Partial though he was to the taste of international football, Robert Snodgrass could often be heard telling anyone who raised the subject that his club performances were not for Scotland’s benefit.
The 23-year-old will count his caps as proudly as any player once his career as a footballer goes the way of all things but eliciting Snodgrass’ thoughts on international representation was like persuading him to wear the colours of England.
After Leeds United’s victory over Coventry City in November, the question of selection by Scotland came at him directly. “You don’t think about stuff like that too much,” he replied. “You just get on with your day job.” The truth of that claim was found in his manipulation of Saturday’s game at Bristol City.
Any observer of Snodgrass’ domestic appearances pre and post Christmas would have guessed that last week’s friendly between Scotland and Northern Ireland was somewhere in his mind.
Few of those appearances were as complete as the winger’s attack on Coventry last Saturday, five days before his international debut. One good deed naturally led to the other.
But as if to demonstrate that his attitude is regardless of international honours, a goal scored and another fashioned by him put a mediocre team in their place at Ashton Gate. “It’s been a great week for him,” said Simon Grayson after a measured defeat of Bristol City. And then some.
United’s manager gave the Scot his due but telling factors in Bristol amounted to more than Snodgrass’ excellence. Grayson tends to prefer it that way, a coach for whom the whole exceeds the sum of his individual parts.
Prime among them was a defence which herded City like sheep for an hour and a goalkeeper whose agility stood up to scrutiny when cracks began to appear. Grayson also appreciated the value of the finish from Max Gradel which brought up his 10th goal of the season, and the competent debut given by Eric Lichaj in a position where Grayson’s prerequisite was competence. United’s staff took their leave of Ashton Gate without any semblance of complaint, barring a late and unhelpful twist in the structure of the Championship.
Snodgrass scored after 17 minutes and caused enough havoc for Gradel to draw blood again at the start of the second half, asking more of City than Keith Millen’s team could rise to. Millen argued that the scoreline flattered Leeds but his claim could only be applied credibly to patches of the second half. Kasper Schmeichel, United’s goalkeeper, felt strangely redundant until his first save in the 59th minute.
For the second week running, Grayson was able to discuss the result without speaking critically of his defence. He was not even required to explain in detail the exclusion from his line-up of Davide Somma.
Grayson cannot have named his team on Saturday without accepting the likelihood that the striker’s omission would be examined at length.
The debate ceased long before the final whistle. Four goals in as many league appearances, and another under the banner of South Africa on Wednesday night, defined Somma as the most regular goalscorer in Grayson’s hands and a striker undeserving of more time on the bench.
His peripheral role in Bristol was questionable but not entirely surprising. The tone of Grayson’s comments at his pre-match press conference had made it clear that Somma’s position was vulnerable, predominantly because of his belated return from an international friendly in Rustenburg.
The 25-year-old landed at Heathrow on Friday morning and the strain of covering thousands of miles in a matter of hours gave Grayson a reason to field Neil Kilkenny instead. There was still a suspicion that United’s boss was swayed as heavily by the prior success of the formation which Kilkenny’s inclusion allowed. “It’s something I’d actually been thinking about all week,” Grayson said.
The decision over Lichaj, a loan signing from Aston Villa, proved altogether more straightforward. With Paul Connolly protecting a tight hamstring, Lichaj’s debut at right-back was planned from the outset, and a brief outline of the Championship season would have told the American that he was filling some of the most reliable – if not the biggest – boots in Grayson’s dressing room. That fact seemed not to cross his mind and the transition was seamless.
Lichaj was as busy as any player during the forgettable prelude to Snodgrass’ goal. The game drifted aimlessly for 17 minutes, devoid of any purpose, and City’s examination of Lichaj’s flank yielded nothing more than a cross from Jamie McAllister which Martyn Woolford scuffed with his head. Leeds were incapable of even that until Snodgrass’ splendid touch embarrassed Millen’s defence.
The winger was given little to play with by Max Gradel’s stabbed pass into the box but a nonchalant shift of the ball from one foot to the other left Steven Caulker staring into space and David James prone to the shot which Snodgrass rolled to his right.
The goal injected urgency into the atmosphere, on and off the pitch. Tackles began to bite and isolated away supporters in the home stands began to make themselves known. Ashton Gate resembled a police staging point from midday onwards and the officers present earned their wages around the half-hour when the mood darkened around a fence segregating United’s following from a section of City’s.
Not everyone inside the ground was aware of James turning Snodgrass’ effort behind or Alex Bruce slicing a volley wide of the keeper’s far post.
Grayson fixed his gaze on the pitch and saw a game asking to be won. Carey’s wayward strike over Schmeichel’s crossbar was a lame attempt to involve the Dane and City’s wild passing offered as much protection for him as Grayson’s defence.
McAllister stabbed a woeful through-ball over the byline from inside his own half and Woolford made a mess of another opportunity to cut Leeds open on the right wing.
There was no mystery in understanding why it had taken conflict on the terraces to stir a large attendance.
Only once did Grayson’s heart-rate rise before half-time when McAllister’s free-kick arrived via a shot from Woolford at the feet of Marvin Elliott.
The midfielder attempted to turn the ball under Schmeichel’s body but dragged it wide of a post with players breathing down his neck.
Even allowing for that chance, Millen craved more imagination from his side, and the appearance of Albert Adomah as a substitute in the 57th minute gave the winger enough time to run George McCartney ragged and mark himself out as City’s most impressive player.
Unfortunately for Millen, Adomah’s introduction was borne out of desperation rather than ambition, coming seven minutes after Gradel’s goal.
Snodgrass instigated it by wrong-footing a full-back whose bewilderment grew as the Glaswegian cut loose. Jamie McAllister later did to Snodgrass as Coventry’s Jordan Clarke had done to the unforgiving Gradel seven days earlier – hacking his legs with enough spite to earn a yellow card – but the fight was lost by then.
Liam Fontaine stood in front of Snodgrass’ shot but Gradel collected the rebound and forced it under James from a angle where the keeper should not have been beaten. It was James misfortune to be trapped in front of an away gathering who found amusement in his concession.
Grayson’s sole concern from there on was to see his players avoid the reply which might, on previous form, have preceded another. Schmeichel dropped down to meet a shot from Andy Keogh and relied on Luciano
Becchio to stop David Clarkson converting Brett Pitman’s corner.
On the other occasion when Schmeichel was beaten, Elliott rattled the underside of the bar. Andy O’Brien, too, was an obstacle that Woolford failed to steer his shot past in the 89th minute.
City on that evidence were worth a goal, as Millen suggested later, and disappointment figured heavily in his post-mortem. Not so in the demeanour of United’s players who reappeared from the tunnel to begin their warm down. Several stopped first to inquire of the press how results elsewhere had affected the Championship. Never let it be said that the club are oblivious to the possibilities in front of them.
Bristol City: James, Carey (Adomah 57), Caulker, Fontaine, McAllister, Woolford, Cisse, Elliott, Clarkson, Pitman, Keogh (Maynard 68). Subs (not used): Stewart, Johnson, Gerken, Sproule, Nyatanga.
Leeds United: Schmeichel, Lichaj, O’Brien, Bruce, McCartney, Snodgrass, Kilkenny (Somma 79), Howson, Johnson, Gradel, Becchio (McCormack 86). Subs (not used): Higgs, Paynter, Sam, Bromby, Parker.