DECEMBER was advertised as a hard month for Leeds United and when it came it was worse than that.
One point from five games is the chronic record which ends 2014 and leaves the club with the horrible feeling that trouble waits on the horizon.
The highlight of a trying winter is still a 2-0 win over Derby County in late November but Leeds were unable to repeat that result at Pride Park. A 2-0 loss, handed to Derby by a second own goal in as many fixtures, said everything about the way United’s season is going.
The match was not a rout, even though Derby forced the pace from the start, but it developed into a procession and Leeds’ knack of conspiring to take nothing from contests like this is edging them towards the Championship’s bottom three.
A gap of one point is a thin rope to cling to with January almost here.
Alex Mowatt’s own goal four minutes before the interval was a harsh concession at the end of a half which gave no hint of a break in the deadlock until the ball flew against the midfielder’s shins and flew in off the underside of United’s crossbar.
It staggered Leeds and, as with Liam Cooper’s bizarre error which set Wigan Athletic on the way to a precious Boxing Day win at Elland Road, Derby’s evening was made by that lucky break.
Two minutes into the second half, their victory was sealed by a more woeful effort from Jake Buxton who angled an unforgivably free header into the top corner of Marco Silvestri’s net. This Leeds team do not often recover from deficits and they made no pretence of doing so here.
The final whistle rounded off a calendar year which United will not mind forgetting quickly; a year of chaotic takeovers, managerial changes, excessive defeats and limited visible progress.
Far from dwelling on it, they have graver things to think about in the weeks ahead. Games against Bolton Wanderers, Birmingham City and Huddersfield Town now look pivotal, falling either side of Massimo Cellino’s appeal against his disqualification as the club’s owner.
Yesterday’s match was not only Leeds’ last of 2014 but their last before the start of the transfer window. The club visit Sunderland in the FA Cup on Sunday but their biggest game before a trip to Bolton on January 10 will be played in next month’s market.
United are optimistic that a deal will be reached to sign ~Leonardo Pavoletti on a half-season loan from Sassuolo shortly after the FIFA window opens.
The striker was at Elland Road for Friday’s loss to Wigan and has not turned tail as Federico Viviani did after a pre-season defeat at Mansfield in July.
Leeds also expect to bring in Slovenian Rene Krhin, a central midfielder at Inter Milan who is 24 and making no real headway at the San Siro.
Italian sources, meanwhile, claim United have shown an interest in Andrey Galabinov, a Bulgarian forward who plays in Serie B with Livorno. At 6’4”, he has similar attributes to Pavoletti.
The projection at present is another influx from abroad, in spite of Leeds’ January transfer embargo and despite Redfearn’s call for an injection of Championship experience. Derby have bundles of that and Steve McClaren’s side succeeded in teasing a laboured win out of a wet and shivering contest.
Neil Redfearn dropped Billy Sharp and Michael Tonge from his side, though others could have followed suit after United’s flat defeat to Wigan. Souleymane Doukara and Rudy Austin took their places, while injury accounted for Jason Pearce and a virus limited Adryan to a place on the bench.
There was none of the surety which flowed through Redfearn’s line-up when they turned Derby over at Elland Road last month.
There was even less after Stephen Warnock injured his ankle in a second-minute challenge on Cyrus Christie and signalled immediately for the physio. Gaetano Berardi stepped in and, unsurprisingly in the circumstances, Derby made most of the running.
For the best part of 20 minutes, Redfearn’s players were pinned in as Jordan Ibe attacked one wing and Christie pushed up the other. United’s defensive inadequacies became common knowledge weeks ago but they held in the face of steady pressure, denying County much to feed on. An early Will Hughes shot hit a defender before reaching Marco Silvestri and Ibe’s low cross deflected safely into the goalkeeper’s hands.
Chris Martin had more to go at in the 18th minute when Silvestri’s weak punch put Leeds under pressure but other players massed on the goalline and saw off the striker’s stabbed finish.
It was no more of a let-off than United’s first chance two minutes later, an effort from Mirco Antenucci which sailed wide of Lee Grant’s left-hand post.
Most of the first half followed the same pattern: Derby pressing a loaded box and struggling to cut through the congestion.
United’s midfield struggled to put their foot on the ball on another evening which questioned the suitability of the diamond but occasional spells of possession encouraged them to think that there were ways into County’s backline.
Cook produced the biggest moment of concern for McClaren, tearing over 40 yards and reaching the edge of the box before Buxton nicked the ball from his feet. By then, Ibe had resorted to diving over Tommaso Bianchi’s feet in an attempt to win a penalty, a tackle referee Keith Stroud ignored. The game was attritional rather than a spectacle and Redfearn had no complaint with that.
For 41 minutes he had no arguments with his defence either and Leeds’ organised resistance was Derby’s main problem. Twice before the interval, Cooper – the unfortunate villain of Leeds’ defeat to Wigan – arrived in time to hook dangerous crosses away from his goal and maintain parity.
But three minutes before the break, Derby scored in the only way that looked likely.
Hughes found a patch of space and wriggled towards the byline, producing a cross which struck Cooper’s heel, bounced against the legs of the covering Mowatt and flew into the net with the help of the crossbar.
Silvestri’s diving save from Richard Keogh prevented a second concession in stoppage-time but the Italian could not intervene two minutes into the second half when Jeff Hendrick’s free-kick caught Doukara sleeping and Buxton nodded the ball into the top corner.
There was still a little shouting left to do but with that goal the game was done and Derby were free to cruise on autopilot.
On the subject of what 2015 will bring Leeds, all bets are off.