Matthew Pennington was forced into a rapid return from injury at Aston Villa on Friday with Leeds United’s defence down to the bare bones.
Pennington rushed back from a calf strain suffered 10 days earlier to prevent a scenario where four academy players were named in United’s back five.
Head coach Paul Heckingbottom had be left with 20-year-old Paudie O’Connor and 21-year-old Hugo Diaz at centre-back during the closing stages of last week’s 3-1 defeat to Preston North End after Pontus Jansson suffered concussion early in the second half.
Jansson joined an injury list which already included Pennington, Liam Cooper and Conor Shaughnessy, creating the prospect of O’Connor partnering Diaz at Villa Park.
The pair had just three senior appearances between them but Pennington, United’s loanee from Everton, made himself available at the last minute ahead of a 1-0 defeat in Birmingham.
“He needs a mention because he’s been thrown straight in with his calf injury,” Heckingbottom said. “It’s needs must.
“He put himself forward which he needs applauding for and he performed very well. Fortunately enough he’s only been out for eight or nine days so he’s not lost fitness. He stood up to it very well.”
Pennington and Stuart Dallas were the only experienced players in a backline which included O’Connor at centre-back, development-squad defender Tom Pearce at left-back and 21-year-old Bailey Peacock-Farrell in goal.
Diaz, the Spaniard who made his debut at Preston, was left behind on Friday and featured in an Under-23 win over Queens Park Rangers instead, making room for Dutch centre-back Pascal Struijk to make a first appearance on the bench at Villa Park .
Peacock-Farrell maintained his impressive form with a series of saves while O’Connor and Pearce stood out during another frustrating evening for Heckingbottom.
Pearce was unable to cut out the cross from Grealish which led to Grabban’s winner but he coped with former United winger Robert Snodgrass, stifling the Scotland international.
“He defended his side really well, one-v-one against Snodgrass,” Heckingbottom said. “We just need to keep improving his technique defensively because he found himself in a right-back slot (for Grabban’s goal) which is a totally different approach.”
Heckingbottom, who has come under pressure after failing to establish any impetus during his short spell in charge of Leeds, was disappointed but the simplicity of a goal which saw Grabban climb above Pennington to head inside Peacock-Farrell’s near post.
The effort condemned United to a seventh defeat in 13 games under his management.
“We lost the ball cheaply and allowed them to built a bit of momentum,” Heckingbottom said.
“We didn’t get time to stop the cross and it’s tiny little details like Grealish, letting him deliver on his right foot rather than his left foot. It’s a difficult ball to defend at the back post.”