Saturday’s visit to Ipswich Town came with a straightforward get-out. Blame the Football League or blame Massimo Cellino. Blame Leeds United’s perpetual state of emergency.
It was, Mirco Antenucci’s third-minute goal aside, the clearest opening Leeds had at Portman Road but Neil Redfearn chose not to take it. His club cause more distractions than he can count but United’s head coach saw the danger of laying responsibility for a 4-1 rout elsewhere.
Seven days earlier, his team had bullied Championship leaders Derby County into a dispiriting defeat at Elland Road. On a dismal Saturday in Suffolk, United’s application and composure flew off the other end of the scale. It cannot be insignificant that in between those games the Football League sounded the alarm by banning Cellino from owning Leeds but the defeat to Ipswich was not a dip. It felt like a shuddering descent.
The outcome itself was not unforeseen. Ipswich are second in the Championship and Leeds are maintaining the reputation of a side that plays with intensity at Elland Road but cannot find their poise away from home. Saturday’s game was a hard fixture, as physically demanding as this season will produce, but the surprise for Redfearn was the absence of a single performance worth speaking about.
There was no drift towards the subject of Cellino and the Football League afterwards. “It would only be an excuse if I’m honest,” Redfearn said. “We’ve had all week to prepare and whatever’s happening is happening. I’m pretty sure it’ll get resolved but that’s all for the powers that be above us. From my point of view, after a great performance against Derby it’s difficult to come down to earth with such a bump.
“But I knew from the start (of his reign as head coach) that it was going to be hard and that it might be a bit wobbly. That’s something I’ve inherited.”
Redfearn repeats a consistent mantra: two steps forward, one step back. It is destined to be that way with a team that is raw, unpredictable and suited to playing in one specific way; not the rugged, percentages style Ipswich lean towards. But it was never his plan to step back as far as his players did at Portman Road. Some skilful management will be needed this week to negate the impact of Saturday’s loss.
It was suffered, largely, by the same team that bullied Derby, with one key difference. A hamstring strain sustained by Giuseppe Bellusci last week brought Jason Pearce back into the starting line-up and back into the centre of Leeds’ defence.
Redfearn toyed with the idea of risking Bellusci, anxious to avoid changes, but erred on the side of caution with him. When Ipswich composed themselves after Antenucci’s deadly goal, his defence deserted and the chances flew in. Daryl Murphy equalised after 12 minutes and he and David McGoldrick scored again before half-time. Mick McCarthy, a man who would merit the plain-speaking-English award, claimed Ipswich’s fourth goal on 48 minutes was decisive but Leeds already looked beaten by then.
“At 3-1 I still thought the next goal was vital,” McCarthy said. “If it goes 3-2 then momentum changes and we’ve seen that before. To start like we did in the second half put the game to bed.”
United’s failure to tackle simple balls into their box brought to mind jokes about Dracula and by the end of the game, Antenucci’s early finish seemed many moons ago. Ipswich were caught sleeping after three minutes as Luke Chambers and Tommy Smith gazed at a loose ball and allowed it to bounce between them. Stephen Warnock read the situation and cut in behind Ipswich’s defence, squaring a pass perfectly and into a position where Antenucci could not miss. Six yards out, the Italian dispatched the chance with his instep.
Warnock was the best example of dramatic transformation from one weekend to the next. Stoic against Derby, his game fell away at Ipswich. So too did the form of Alex Mowatt and Lewis Cook; destructive and dynamic seven days earlier but strangely passive in Suffolk.
Murphy, the Championship’s top scorer, levelled the match with Ipswich’s first proper chance, peeling away from Pearce and rising to meet Luke Chambers’ delivery with a bullet of a header. High balls were Ipswich’s way in and a means of exposing Leeds’ their back four.
“If you look at our performances in general, they’ve been picking up week by week,” Redfearn said. “I suppose in some ways it’s a lot to expect – from where we’ve come from to what we’re trying to do now, to expect it to happen every week.
“We’ve had an off-day, a bad-day, and it’s one of those things. We’ve got to dust ourselves off and go again.
“They’re a good side and they’re second in the table – second in the table for a reason. It was a good start, a good goal and a well-taken goal but we took our foot off the pedal and made defensive mistakes.
“You can’t come to places like Ipswich Town and give them a foot up but that’s what we did. We talked about stopping balls into the box but we didn’t do that. The equaliser was too easy and with the goals after that, we should have done far better.”
Ipswich’s second in the 26th minute was debatable at first sight, though Redfearn didn’t argue with it. Warnock bundled into the back of Paul Anderson as the ball dropped into United’s area and referee Mike Dean awarded a penalty without much thought. The statistics in that regard are totting up against Leeds: six penalties conceded since the season began and not a single one given in their favour.
David McGoldrick, a handful all day, dispatched the set-piece by sending Marco Silvestri the wrong way and Ipswich did not look back. Murphy should have added a third goal seconds later but whipped a volley wide from close range, but he scored in first-half injury time when Leeds caved in under minimal pressure. Murphy took a chipped pass, ran away unhindered into the box and slipped a shot through Silvestri’s legs.
The message from McCarthy and Redfearn at half-time was identical: score the next goal. Ipswich turned the screw immediately and banked it in the 48th minute. Smith met Stephen Hunt’s corner with a glancing header which was already creeping inside the far post before Christophe Berra arrived on the line and hooked the ball into the roof of the net. Smith and Berra fought over the goal afterwards and it was officially credited to the latter. Ipswich had the luxury of arguing about such things while Leeds licked their wounds.
There was no way back from that, if indeed there had been anyway back from 3-1 down. McCarthy said it was the first time in a while that he had finished the game without the need to “bite my nails.” Leeds are forever doing that, on and off the field. But Redfearn knew where the blame on Saturday lay.
Ipswich Town: Bialkowski; Chambers, Smith, Berra, Mings; Anderson (Bru 72), Skuse, Tabb (Bishop 60), S Hunt (Sammon; Murphy, McGoldrick. Subs (not used): Gerken, Parr, Bajner, St Ledger.
Leeds United: Silvestri; Byram, Pearce, Cooper, Warnock; Bianchi, Cook; Doukara (Austin 51), Adryan (Sharp 53), Mowatt; Antenucci. Subs (not used): S Taylor, Berardi, Tonge, Dawson, Del Fabro.