Away form would be no issue at all if Leeds United spent every second weekend at the Keepmoat Stadium. It is home away from home for them and not only because of Doncaster’s reputation as a town full of Leeds fans.
The venue offered up victory again on Saturday as it has on five of United’s six appearances there. Even the one that got away was a plain goalless draw in 2010. Managers and players come and go but the balance of power in this fixture never shifts.
Their record at the Keepmoat not withstanding, games against teams in Doncaster Rovers’ state – obvious targets on the Championship’s fixture list – are games which Leeds have regularly made a hash of in the past. There were times on Saturday when they invited Doncaster to exorcise the demon but an offside flag and three sharp goals revived the noisy neighbours routine.
It was no procession and less of a formality that the head-to-head comparison between the clubs suggests but the truth about football matches is that they are settled in two thirds of the pitch.
Leeds were nowhere in between for a torrid half-hour in the second half but their back three pulled up the bridge with enough conviction for Ross McCormack and Rodolph Austin to rout Doncaster with late goals.
Only when McCormack established a 2-0 lead on 76 minutes were United sure that their unyielding defence of Matt Smith’s early header would pay off.
Austin’s finish two minutes from time – a splendid strike on the volley – was a sprinkle of glitter as the away end at the Keepmoat gave a rendition of Jingle Bells.
“We limited Leeds to two shots on target in the second half and unfortunately for us, they fell to their two best players – players who I think should be playing at a higher level,” Dickov said. “Leeds were clinical and we weren’t.”
His explanation ran deeper than that and focused on a disallowed strike from Theo Robinson in the 65th minute.
Doncaster had been bearing down on Paddy Kenny from half-time onwards, raising themselves from a first half in which Leeds mastered their formation and ran Rovers’ ragged on each wing, when Robinson appeared alone in front of Kenny as Richie Wellens threaded a pass into the box.
The forward knocked the ball to the right of United’s goalkeeper and looked to linesman Mark Russell before running away to take the applause.
Russell stood static for several seconds and then belatedly raised his flag. Within nine minutes, McCormack’s 17th goal of the season stemmed the tide and killed the contest.
“You get defining moments in games,” Dickov said.
“The late decision to put the flag up has baffled me as much as the result. He waited until the until the ball was in the net before making it but Theo is clearly a yard onside.
“It would have been 1-1 at a time when were in the ascendancy and I was sure we’d get something from the game. Although we’ve lost 3-0, we were the better side in the second half.”
McDermott accepted that and listened to Dickov’s view on Robinson’s finish as the pair crossed paths in the press room afterwards. “Paul told me that Lee Peltier kept him (Robinson) onside,” McDermott said. “But I haven’t seen a replay so the honest answer is I don’t know. I thought it was offside.”
Where he agreed with Dickov was on the value of McCormack and the idea that big players tend to make the difference. Leeds were pinned down in the second half – beset by a vicious wind and a concerted onslaught from Doncaster – but McCormack produced his goal from nothing, skipping into Rovers’ box and negating an awkward angle to ease the ball under Ross Turnbull’s body.
“Ross McCormack,” McDermott said afterwards; his answer to ‘football, bloody hell!’ “Big players make the difference and Ross did. Nothing surprises me with him.
“He’s got great ability and I knew that years ago.
“In the first half we played the conditions well and we were worth a 1-0 lead. We could have had a second goal before half-time. But in the second half we couldn’t get out. It was a problem.
“When you’re playing against the wind you can’t afford to drop deep, and for 25 minutes they put us under the cosh. But you always try to find a way to win and we have. I’m happy.”
Leeds make him feel like that away from home less frequently than McDermott would like but there is a sense of them turning that corner this season.
The second half in Doncaster was only as fraught as the first was accomplished.
Smith opened the scoring in the 19th minute when he dived to meet a delicious free-kick from Alex Mowatt, punishing a defence who took no heed of Dickov’s briefing about him.
There were several other chances, the best falling to Smith in injury-time and headed a yard over the bar.
McCormack is United’s Olivier Giroud – the player who many cannot see beyond if injury takes him – but Smith’s case for partnering the Scot long-term grows more and more compelling.
As he worked Doncaster, Rovers’ front three made no inroads at all. Dickov would have been as well-placed at half-time by fielding no strikers at all.
But the change of impetus when the game restarted was like flicking a switch.
Wellens began to pull rank on Mowatt and United’s wing-backs suffered either side of a weakening midfield.
Wellens whipped a shot inches wide and Marius Zaliukas, Jason Pearce and Tom Lee bailed water constantly.
Robinson succeeded in picking United’s defence open but did not gain the benefit of the doubt from Russell and McCormack took it upon himself to avoid an anxious finish.
Austin did likewise when he ran onto McCormack’s cross from the right wing and slotted a first-time volley beyond Turnbull with two minutes left.
“It was hard,” McDermott said as his attention turned to the Christmas run, “but we’ve got three points and a clean sheet. I’m pleased with that but there’s always another game to come.”
Doncaster Rovers: Turnbull, Quinn, Furman (Duffy 66), Brown, Macheda (Coppinger 83), McCullough, Khumalo, Wellens, Robinson, Woods, Stevens. Subs (not used): Maxted, Paynter, Cotterill, Wakefield, Peterson.