Christmas comes once a year and so statistically do Lee Peltier’s goals.
Tom Ince has a habit of producing them more frequently and the ace up Blackpool’s sleeve was used again last night as Leeds United fell short of a precious win.
This season is Peltier’s eighth as a professional and his exquisite header at Bloomfield Road the seventh goal of his career; his first as a Leeds United player, naturally.
Taken with precision after 25 minutes of a game which was crying out for something from anyone, his header opened the door to all sorts of possibilities until Ince carried Blackpool with a deflected equaliser.
The England Under-21 international scored with his and his club’s first shot on target, helped by a wild flick off the body of Marius Zaliukas, United’s Lithuanian defender. With 65 low-key minutes played, it made a mess of an evening which Leeds had controlled easily; an evening which before that point was painting the Championship in a remarkably healthy light.
The January transfer window is days away and Leeds were less than half an hour from travelling to Nottingham Forest on Sunday – their final match of 2013 – with three points protecting their place in the play-offs and six between them and second place; a sizeable gap but not the yawning chasm it was when Brian McDermott’s squad turned their fire on upper reaches of the league in early November.
There was no panache in United’s performance and nothing extraordinary about their football but for more than 60 minutes a tactically adept and disciplined approach dealt with the first leg of a difficult run to the end of the year.
As Blackpool prayed for the inspiration given to Leeds by Peltier of all people, Ince turned the tide with a strike from 20 yards, converted amid a crucial absence of markers but diverted past Paddy Kenny by Zaliukas.
A fraught finish was not tense enough for United to feel content with a point by the sea.
They were hampered by a referee who shied away from sending off Kirk Broadfoot seconds after Ince’s goal and a midfield who ran out of energy towards the end of the second half. It was notable again that McDermott resisted all the options on his bench, reluctant to look to his substitutes for assistance as Blackpool belatedly warmed to a freezing occasion.
The dilemma for him over Christmas dinner was how best to replace the suspended Luke Murphy, the first and only Leeds player to have earned five yellow cards and a statutory one-match ban.
By the time Leeds arrived at Blackpool, he went further than one change and dropped Alex Mowatt after the teenager’s brief and off-colour outing against Barnsley.
The selection of Michael Tonge and Michael Brown was a sharp swing from raw exuberance to hard-nosed experience in the centre of midfield, though Mowatt’s flaky contribution last weekend merited a chance for him to draw breath.
The 18-year-old was not even afforded a place on the bench, his seat taken by Gboly Ariyibi, the young winger signed by Leeds on a free transfer earlier this month. Ariyibi has been around the squad at Thorp Arch for little more than a fortnight but McDermott’s urge to blood him was evident from the outset and Ariyibi’s recovery from an innocuous injury gave him the opportunity yesterday.
Ariyibi offered a turn of pace that was missing from United’s line-up but Blackpool’s tight pitch was never likely to be conducive to wide-open conflict.
A Boxing Day slog threatened to set in before Peltier dipped his oar into a meandering river and claimed the opening goal.
Brown stuck his in at the first opportunity by sliding through the legs of Dan Gosling – a tackle worthy of a booking which never came – but the football waited quietly for its moment to shine; Blackpool passing in front of Leeds and Leeds giving Blackpool’s defence minimal trouble with direct chips towards the head of Matt Smith.
The message from 20 minutes of congested, chance-free exchanges was that goals might be scarce barring a spanner in the works of either team.
Smith made a pretence at meeting Danny Pugh’s deep cross but was running out of play by the time he got his head to the ball, and Blackpool dithered on the few occasions when Kenny’s 18-yard line was breached.
But just as it seemed that both sides could play to next Christmas without scoring, United crafted a precise goal for the most unlikely candidate on the field. Tonge’s persistence on the left wing gave Pugh enough space to drill the ball towards a crowd of three Leeds’ players beyond Matt Gilks’ far post, and Peltier beat the goalkeeper with a deft, hanging header which looped over Gilks’ right hand.
The nature of the game placed high value on the first goal and Blackpool’s attempts to redeem Peltier’s header were blatantly telegraphed and badly disjointed. Broadfoot crashed a free header over the crossbar after Ince planted a corner into the zone in front of Kenny but Blackpool were as relieved to see Barry Ferguson clip the ball away from Ross McCormack’s feet in front of their goal two minutes later.
There was an air of Ince-or-bust in Blackpool’s play and Leeds wrapped him up as tightly as they could.
Around him, the lack of conviction was a palpable problem for his father and manager. Long-range shots from Broadfoot and Jack Robinson early in the second half were a dream for Kenny who waved them safely over his net. By the hour Leeds were looking for ways to pick Blackpool off.
Rodolph Austin mis-hit a volley from a useful position, bundling his shot wide, and almost provided the finishing touch at the end of a counter-attack started by Peltier and McCormack.
Paul Ince sat tight for 62 minutes before asking substitute Nathan Delfouneso to do what Gosling couldn’t.
Instead it was his son who proved his value again three minutes later by wriggling into space outside the box and lashing the ball against Zaliukas.
Kenny was already committed to a dive across goal and grasped at air as the ball sailed past his right hand.
Blackpool raised their tails immediately and chased a winning goal without coming closer than another delicate strike from Ince which curled around a post. Broadfoot ruined United’s best opportunity by tripping out McCormack as the striker broke clear but referee Scott Mathieson angered McDermott’s players by issuing no more than a booking.
He was eventually compelled to send Broadfoot off in the final minute of the game when the defender caught Zaliukas outside his own box with a loose and reckless lunge. These days red cards are the only thing more predictable in Blackpool than the positive influence of Tom Ince.