Leeds United are not accustomed to nil-nil draws but a blank result against Nottingham Forest was telegraphed on Saturday. Both clubs will remain in the Championship next season, anxious to ensure they have more to aim at in the middle of March.
United’s priority back in January was to kill their campaign as quickly as possible and there is no desire on Neil Redfearn’s part to pretend that the past eight months have been an opportunity missed but neither Leeds nor Forest were created to make up the numbers with nine games to go. The summer is the next port of call after Saturday’s goalless exchange.
Forest will tell themselves that the play-offs are still there, and mathematically they are, but the end of a scrappy match at Elland Road showed a telling lacking of urgency, particularly from the visitors.
There were no substitutions from Dougie Freedman and no change of system; no last throw of the dice with points in the balance.
The result was right, despite Freedman sounding slightly aggrieved.
Redfearn keeps saying it but for him, the run-in was never supposed to be this comfortable.
United’s head coach readied himself for a nasty finish when control of the club’s squad fell to him in November but there was little tension on Saturday and no focus on other results. A crowd of 30,722 – the largest at Elland Road for 14 months – turned up without expectation, other than a better game than they witnessed.
“When I took the job full time, my remit was to keep us in the Championship,” Redfearn said.
He has been certain of survival for a few weeks now. “We were only two points above the drop so to get ourselves into this position with nine games to go is an achievement by everybody. It was looking dicey at one stage but we still want to build on this and take some confidence into next season.
“Momentum’s important when you’re trying to hit the ground running.”
Saturday’s game had mid-table written all over it, a fixture which depicted Leeds and Forest as competitive but limited.
Freedman’s players were under pressure to dig out a win, nine points adrift of sixth place before kick-off, but the teams were as blunt as each other at the sharp ends of the pitch. Karl Darlow, the Forest goalkeeper, dealt with the best of United’s chances.
Forest’s finer moments were repeatedly wasted by horrible final balls. On the left wing, the quick and dangerous Michail Antonio was as guilty as anyone.
“I’ve got to be happy with the performance,” Redfearn said. “We played well but some days you come up against a team who are organised, as good as you and it doesn’t quite happen.
“We tried to get players on the ball but we needed a bit of quality in the final third, just to get us over the line and get us the win.”
That area of his team is one which Leeds need to address in the summer transfer window.
Redfearn gave short shrift to talk of Mirco Antenucci joining Norwich City on loan but even with the Italian on board, he lacks the natural centre-forward needed to make his formation click spectacularly.
Billy Sharp broke sweat alone up front on Saturday and barely saw an opportunity, as isolated as Forest’s Dexter Blackstock.
Steve Morison filled in on the right wing with Sam Byram injured again but without the pressure he caused at Wigan Athletic seven days earlier. Morison’s afternoon, and in a sense his season, was summed up by a 20-yard shot midway through the first half which hit a corner flag.
“To be fair to him, he’s doing a job for us out there,” Redfearn said. “It’s not his natural position. He’s a centre-forward but he’s mucked in. He’s never quibbled and he gets on with it.
“You’re going to miss someone like Sam Byram because he’s an outstanding player but Steve’s got my backing. He knows I’m on his side and I think he’s playing well. I respect him as a professional. He’s been a big part of this turnaround of us.”
The turnaround Redfearn speaks of – two points a game from the last 12 fixtures – is depicted by the fact that it is almost three months since United were last taken to the cleaners, away at Derby County. His side are fallible but no longer a soft touch. “When we get back to the training ground we’ll see this as a very, very good point,” Freedman admitted. “Sometimes you’ve got to be realistic and accept a point, against a very difficult side with a big crowd behind them.”
The first half was flush with energy but short of conviction. Darlow was called upon in the 11th minute to throw his body in front of Taylor’s strike after Mowatt robbed Eric Lichaj with a sliding tackle and Luke Murphy’s shot deflected into Forest’s box.
“It was the best chance,” Redfearn said. “Charlie should have scored.”
Marco Silvestri did equally well to get his legs to Ben Osborn’s finish 17 minutes later when Antonio worked his way around Scott Wootton and picked the midfielder out.
Kelvin Davis conspired to miss an open goal from the resulting corner.
Other than that, the danger was fleeting.
Morison glanced a header wide as Leeds pressed but Freedman’s midfield, and Henri Lansbury in particular, began to grasp the game for the first time after the interval. Silvestri denied Antonio by sprinting out to parry the ball at his feet with Giuseppe Bellusci backing off and the Italian keeper kept out Chris Burke’s attempt with a low, one-handed save on 74 minutes.
Freedman seemed happy to leave his team be but Redfearn sent on Antenucci and Souleymane Doukara in the closing stages.
Doukara made no impact, cutting a badly out-of-form figure, but Antenucci almost forced a win six minutes from the end when he met Mowatt’s blocked shot with a clean and firm hit which Darlow beat away.
“We went for it by bringing more strikers on,” Redfearn said.
“They gave us a lift but Forest managed to get over the line so fair play to them.
“It just didn’t quite happen for us in front of goal.”
If he remains in situ as head coach, it’s something for him and Leeds to remedy in the weeks and months ahead.