“We all know that if they get on a roll they’ll be hard to stop,” wrote Mick McCarthy of his boyhood club in Saturday’s programme. “It’s looking that way.”
Once a Leeds United fan and still a fan in what little spare time he has, Ipswich Town’s manager went further again after the clubs waded through a 1-1 draw on a fallow pitch at Portman Road. “They’ve had a bit of a tough time,” McCarthy said, aware that Leeds have strayed into a period where points are slipping away more regularly than before, “but it happens. When I got promoted with Wolves we didn’t win for 13 games. They’ll be in the play-offs, no doubt about that.”
McCarthy spoke as someone who had seen the muddy mess of Saturday’s game but was willing to separate one result from the bigger picture in the Championship. Leeds have three wins from seven league matches and one win in four – diminished form in comparison to their surge around Christmas – but McCarthy has them down for a top-six finish. On the evidence of 90 minutes, he was less effusive. “We were the better team,” McCarthy said.
Better on the day but better too than they were this time last month. Leeds’ misfortune was to meet Ipswich on an upward curve after a grim patch which prompted calls for McCarthy to be sacked. Six weeks ago, the Yorkshireman said, he was managing with “12 first-team players and six kids on the bench.” “It’s not rocket science,” he said. “You get better players in your team and I tend to be a better manager.”
Since the start of February, Ipswich have taken points from Brighton, Reading and Aston Villa. Leeds were added to the list in a 1-1 draw which Garry Monk tellingly described as “another point towards where we want to go”. Ipswich hit the crossbar in the second half and made more of a ropey surface which they knew better than Leeds and worked better than Leeds. A club who were once renowned for maintaining the best rectangle of grass in England are losing their horticultural touch.
At the end of a first half in which Freddie Sears opened the scoring and Stuart Dallas equalised, Monk bowed to the scrap in front of him and sent his captain, Liam Bridcutt, on from the bench. Back from a one-game ban, it was Bridcutt’s sort of match – physical, breathless and a world of second-balls – and the sort of environment which ties the feet of a player like Pablo Hernandez. “Open play was very hard,” Monk said. “The pitch didn’t help either team in terms of trying to play football but we did try. We tried to pass the ball.
“I’d never take that away from the team but we needed to be smarter with the ball and show more conviction with our passes. We did that in the second half but we didn’t create too much. Both teams deserved a point.”
Ipswich’s steady resurgence suggests that a point at Portman Road is more valuable now, and might be for the remainder of the season, than it was before the turn of the year. McCarthy was without Tom Lawrence through suspension – a winger who could have made much of the space in behind Monk’s midfield – and Toumani Diagouraga, whose loan from Leeds naturally prevented him from featuring, but they still have their manager’s traditional mettle.
Monk paired Ronaldo Vieira and Eunan O’Kane in midfield – “Ronny deserved to start after his performance against Bristol City” – but the first half was a litany of errors and misplaced passes. Vieira was not alone in being culpable but Bridcutt’s industry gave Leeds more possession and more time in Ipswich’s half after the break. It did not stop McCarthy’s side fashioning the better chances.
Sears converted their very first in the ninth minute, nipping in front of Luke Ayling and volleying home after Emyr Huws switched play to Grant Ward on the right wing.
“Their goal came against the run of play, the first time we made a mistake, but we didn’t react well to it,” Monk admitted. “We made too many mistakes which invited pressure from Ipswich. But like their goal, we scored ours against the run of play too.”
Dallas claimed it with three minutes of the first half remaining, slipping a shot under goalkeeper Bartosz Bialkowski after Hadi Sacko’s cross sneaked over Jordan Spence to the far post. It was as simple a finish and from as close a range as the point-blank opportunity which Jonas Knudsen drilled over Rob Green’s bar with a deflection 12 minutes earlier. “The goal enabled us to have a little talk and we tried to gain more control in the second half,” Monk said. “It was difficult but credit to Ipswich, they defended very well. We defended well too.
“At 1-1 the game looked like it would be decided by a set piece or a mistake but we stayed concentrated to the end. It was a deserved point and a good point.”
Leeds had teased a 1-0 win out of Ipswich at Elland Road in September, helped by Chris Wood battering McCarthy’s defence. The balance swung on Saturday as Christophe Berra and Luke Chambers – playing with a cracked rib – subdued United’s top scorer for all but the instant when his leap for Sacko’s cross helped Dallas to finish.
At the other end of the field, the pace of Sears and the movement of McGoldrick maintained a hanging threat. McGoldrick hit the face of the bar with a deft chip as Leeds came unstuck at a corner on 64 minutes and tested Green’s agility with a volley from Sears’ lofted pass. Pontus Jansson and Luke Ayling, two cogs in a tireless defence, arrived in the nick of time to hustle Sears out of two useful positions into the box and with 20 minutes left, McGoldrick swung and missed at a bouncing ball which was begging for a touch of any sort. In amongst that, Bialkowski had no saves to make.
Monk withdrew Wood before the end, an indication that a draw was worth settling for. Green, who was reminded of his Norwich City links by the home end throughout the second half, yawning in response to abuse of him, allowed the clock to run down as he took a goal kick in injury-time. With Norwich losing at Burton Albion, there was no damage done to Leeds’ play-off position, much as Fulham are becoming the unheralded threat. McCarthy in any case believes a top-six place is assured.
“We came to win,” Monk said. “It wasn’t as if we set up to sit back and take a point. We always go into a game to win it but when you can’t win you make sure you can’t lose. There were some tired bodies on the pitch but we dug in.” The run-in will required plenty of that.