As the final whistle sounded in Brighton last night, Simon Grayson cannot have known whether to laugh or cry.
He will file this game under the heading of points that got away but an injury-time equaliser from Ross McCormack limited the damage caused by a bizarre match.
It was, in every sense, a game of two halves: one in which Leeds United scored twice and guided Brighton down numerous blind alleys, and another in which Albion resurrected a seemingly lost cause. With 45 minutes played, Grayson did not expect to be praying for an urgent act of salvage from his club’s leading goalscorer.
United’s players were halfway towards wrecking Brighton’s unbeaten record in league games at The Amex, as Albion’s new stadium has come to be known, after catching their hosts cold.
Andy Keogh wounded Brighton with his first United goal on 18 minutes and a 20-yard finish from McCormack during his side’s next attack put Brighton’s collective head on the block, as easily as Manchester United had manhandled Leeds in the Carling Cup three days earlier.
The difference with the first half last night was that few saw it coming, just as Grayson cannot have anticipated the fightback which followed.
Albion replied immediately after the interval, pulling a goal back through Craig Mackail-Smith, and the damage to United’s position was done.
When Leigh Bromby fouled Mackail-Smith inside the box in the 59th minute, Ashley Barnes levelled the score with an uncompromising penalty, and Mackail-Smith scored from point-blank range to leave Brighton in business with seven minutes to play.
Gus Poyet looked as amazed as Grayson but McCormack ensured that the game took a last, dramatic twist.
Until the start of Brighton’s spectacular recovery, Grayson was contemplating the pleasing prospect of being where he wanted to be: out of trouble and in the thick of the Championship’s play-off shake-up.
The appearance in sixth place of a club who made their worst start to a season since 1997 was a likely prospect for as long as Leeds had Brighton in their pocket.
Worse though it could have been, the result will still sting.
The midweek appearance of both clubs in the Carling Cup and the scheduling of yesterday’s game for a Friday evening was, in Poyet’s words, “not ideal” and potentially detrimental. He made six changes to his team while Grayson made one, dropping Luciano Becchio to the bench after a thankless hour of graft against Manchester United.
His demotion to the bench allowed for the selection of Danny Pugh, the ex-Leeds midfielder signed from Stoke City on Thursday after a drawn-out but successful pursuit.
The contrast between Grayson’s approach and that of Poyet revealed which manager was more concerned by the rapid transition from the Carling Cup to the Championship.
Brighton made the earliest running and took three minutes to make Leeds wobble amid something of a false dawn.
Ashley Barnes met Craig Noone’s corner with a free header which struck a body on the line, and Inigo Calderon hooked the rebound over Andy Lonergan’s crossbar from dangerously close range.
If that opening was the promise of a difficult night for Leeds then it proved to be hollow, at least for a while.
Brighton’s patient, expressive football played out in front of Grayson’s defence, so often seemed directionless, and Mackail-Smith wasted a rare opportunity to attack Bromby and Darren O’Dea when his heavy touch allowed Barnes’ pass to run away from him.
Leeds waited patiently to cause problems in return and pressure came to bear on Casper Ankergren, the former United goalkeeper, in the 16th minute. A rejuvenated Robert Snodgrass was first to threaten him when he ran past Calderon and sliced a shot over the bar with what would have been a replica of Ryan Giggs’ finish at Elland Road on Tuesday night. Clayton then saw his shot from the edge of the box deflect wide.
But that passage of dominance was enough to unnerve Brighton and fracture their composure, and Keogh took advantage with an opportunistic goal in the 18th minute.
Aidan White’s pace carried him beyond Calderon and Clayton’s strike of a low cut-back rebounded to Keogh who stabbed the ball past Calderon on the line.
The defender’s deliberate attempt to keep out the ball with his arm failed.
Poyet sensed trouble afoot and was left with a mystified look on his face when McCormack sparked another ecstatic reaction on United’s bench with a brilliant finish five minutes later.
The striker was allowed to roam with the ball on the fringes of Ankergren’s area and his left-footed effort from 20 yards whipped into the bottom corner of the Dane’s net.
Brighton’s poise deserted them and, faced with a strong midfield and a more organised defence than Grayson has otherwise been able to rely on this season, their opportunities to overturn United’s lead were few.
Kazenga LuaLua passed up one when he played the ball to Snodgrass with Lonergan’s goal exposed and his box crowded, and the keeper’s fine save at the feet of Mackail-Smith prevented the forward from knocking a Noone delivery into the net.
The keeper needed the favour of referee Lee Probert to avoid the concession of a penalty when he felled Noone while chasing LuaLua’s cross seven minutes before half-time but Poyet could not have laid the blame for the first half at the door of the West Midlands official while keeping a straight face.
Out-manoeuvred and outplayed by the club where he was once assistant manager, he and his assistant Mauricio Taricco conversed in deep conversation as the interval neared.
Their solution was to use Albion’s most high-profile substitute, the Spanish international Vicente, at the start of the second half.
Two minutes in, Mackail-Smith turned inside Bromby and dinked a shot inside Lonergan’s far post, making a live contest of an apparently dead match and giving Poyet the response he craved.
Tom Lees’ tackle on Mackail-Smith prevented United’s advantage from disintegrating completely in the 53rd minute but Bromby had no escape when he brought down the striker with a risky challenge inside Lonergan’s area just before the hour. Barnes smashed the penalty into the top corner of the net.
Grayson took a moment to consider his options and refused to be negative, replacing Keogh with Becchio. It was Brighton, however, who claimed the game’s fifth goal when Barnes broke clear of United’s defence and squared a pass to Mackail-Smith two yards from goal.
To Grayson, it felt like that sort of night and that sort of half but McCormack spared United from defeat at the death when he buried Jonathan Howson’s cut-back.
Referee: Lee Probert (Wiltshire).