On a weekend when noisy neighbours came together across the UK, Saturday’s fixture at Elland Road provided less to write home about than hell-for-leather derbies in Manchester and Glasgow.
“A nothing game,” was how Garry Monk saw the meeting of West Yorkshire’s finest.
Yet Leeds United lost it and left their head coach to think again about a trend in which his players are coming off worse too often. The feeling that Monk might be straying in vulnerable territory was fuelled by him when he categorised tomorrow’s match with Blackburn Rovers as win-at-all-costs. Win-at-all-costs six league games in. The feeling for Owen Coyle must be mutual.
Huddersfield Town are thinking more about promotion, sitting top of the Championship and well above Leeds who are 12 points in arrears already, and while much of Saturday’s derby ambled by and washed over the crowd, it went without saying in light of the past month that Leeds would fall down any gap between the sides. The match came down to two debatable decisions and a single goal from Aaron Mooy, the on-loan Australian international from Manchester City who bossed the centre of midfield and shot down Leeds with a bone-shaking strike on 55 minutes.
Monk was more annoyed that a bone-shaking tackle committed by Mooy on Liam Bridcutt just before half-time did not take Mooy out of the fray. He dived two-footed towards Bridcutt as Leeds tried to counter-attack on halfway but referee Roger East limited the punishment to a yellow card.
“The irony of the goal is that the player who scored it shouldn’t have been on the pitch,” Monk said. “It was a horrendous tackle – two-footed, off the ground and totally out of control.
“By my recollection the rules are that you should be sent off. If you tell me that’s not a sending off then I don’t know what is.” There was frustration too that moments earlier East had shied away from awarding a penalty after Town defender Chris Schindler laid his hands on Marcus Antonsson after losing the striker for a split-second.
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David Wagner, the Huddersfield manager, tried to bat Mooy’s foul off. “In England, no red card,” the German said. “In Germany, red card. At the end of the day we are in England. It was a hard British challenge.” Mooy was still in the thick of it when, 10 minutes into the second half, Huddersfield worked his own cross back to him 25 yards out and he smashed a shot to the left of Rob Green.
For Huddersfield, the win went down as a precious result, on the back of several others. Wagner did not need to defend or excuse the lack of theatre. Those questions were left to Monk as Leeds slipped again into a generic mould which Elland Road is so accustomed to and tired of. Wagner has his way and Huddersfield never broke from it, retaining reams of possession among their defenders as United stood off, held their shape and waited for Town to play out. That policy made some sense at 0-0, a way of guarding against Huddersfield’s pace. It was more baffling after Mooy found the net.
“There weren’t many chances for either team,” Monk said. “There wasn’t much goalmouth action for either team. It was very much played in the middle of the park.
“They had possession but it was really kept in their own half. In that situation you think it’s going to come down to a set-piece or a mistake and unfortunately for us, the one time we didn’t close the ball down they shoot from distance and score. For me it looked like a 0-0 game or a mistake. The mistake went against us.”
There was, either side of Mooy’s goal, very little to record, aside from an ambitious lob from Rajiv van La Parra which took a diving save from Green to keep the score at 1-0 and a miscued header from Chris Wood which Alex Mowatt laid on a plate in the 88th minute. Danny Ward held that chance with more acrobatics than were necessary. Leeds had 10 minutes of injury-time to dig for an equaliser but did not threaten Ward again, lost by then in a flurry of long balls.
Monk’s biggest call was the leave out Eunan O’Kane, the midfielder and promotion-winner signed from Bournemouth on deadline day. O’Kane is fit and trained on the morning of Saturday’s game but Monk said he had omitted the 26-year-old to give him time to “get up to speed” and adapt to Leeds’ tactics; a singular decision given United’s position in the league and a history which shows that head coaches at Elland Road rarely have luxury of planning two or three games ahead. Saturday felt like a day for Monk’s best players, barring injuries. Kalvin Phillips paired up with Bridcutt instead and struggled badly with the responsibility of taking set-pieces.
“I made the decision (about O’Kane) and it was the right decision,” Monk said. “I spoke to the player and he understood it.
“It’s for him to be ready very, very soon, don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to spend weeks and weeks getting him used to us but there are certain things he needs to know and get up to speed with. I felt it would have been unfair to put him in without that knowledge. He could be available for Tuesday or later this week.”
Tomorrow might be better after a glut of matches which have failed to show Monk’s philosophy in a clear light. The initial plan for 4-2-3-1 formation has gone, traded for a flat 4-4-2 which remained in place throughout the defeat to Huddersfield. His defence were neater and tidier, helped by the aerial presence of Pontus Jansson, but steps forward in one area were lost again to backwards steps elsewhere. When the time for a change came in the second half, Souleymane Doukara replaced Antonsson and the crowd began to vent. Massimo Cellino, looking on from the West Stand, must have seen a weight of poise and confidence which clearly favoured Huddersfield.
Cellino is at the centre of takeover speculation again, fuelled by Gulf Finance House’s exit from the boardroom last week and his recent discussions with Italian businessman Andrea Radrizzani, the founder of global media firm M&P Silva.
Radrizzani is believed to be angling for a majority shareholding in United as part of a deal which will reduce Cellino’s stake but keep him involved in some capacity. Neither party has responded to requests for comment but the Football League has not yet been asked to begin running the fabled Owners and Directors’ Test which caused Cellino so many problems.
At Elland Road life under the Italian continues to go full circle and once again the coach incumbent at the start of the season is at the wrong end of the league and playing the wrong tune. At full-time on Saturday, Monk fought through four minutes of a tetchy interview with BBC Leeds, objecting to questions about identity and his relationship with Cellino before calling a halt to the discussion.
Those around him sensed a man who was wondering where the phrase ‘long-term plan’ had vanished to and it was doubtless hard to tackle those queries after three months as head coach but, as Monk is discovering, this is Leeds and short-term form has had consequences before. Hockaday six games, Milanic six games. Rosler 12 games and now Monk on eight. Still, at the back of most minds is the question of what those knee-jerk changes ever achieved.
Tomorrow night is United versus Blackburn, or 22nd against 24th going by the Championship table.
“We’re trying to take steps forward and I’d be very honest if I thought that wasn’t the case,” Monk said. “I do think some of the results have been harsh.
“Things are going against us. Every mistake we’ve been punished heavily for.
“We’ve got to hope that turns quickly but first of all we have to be focused on Tuesday.” On Saturday he joined Jose Mourinho and Mark Warburton in heading home to lick derby wounds.