It was game on after 13 seconds, just as Leeds United wanted, but the telling result they lined up at Ipswich Town slipped through their fingers at the death. Season over or thereabouts, despite the endeavour of the past month.
Souleymane Doukara silenced Portman Road last night with a goal which almost broke a club record, taken at the end of the game’s very first attack, but Ipswich rode a period of self-doubt to dig out a late 2-1 victory and push Leeds further back from the Championship play-offs. Steve Evans saw a nine-point margin as manageable. A gap of 12 is a mile-and-a-half.
Ipswich hold sixth place and are themselves in a strong spell of results but Leeds appear fated to remain in mid-table, regardless of their recent consistency. Evans’ players had not been beaten since the end of November before their trip to Ipswich. They amassed 13 points from their previous seven games. The top-end of the Championship has refused to give in.
Doukara’s immediate finish in Suffolk gave Evans the sniff of a crucial result but the priority, or the first task, after Ipswich equalised with a 51st-minute header from Luke Chambers was to ensure that Mick McCarthy’s side did not bludgeon their way to a win. Town claimed it at the death with an injury-time header from Brett Pitman and there was no denying that their pressure had earned that result.
Doukara’s earlier strike was a stroke of class, a phrase written rarely about him since the first half of last season, but ultimately counted for no more than a footnote in United’s book of records. Produced as Ipswich made a mess of containing Leeds from the kick-off, only Jermaine Wright in a United shirt has ever produced a faster goal. Portman Road cannot have seen many quicker.
Doukara has not always wallowed in his career at Elland Road but he has the habit of looking like a footballer too often lost or not in the mood. His goal in Suffolk owed plenty to a bad error from Jonathan Douglas, the former Leeds midfielder, but it relied no less on a sharp, instinctive shot from a striker who was wide awake. Dean Gerken in Ipswich’s goal could only watch it roll by him.
Wright, another player with the capacity to disappoint, bettered Doukara’s effort by scoring after 10 seconds in a 2-1 loss to Burnley at Elland Road in 2004, but points eluded Leeds on that occasion too. Having come under strain as Ipswich found their rhythm before half-time, United cracked early in the second half when Chambers forced home Ryan Fraser’s cross. Ipswich sought to force the issue, completely dominating the second half, and Pitman could not miss when Fraser picked him out in the 92nd minute.
Evans was tempted to stick or twist in a crucial fixture and the line-up he chose was a halfway house. Chris Wood’s hamstring strain did not tempt him to tweak his system and Doukara started up front but the selection of Alex Mowatt and Lewis Cook added potential match winners to his team. Mustapha Carayol’s debut goal on Saturday was enough to keep him on the left wing, even though Evans had originally planned to play a fresh Stuart Dallas.
There was no time to analyse any of Evans’ decision before Doukara, the perennial enigma in United’s squad, punished a mistake by Douglas directly in front of Ipswich’s goal. Douglas’ loss of possession as Leeds push on from the kick-off was momentary but Doukara picked up on it instantly, beating Gerken with a low finish to the keeper’s left.
Portman Road stood shellshocked as Doukara, after 13 months without a goal, enjoyed the sensation of a second in two games. Ipswich cleared their heads and tested Marco Silvestri with quick shots from Daryl Murphy and Ryan Fraser but their anxiety was palpable. Gerken’s quick reaction stopped Tommy Smith from turning the ball into his own net after Carayol broke away down the left wing.
The concern for Evans from the outset was Ipswich’s ability to make headway out wide, particularly on Fraser’s side of the field. Freddie Sears drifted into that area and drew a parry from Silvestri but the first half rarely found United in disarray. Evans’ players were steady for the large part and comfortable in others until the prospect of half-time tempted them to sit in and drop deep.
Silvestri dealt with a long-range strike from Murphy shortly before the half hour, allowing it to slip off his body before gathering it at the second time of asking, and Ipswich were not able to invade his personal space until a minute before half-time. Fraser thought he had found the top corner of the net with a deft, curling finish but Silvestri picked it out with a one-handed save. As the whistle sounded, Mick McCarthy looked like a coach who had plenty to say. Leeds, still, were grateful for the interval after a spell on the ropes.
It would not have been McCarthy’s style to allow an identical second half and Ipswich were level within five minutes, scoring in a fashion typical of McCarthy’s team. Fraser – Town’s key threat from start to finish – beat Scott Wootton for pace and dropped a curling cross into the path of Chambers. The right-back’s header was firm enough to carry into the net, despite Silvestri getting a hand to it.
The balance of the game was undeniable and as Mowatt and Carayol tired, Evans moved quickly to replace them around the hour. Ipswich continued to press and a cross from Fraser almost crept in at the far post after beating everyone, Silvestri included, and Silvestri has his heart in his mouth five minutes from time when he left his box, allowed Sears to round him and watched a low cross fly past substitute Pitman and an open goal.
By that point a pacing, frenetic Evans was happy to take what Leeds already had but Fraser had one last surge in him and his perfect cross was a gift for Pitman, unmarked and in no position to miss from point-blank range.
Deep down, Evans will know the cost of that blow.