One pace forward, one pace back and plenty of footsteps for Leeds United to retrace after a baffling derby at Huddersfield Town.
Baffling was the word on Saturday, whichever side of the divide you looked from.
The day began with Huddersfield’s chairman, Dean Hoyle, texting Mark Robins at 4.20am to remind him needlessly that a win would be nice.
It continued with Robins omitting two players who, by all accounts, crossed a disciplinary line during training on Friday morning. And in the end, Leeds contributed to the puzzling plot by regressing en masse from their rampant defeat of Birmingham City six days earlier.
It will be argued with hindsight that Birmingham and their pitiful defence were there for the taking a week ago but United’s football drew a sharp contrast.
Huddersfield in any case had problems of their own, arriving at a local knife-fight without much of a knife.
James Vaughan, the club’s only regular goalscorer, served a suspension and Adam Clayton and Martin Paterson were nowhere to be seen after exchanging whatever they exchanged on Friday – words or punches, Robins refused to spell it out. But a well-travelled Jon Stead was enough of a weapon as Leeds’ disintegrated on most fronts, losing 3-2 to a 77th-minute goal.
Gone were the gold stars earned from their 4-0 rout of Birmingham – a clean sheet, overwhelming approach-play and dead-on finishing.
United’s finishing at the John Smith’s Stadium was somewhere close to the crux of a sixth Championship defeat but blame spread further than that. The real cost for Brian McDermott was the loss of the impetus he thrived on last week.
“It’s so disappointing,” said United’s manager, perplexed once more.
“At the moment we’re a little bit like that, as a team and a club. We seem to be taking a step forward and then a step back.”
There were multiple turning points on Saturday, all of which told McDermott that his side had undercut themselves by leaving Huddersfield with nothing. That was not the same as saying that his side played fantastically well.
United’s defence gave Stead an easy ride and looked permanently vulnerable once Sean Scannell came off Huddersfield’s bench at the start of the second half.
The penetration provided by Sam Byram and Stephen Warnock, the full-backs in McDermott’s formation, was less pronounced and Rodolph Austin’s attempt to step into an advanced position in the midfield pulled him far from the exchange of fire.
Austin’s Beckham-esque passing and rhino-like running against Birmingham gave way to misplaced balls and off-the-pace touches. It was that sort of day and that sort of transformation.
Yet 1-0 up after 70 seconds, level at 2-2 late in the second half and denied a penalty at the very end of injury-time, Leeds were always in the contest. Stead’s neat finish on the break was one leg-up too many.
“You’ll wonder why we’re going home with nothing but I know why we are,” McDermott said.
“We didn’t defend properly in one-v-one situations, we had a good chance to go 2-1 up and the referee’s missed a stonewall penalty.”
The official in question, Neil Swarbrick, saw nothing in a clumsy challenge by Stead which bundled Dexter Blackstock to the floor 10 yards from Huddersfield’s goalkeeper, Alex Smithies.
Robins, the Town manager, refused to bite either. “The referee was excellent,” he insisted.
McDermott said: “The Huddersfield player was waving his arms around. That’s always a give-away.”
It was no more critical in the context of the result than the miss from Luke Murphy which turned a close derby sharply.
United teed him up on the hour with the most surgical move of the entire match, Austin’s pass inviting a cross from Sam Byram and Matt Smith stepping over the ball to leave Murphy with a tap-in.
The midfielder hooked his shot wide and fell to the ground with his hands over his face. “He’s upset with himself,” McDermott said later.
At 1-1 Murphy’s wayward radar mattered. Three minutes later, Tom Lees was tempted to feel for a cross swung into United’s box by an unmarked Adam Hammill. A flick of the defender’s head carried the ball onto Paddy Kenny’s left-hand post and into the net. Having trailed as early as the second minute, Huddersfield felt the tide turn.
No point of Saturday’s match was better for Leeds than the start. With a minute gone, Smithies made a meal of a header from Smith, bundling United’s first chance behind, and he was absent again when Alex Mowatt dropped a corner onto Smith’s head and the striker did the rest from three yards. “It was a poor, poor start for us,” Robins said.
Leeds guarded that advantage for only nine minutes. A crowd of players in front of Kenny failed to pick up Danny Ward on the edge of their area and the former Leeds trainee controlled the ball before beating Kenny with a wicked finish which the keeper barely saw. Having positioned Huddersfield precisely where they wanted them, United saw too little of the first half.
Robins still felt the need for change at the interval and replaced debutant Duane Holmes, an 18-year-old forward, with Scannell. The Londoner began prising open United’s left flank but it was Hammill’s cross from the other side of the field which brought about Lees’ own goal.
“We should have had someone there stopping the delivery,” McDermott said.
The call went quickly to Blackstock, signed from Forest on loan on Thursday. In a flash, Mowatt curled a free-kick towards the penalty spot and Blackstock steered home a header with his first touch on 74 minutes. His delight subsided soon enough as Stead, who earlier hit a post, went up the other end of the pitch, received a pass from Scannell and beat Kenny on the turn.
Byram, who remained on the pitch despite an injured leg, swept over a ball which Smith somehow nodded wide. Stead’s push on Blackstock and Swarbrick’s indifference about it was a final kick in the teeth. McDermott thought he had seen the last of those, at least for a while.
Huddersfield Town: Smithies, Dixon, Lynch, Clarke, Richards (Woods 72), Hogg, Southern, Ward, Holmes (Scannell 46), Hammill (Norwood 79), Stead. Subs (not used): Woods, Gobern, Wallace, Carr, Bennett.