“We’re in the same boat now,” said Uwe Rosler on Thursday and Paul Clement is finding that out. The Derby County boss was heard fighting his corner 48 hours later, forced to answer questions about whether English supporters had the capacity to be as ruthless as those in Spain.
Clement was once guarded by the might of Real Madrid’s squad but winless and exposed in a top Championship job, Rosler’s remarks sounded prescient on Saturday. “We played a big budget team, a big favourite to win the league,” said Leeds United’s head coach with three points in his pocket. A potential source of intimidation beforehand, those facts weighed on Clement afterwards.
Booing at Pride Park is rarely caused by Leeds, not since their demise as a Premier League club, but something gave on Saturday as it had to do eventually. Rosler called a 2-1 win “special” and it was, though not simply because of a fixture list which he gestured towards with two fingers again. At a stroke, a sequence of seven straight defeats at Derby was righted. And righted with a gem of a goal.
Chris Wood scored it, driving a bullet of a shot in off a post with Derby trying to lift themselves at the end of a second half which promised Clement relief but brought him none. Derby goalkeeper Scott Carson stood and watched the ball whistle past him and most of Pride Park was transfixed. Within seconds it began emptying.
“That’s not only for me,” said Rosler, reflecting for the first time on a competitive win as head coach. “It’s for the squad, the staff, our supporters, our chairman. We got rewarded for the effort we’ve put in since June 29, when we started working and improving.”
At the point where Wood’s strike flicked off the inside of Carson’s left upright, 88 minutes into the match, Leeds had the guise of a team smashing and grabbing a result but the game was more nuanced than that. Even Clement admitted as much. “Football isn’t about 20 minutes,” he said, with four draws from five games and no wins to show. “It’s about 90 minutes and that’s the summary of our work before the international break.”
Rosler had a different demeanour and could hardly have been happier. For good measure he gave the Football League another poke – “I can say this because we won but I totally disagree with the schedule” – but Leeds reached the end of their first month with seven points and no defeats; as much as Rosler might have expected and as little as his players deserved.
“When you put in what we’ve put in, you need results to keep the momentum going,” he said. “But the players have been patient, I’ve been patient and the chairman (Massimo Cellino) has been patient. The first win was just around the corner. We were close against Burnley and Bristol (City).
“To win this game right at the end of our schedule feels very special. It gives us mental strength.”
Rosler admitted to a “bit of luck” on Saturday but most of it was self-made. Liam Cooper got away with an apparent handball inside his box with the score level at 1-1, and Jeff Hendrick should have scored in that passage of play too but Derby were in serious arrears at half-time; outplayed, pressed into mistakes and a goal down.
In the moments before Wood’s winner, there were signs of Clement’s midfield backing off as a Leeds side refreshed with substitutes Mirco Antenucci and Luke Murphy picked up the pace again. “Both sides went for the kill,” Rosler said. “We brought on offensive options and got rewarded.”
Antenucci was Rosler’s big call, dropped to the bench for tactical reasons rather than reasons of form. United’s boss knew how he wanted Leeds to play and decided that Lewis Cook – available after a three-match ban – had to start. On a day of decisive factors, Cook’s influence was essential and brilliant, pushing Leeds up the pitch and encouraging Rosler’s side to play in periods when the onslaught from Derby encouraged all-out defence.
“The crowd here is phenomenal,” Rosler said. “They are like an extra player. You have to be very brave to stay high up the pitch. You have to be physically prepared to go to the limit. Then, when you have the ball, you have to beat their counter pressure with the first three passes. We did that.”
Rosler is never keen on singling players out and the first question about Cook was met with a jovial nod towards tomorrow’s transfer deadline. “Maybe you ask me three days early,” Rosler joked, reluctant to draw attention to him. “But I was very happy with our freedom on the break and the interplay. Cooky was a big part of that.”
Leeds had more than enough of the first half to merit the goal which Tom Adeyemi scored on 43 minutes. Under natural pressure to commit players forward, Derby were caught upfield repeatedly as Adeyemi outschooled George Thorne and Cook and Alex Mowatt offered the inventiveness that failed to materialise from Jeff Hendrick and Jamie Hanson.
Adeyemi advanced from the halfway line as Leeds worked a corner out to Stuart Dallas and dispatched a firm header when a hanging cross from the winger found his run. “That’s four games out of five when we’ve gone behind,” moaned Clement later. He did not need to remind the crowd of that.
Derby have sold more than 20,000 season tickets and with a coach sourced at great expense, the club are not in the business of progressive seasons; not unless progress means promotion. Rosler warned his players that County could only improve after half-time – “very seldom do you get Derby playing like they did in the first half” – and his caution was justified. Three minutes in, having already kept a Henrick shot out of the top corner, Marco Silvestri was fishing the ball from his net.
The equaliser was entirely down to pressure and a sharp, left-footed strike from Chris Martin who turned Cooper inside out on the edge of United’s box. Leeds were primed to buckle and Derby tried to make them bend. Rosler called that period “a little bit crazy”.
Hendrick fired wide with only Silvestri to beat from 18 yards and the keeper produced a sharp, diving parry after Russell broke through soon after. Cooper’s block then kept out an Andreas Weimann chip after Sol Bamba’s loss of possession 70 yards up the field invited a quick counter-attack. Referee Darren Bond did not listen to appeals for handball. Rosler stemmed the tide by calling up Murphy and Antenucci from the bench, altering the balance of the match as he had during a turgid derby against Sheffield Wednesday a week earlier. Wood should have scored with a gift of a free header on 81 minutes, hurrying his finish and lifting the ball over the crossbar, but he atoned with a chance he had no right to buy. His back to goal and 20 yards out, Carson was beaten before Pride Park saw the ball leave Wood’s boot.
A third strike in as many games drew inevitable praise from Rosler. “When the goals didn’t come straight away, the punters and the media started to ask questions,” Rosler said. “But Chris never – he was always confident. It’s an improvement for him to be a big player for us. He wants that responsibility and he’s living up to the deal. I watch him in training and I’m a great believer that what you put in you get out.” That philosophy is taking hold at Leeds.