a header midway through seven minutes of injury-time.
The defender wrestled with Cubero as Berardi broke down the left and Cubero went down as Bellusci advanced and buried an inviting cross with an equally deadly header.
Referee Scott Duncan blew quickly and penalised Bellusci, booking him in the process.
The defender’s caution was his 12th of the season, three away from a three-game ban.
“I’ve looked at the replay and the lad (Cubero) seemed to stumble over his own legs,” Redfearn said.
“They’re both at it. I take it that the referee gave a free-kick, I can deal with that.
“But to book Bellusci for the foul is a poor decision. I don’t think the fourth official helped him. I was stood at the side of him and the information he was giving the referee was wrong. It was incorrect.
“But it’s a difficult job, particularly on a surface like that.”