A new era at Leeds United. Someone should tell Barnsley. Ken Bates will be given the freedom of Elland Road before Barnsley decide to grant Leeds United the luxury of an easy ride.
Saturday was a day of reflection and perspective, the end of GFH Capital’s first year as owner of Leeds.
Much has changed in the months since they relieved Bates of his majority stake but certain itches are still to be scratched. Barnsley are one of them.
Over time this has become United’s least palatable derby, a predictable world of frustration and strife. In what passed as a conservative estimate, Ross McCormack suggested before the weekend that Leeds “owed Barnsley one” and Saturday was added to the tally of grievances after signs of life were found in a seemingly doomed club.
“We got a result and we take the point,” said Brian McDermott at the end of a goalless draw which defied supposed wisdom about Barnsley. The club are bottom of the Championship with the worst defensive record going; their clean sheets are as scarce as clean sheets get. But a week in the hands of Danny Wilson was enough to make a fist of the last game before Christmas. The men in red did not bear presents.
Wilson in McDermott’s eyes was always likely to be a fly in the ointment. Leeds have grown accustomed to playing clubs with new managers this season – five and counting with coaches dropping like flies – but McDermott is a fan of Wilson’s and well acquainted with his methods.
“If they play like that then they’ve got a major chance of staying up,” said United’s boss in charitable fashion. “Danny’s a good manager.”
As for his own team, this was not the angst-laden debacle of Barnsley away in January, an appalling defeat suffered less than four weeks into GFH Capital’s reign. Two points dropped on Saturday were strangely skewed by Leeds climbing a place in the table and reaching Christmas Day in fifth place, the high position GFH Capital has seen. Off-days used to bite hard at Elland Road; McDermott has found a way of brushing them off.
“It’s not frustrating,” he said afterwards, despite holding his hands up to a mediocre first half. “I’ve seen games like that go against teams like us. At 0-0 you can get done on the counter-attack. It was one of those days and you get them. You get them especially in the Championship. What you have to do in a situation like this is get a result and we got a result.”
A better result was all that Elland Road wanted. Leeds whipped up the attention on GFH Capital’s anniversary throughout the week and the attendance on Saturday passed 31,000. Whatever the prevailing view of United’s year under Middle Eastern ownership, the numbers stack up in the club’s favour, off the field and on it.
A seventh home game without defeat amounted to a 34th point. Burnley at the top of the Championship have 43 and Queens Park Rangers behind them hold 42. There was no call for the recriminations which Barnsley are so fond of causing and Wilson returned McDermott’s compliment. “Leeds will be right up there at the end of the season,” he said.
The doubt which some would shed on Wilson’s confidence relates to games like Saturday’s. Much of the match belonged to Leeds and their chances were numerous enough. But McCormack’s goals dried up for one weekend and McDermott’s ability to rework his formation to tear apart Barnsley’s was restrained by the limits of his bench – albeit a bench which contained an unused El-Hadji Diouf. There is goodwill aplenty for those in charge of Leeds but January will be here shortly. Never are owners more strictly judged than in the first month of each year.
Wilson’s tactics were designed to keep a lid on Saturday’s fixture – in the circumstances, a sensible strategy.
The Barnsley boss used Bobby Hassell as a guard between a four-man defence and a four-man midfield and the congestion strangled Leeds.
Alex Mowatt was replaced by McDermott at half-time – a first misplaced step from the burgeoning teenager – and Lee Peltier made way too.
“The first half wasn’t good from our point of view,” McDermott said.
It would have been better but for an excellent save in the fourth minute by Jack Butland, a goalkeeper whose presence at Barnsley is remarkably bizarre.
The England international offers a supremely safe pair of hands and his left glove dealt with a point-blank volley from Matt Smith after the striker timed his run nicely, mugged Barnsley’s defence and latched onto Jason Pearce’s floated pass.
Smith might have scored again when he held off Peter Ramage and scuffed McCormack’s ball straight at Butland but Barnsley took heed of Wilson’s insistence that they force the pace of the game themselves. Jim O’Brien and David Perkins – a perennial nuisance when Leeds are around him – set the tone of the squabble in midfield and their resistance for 25 minutes herded United into a cul-de-sac.
From there on McDermott was the more anxious of the managers. Marcus Tudgay’s glancing header drew a finger-tip save from Paddy Kenny and the striker dragged a lame shot wide with only Kenny to beat when O’Brien’s overhead kick puzzled Marius Zaliukas seven minutes before half-time.
United avoided a concession but other costs began to mount up. Luke Murphy’s yellow card, his fifth of the season, earned him a ban for United’s Boxing Day visit to Blackpool and Mowatt joined him in the book soon after. Perhaps mindful of the implications of another midfielder incurring a suspension and the propensity of referee Keith Stroud to produce more cards than the Royal Mail, the 18-year-old was substituted at the interval.
“It wasn’t a lesson for him,” McDermott said, “but he did struggle. At the end of the day he’s only 18.” Sam Byram and Michael Tonge provided fresh blood at the start of the second half. The intensity increased but neither substitute allowed for a major change in approach. Butland kept out a volley from Danny Pugh and got his fingertips to a header from McCormack. Smith’s late shot across goal missed the far post by inches. But Barnsley sucked up the punches and made it through six minutes of injury-time, even after Tudgay’s 85th-minute lunge at Zaliukas earned him a straight red card. So Barnsley reach Christmas at the foot of the table and Leeds will cut the turkey in fifth. Their rivalry and Barnsley’s mastery of it might matter more when United go back to Oakwell in April for their penultimate away fixture.
“There are so many points to play for still,” McDermott said. “No-one can call who’s going to go up and no-one can call who’s going to go down. You can’t say.
“I’m happy to wake up in the morning, never mind worrying about anything like that. And I’m happy we’ve got a result.”
Barnsley: Butland, Wiseman, Ramage, Cranie, Hassell (Dawson 63), Nyatanga, Perkins, O’Brien (Scotland 83), Cywka (Etuhu 66), Mellis, Tudgay. Subs (not used): Kennedy, Pedersen, Mvoto, Fox.