Suddenly you sense a long, hard winter ahead. The winters are often gruelling for Leeds United but Christmas and beyond will examine their constitution like few the club have seen before.
Twelve months ago, the start of a new year brought the start of a hideous collapse, on the field and in the boardroom at Elland Road. The saving grace was that Leeds entered it with more than 30 points on the board, enough to keep their squad a step ahead of trouble.
They are clear of danger now, with three clubs seemingly lodged in the Championship’s bottom three, but Saturday’s defeat to Fulham was the cue for Leeds to reach for their spades and start digging in. While a fight ensues behind the scenes – Massimo Cellino versus the Football League – another will play out for all to see, in the bottom half of the division.
Leeds were neither embarrassed nor annihilated by Fulham. A goalless draw might have best reflected a game in which the clubs sparred for an hour, Alex Mowatt hit the crossbar and Hugo Rodallega picked United off after finally deciding to get himself involved.
Rodallega scored the only goal on 60 minutes, at a time when the fixture had become stretched. A stretched contest was always likely to suit Fulham and engage an attacking line who know as much about the Premier League as they do about the Championship. If Saturday was supposed to be about Ross McCormack then he missed his calling. In the circumstances, he was largely ignored.
Neil Redfearn had warned his players to keep McCormack at arm’s length and they did. United’s former captain – Fulham’s marquee signing of the summer – was not the problem. The issue was Leeds’ inability to harass a defence who conceded five goals at Watford eight days earlier or invade the personal space of a goalkeeper, Gabor Kiraly, whose displays on occasions cause more amusement than his tracksuit trousers.
United have come to see games at Elland Road as their bankers, a reliable source of points, but Fulham reminded them that they do not have the luxury of picking and choosing in this league. Redfearn is not blase about the strain his side’s away form is placing on their home games and next time they turn out in Leeds, Wigan Athletic will share the pitch. It’s a match of immense significance but more so if United take nothing from Nottingham Forest this weekend.
The table shows Leeds in 19th position, five points clear of the soup. Redfearn did not try to brush over it, admitting that his squad needed help and “Championship experience” but insisting that the club’s woeful form under his two predecessors – David Hockaday and Darko Milanic – had placed them in a perilous state. Of the 23 points gained this season, 17 have been accrued on Redfearn’s watch.
“It is a concern,” he said. “We want to be higher up the table. But I inherited a situation where in the other 10 games we got six points. It’s nowhere near enough.
“Whatever headway you make, when you get a blip or a bad result it reflects in your league standing. It magnifies the defeat. But we’ve made things better and we have been playing better, especially at home.
“My overriding feeling is that the lads need some help. We’ve got a young side here and some Championship experience down the middle of the side would help. It’s an important factor.”
Leeds are heading for a transfer embargo next month, the result of a £23m loss last season, but the club believe that loopholes in the rules will allow them to sign new players, albeit a small number of them. The situation at Elland Road is not calling for wholesale changes but Redfearn was right to say that United are short of the full package and beset by a league position which has never looked especially reassuring.
They had chances on Saturday and more than Fulham. The margins were fine. Sam Byram whipped a shot wide of Kiraly’s far post early in the first half after Mowatt turned Fulham inside out with a reverse pass, and Adryan allowed a gift of a cross from substitute Billy Sharp to flash in front of his head six yards out midway through the second.
The opportunity of note fell to Mowatt 29 minutes in, before Fulham had inched out of their shell. Byram teed the midfielder up with a full-blooded delivery and Mowatt met the ball with a brilliant header which Kiraly nudged onto the bar. The rebound struck the keeper’s back and bounced away to safety.
“It’s a great ball in, a great header and to be fair, a great save too,” Redfearn said. “He (Kiraly) touches it onto the bar and if that had of gone in then I think we’d have gone on and won the game. At that point we were in the ascendency.
“If we’d gone 1-0 up we’d have gone two or three I feel. But when you don’t get that first goal, you’re always open to a sucker punch. And to be honest, we lacked a bit of conviction in the final third. In previous home games we’ve had that conviction and devil.
“We had opportunities in and around the box but the passing was tatty compared to what it has been. A draw would have been a fair result.”
With a tight first half over, the match opened up immediately after the half-time. The open space appealed to Fulham as much as it appealed to Leeds. McCormack was always involved, the target of half-hearted jeers from the crowd, but greater pressure through the middle came from Rodallega and Seko Fofana. Lasse Vigen Christensen forced the issue with an hour gone.
The winger collected a throw in and turned into space close to the byline, picking out Rodallega with a low cut-back. Rodallega was off-balance but stabbed a shot inside Marco Silvestri’s left-hand post, the only time the keeper was forced to do anything.
“Their front three was Ross, Rodallega and Brian Ruiz,” Redfearn said. “That’s quite potent. But I actually thought we handled them quite well. No offence to Fulham but they look like we did a month ago – a bit powder-puff in the final third.”
In the last half-hour, the inevitable pressure from Leeds invited Fulham’s forward line to look for more goals. Rodallega should have scored again 10 minutes from the end but Jason Pearce got close enough to him to rush the striker’s finish and it flew into the crowd. Fulham might have appreciated the security but a second goal wasn’t necessary. Injury-time petered out, though not without the additional frustration of a hamstring injury suffered by Stephen Warnock.
“He’s been playing well and he’s an influential character in the dressing room,” Redfearn said. “We’ve got a really young side and he’s a guy who young players look up to.” A few more of those are needed as Christmas takes Leeds into the trenches.
Leeds United: Silvestri, Byram, Cooper, Pearce, Warnock (Berardi 89), Mowatt, Cook, Bianchi, Adryan (Dawson 76), Antenucci, Doukara (Sharp 60). Subs (not used): S Taylor, Tonge, Sloth, Del Fabro.
Fulham: Kiraly, Stafylidis, Bodurov, Hyndman, Grimmer, Hutchinson, Fofana (Zverotic 85), Christensen, Ruiz, Rodallega (Woodrow 82), McCormack. Subs (not used): Roberts, Williams, Kavanagh, Burn, Rodak.