The goings-on at Thorp Arch last Friday will be viewed by many as a downing-of-tools by certain Leeds United players. Whatever the truth, they resulted in a mutiny of a different sort at Charlton Athletic the following afternoon.
It was, if nothing else, a startling coincidence that six members of Neil Redfearn’s squad cried off 24 hours before Saturday’s game in London, catching him off-guard by declaring themselves unfit. All were left behind in Leeds and left to deal with social media’s disbelieving reaction.
As bad luck goes, it was a coincidence too far for United’s supporters. A couple of the players concerned, Marco Silvestri and Mirco Antenucci, protested bitterly on Twitter and argued that their injuries were genuine but trust at Leeds is broken and the prevailing attitude was that six late withdrawals had no other purpose than to undermine Redfearn’s position as head coach.
For the past month a trend of spanners-in-the-works has developed: the suspension of Steve Thompson, Redfearn’s assistant, and an attempt by United’s board to prevent Antenucci playing due to the terms of his contract. A last-minute glut of withdrawals was suspiciously unhelpful for a man who seems terminally short of friends in high places, or friends in the right places.
News that Antenucci, Silvestri, Souleymane Doukara, Giuseppe Bellusci, Edgar Cani and Dario Del Fabro had all sustained injuries towards the back end of last week struck an incredulous chord and contributed to a complete loss of patience at The Valley.
There were protests from the away end against the six – “play for Leeds or f*** off home” – and shouts of dissent towards Massimo Cellino; unambiguous chants of “sell the club” and variations on that theme, aimed at an owner who wasn’t present at the game. His eyes and ears were in the directors’ box, however, and the message must have reached him eventually.
Amid mutinous noises, Leeds came within 15 minutes of sticking a finger in the eye of anyone who was trying to stab them in the back. Steve Morison scored a collector’s item in the first half at Charlton, ending 25 months without a goal in the colours of his parent club with a volley which reminded him that finishing is something he once did naturally. Leeds, however, collapsed to a 2-1 defeat as two goals in five minutes – one from a penalty conceded by Silvestri’s replacement, Stuart Taylor – materialised as Charlton appeared to be grinding to a halt.
Afterwards Redfearn was pressed about the six injured players. Silvestri, he admitted, was the only player he thought he might lose on Friday but even the Italian was expected to recover from the back injury he suffered against Norwich City last week. Had the clutch of foreign signings orchestrated the situation? “It’s difficult for me to comment,” Redfearn replied.
“If it’s happened and they’re all injured then it’s genuinely unlucky, isn’t it? The only one I might have had a doubt about on Friday was Marco but I was told that it was only a kick and that he should be okay. It must have been worse than what we thought.
“Antenucci did complain about his hip flexor on Thursday but the others, no. It’s not great when you’re trying to put a squad together but we rejigged it on Friday and brought 19 bodies down here.”
The issue was one of principle, rather than the identity of the players concerned, and the numbers missing did not change the fact that Silvestri was the only problematic loss. United’s first-choice keeper throughout this season, his absence made way for a perennial reserve in Taylor made his first league start since March 2013 on Saturday and only his fifth in six years.
The 34-year-old was left alone for much of the game but, with the score level at 1-1 on 80 minutes, he spilled a shot from Johann Berg Gudmundsson, tripped Igor Vitokeke as the striker chased the rebound and dived the wrong way as Yoni Buyens converted the resulting penalty. By all accounts, Buyens never misses.
Billy Sharp, by contrast, had failed to score from the spot in the first half, denied by Charlton keeper Stephen Henderson after Tal Ben Haim hacked down Sam Byram inside the box in the 37th minute. Henderson guessed right and pushed Sharp’s penalty onto the post, delaying the opening goal for a short time.
“It wasn’t the worst penalty in the world,” Redfearn said. “It was a good save but penalties are black or white. They either go in or they don’t and they need to go in.” But three minutes later, Luke Murphy – himself guilty of missing from close range earlier in the half – picked out Morison with a deep corner which Morison struck sweetly through Henderson’s left palm.
The last time Morison scored for Leeds, they were playing away at Crystal Palace more than two years ago. His celebration was more restrained than it might have been and his comments at full-time revealed that much of what is happening at Elland Road does not sit comfortably with him. All the same, the strike broke a streak which, on occasions this season, seemed destined never to end.
“It’s been a burden for him,” Redfearn said. “Strikers are expected to score goals and I think you could see that for a few minutes after his goal, it took the weight off his shoulders. But Steve’s done brilliantly for us. It’s been tough for him goals-wise but he’s been a real plus for us.”
Charlton had hit the post at 0-0 – denied when Igor Vetokele turned Ben Haim’s from distance to the left of Taylor – and they made inroads down United’s right-hand side but Leeds were slicker and more vibrant before half-time. Guy Luzon, Charlton’s Israeli manager, accused his side of lacking “rhythm and passion” in the first half.
“We talked at half-time about starting well the second half well and not giving Charlton any encouragement,” Redfearn said. “We started okay but we took our foot off the pedal for 20 minutes and in that spell Charlton came back into it.”
Luzon’s introduction of Gudmundsson immediately after half-time made a difference, though only gradually. The home crowd were starting to grumble when, with 75 minutes played, Sam Byram played a loose pass into the centre of the pitch and let Charlton work possession to Gudmundsson on the right.
His deep cross towards the back post caught Scott Wootton ball-watching and Watt dispatched a low volley with sound technique. Leeds attempted to draw breath but fell behind five minutes later after Taylor’s lunging dive took Vetokele’s legs from under him. Buyens stuck his penalty away safely, high to the left of Taylor.
United struggled to raise themselves from that and Redfearn’s substitutions came late on, as tends to be his way. They did not make a difference. “There’s enough about us, enough in the team, to get over the line in a game like this,” Redfearn said. “But I’m proud of a lot of what’s gone on today. There was determination in the dressing room to get a result, a real determination.” They wanted a result for the supporters.”
With two matches to play, Leeds remain stationary on 52 points, just as they were when the season broke for international fixtures a month ago. Since then the club have lost five games, an assistant manager and far too much of their dignity and decorum. On Saturday, enough was enough.