Saturday felt to Steve McClaren like 2013 revisited. For Leeds United, a 1-0 defeat on the day of McClaren’s reincarnation at Derby County should not bring about the same recriminations or the sound of a club crashing back to earth.
Leeds were feeble three years ago when McClaren’s first game in charge of Derby brought him a comprehensive home win. In the international break that followed, Brian McDermott scrapped his formation and gambled the house on wing-backs, anxiously grasping for solutions to problems. It worked for him, albeit briefly, as McClaren and Derby set sail for the play-offs.
McClaren returned to Pride Park as manager last week and the outcome of his opening fixture followed suit. It was his day and Derby’s day, and a team who last won at home six months ago have not said that as often as they hoped since McClaren quit the post in 2015. Garry Monk gave him his moment and did so with good grace. “We didn’t do enough of the things we’ve done well to give ourselves the best chance of getting something out of the game,” Monk said. In spite of his side hitting the frame of Derby’s goal twice, it was a fair and honest verdict.
But after five wins from seven previous matches and the reversal of a bad first month, the result will not lend itself to a McDermott-esque post mortem. “You were at QPR and Forest (in August) and you saw those defeats,” said goalkeeper Rob Green. “We gave ourselves no chance in those games. Derby will think they got what they deserved but we could easily have taken something away with us today – which isn’t to say we played as well as we can.”
Where Leeds went wrong was in failing to play until Derby took the lead with the only goal on 57 minutes, a bullet of a shot driven under Green by substitute Johnny Russell. Russell had been on the field for five minutes as a replacement for Ikechi Anya – hurt by a crunching tackle from Kyle Bartley – but the balance of play had favoured Derby throughout the first half. As poised as last month’s trip to Cardiff City after 45 minutes, this match got away from Monk’s players.
Leeds were woken by Russell’s finish and having rattled the crossbar through Bartley before half-time, they shook a post with a brilliant effort from Marcus Antonsson with almost the last kick of the ball. Derby murdered United under McClaren three years ago. Saturday was more of a tentative kick in the nether regions. But the kick was felt nonetheless.
“They started as we expected,” Monk said. “The crowd were always going to be behind the team and they came out with good intensity. We handled that well but we conceded a poor goal from our point of view– the second phase from a set-piece.
“Yes, we had a go in the last 25 minutes but we didn’t do enough of the good things we’ve been doing. That’s disappointing. We probably deserved something but it’s one of those days where you can’t have many complaints with the result either. That’s the way it is and we have to react. We’ve already proved we can do that.”
Russell took his chance after Tom Ince’s corner spilled out into acres of space on the edge of the box. A crack of his left foot smashed the ball against Green’s body and into the net. “I didn’t see it,” Green said. “There were too many players in front of me.”
Much of the opening hour gravitated towards United’s box but for most of it, Derby’s football took them nowhere. Matej Vydra lashed a volley wide midway through the first half but Bartley’s header against the bar in injury-time was, as Monk’s described it, a “big moment”. Unmarked and eight yards out, the centre-back’s header beat Scott Carson but rebounded to safety.
“That’s a big moment, of course it is,” Monk said. “If you come in at half-time 1-0 rather than 0-0, it changes the complex of what you say at half-time and how the second half could go. Then we set ourselves back with a goal that shouldn’t happen. We pushed but we didn’t really carve them open. Our effort probably deserved a draw but it wasn’t to be.”
Monk was in the stands for the entire match, banished by a touchline ban imposed on him by the Football Association. “It was a bit strange but I don’t think it affected anything,” he said, and United’s head coach was in radio communication with his bench throughout. McClaren, as he did in 2013, avoided a reception from the crowd by choosing to start the game in the directors box but he appeared in the dug-out before half-time, stressed and animated as Leeds’ pressure led to Bartley’s opportunity.
From his vantage point, Monk saw definite poise in Leeds’ shape and discipline. Russell’s goal came from a rare loss of concentration in the area. But Liam Bridcutt was missed and with Stuart Dallas injured and facing a spell on the sidelines, the age-old problem of the left wing reared its head again. Monk went with Alex Mowatt but saw another performance which underlined the fact that Mowatt is no left winger. Kemar Roofe came on for a busy cameo at the end and might get the nod against Wigan Athletic tomorrow. It is true nonetheless that Monk lacks a ready-made stand-in for for Dallas.
“We’ve got attacking players but not too many who are natural in that position,” Monk said. “But it’s the squad we have and you try to use players who can play in that role differently.
“We felt Mowatt could affect the game by coming inside and affecting their midfield. At times in the second half he did.”
Russell’s finish encouraged a tight contest to lose its inhibitions and by the closing stages the fourth official was penning a frantic McClaren into his technical area. Vydra had the ball in the net, sliding in Ince’s pass, but was deflated by an offside flag as he turned to celebrate. At the other end of the pitch, Bartley hooked a close-range volley into Carson’s grateful hands and Antonsson, Leeds’ final substitute, struck the keeper’s left-hand post with a sublime shot from the edge of the box. Five minutes of injury-time had gone and whatever Leeds’ display deserved, that shot deserved a goal.
“The last 10 minutes are always going to be nervous,” a grinning McClaren said, “but we rode our luck and got through it for a big three points.” For Monk, there were bones worth picking out of an annoying defeat. “The pleasing thing is that even today, you can see that we’re still very competitive,” he said. “We were fighting to the very end.”
No-one at Pride Park tried to deny that.