After a rousing first week at the coalface for Thomas Christiansen came a lesson about how the Championship works: Premier League clubs hunting his prized centre-forward and the brick wall of Preston North End drawing the sting from Leeds United’s opening league game at home.
There are worse managerial starts in United’s records than four points from two fixtures and Christiansen stood to become the first manager since Jimmy Armfield in 1974 to win his first three on Saturday but a slog of a goalless draw with Preston gave the club’s free-scoring wins over Bolton and Port Vale a different perspective.
There is a canny mindset amongst most Championship teams and Preston had it; defensively sound, full of running and niggle in midfield and unafraid to waste time in spades after a red card shown to Ben Pearson on the hour invited Leeds to lay siege to their goal. There were chances at either end and Preston had the better of them, even though Alex Neil’s side found themselves at the mercy of a one-on-one involving Chris Wood in the 73rd minute.
Wood skipped onto a sharp through-ball from Pablo Hernandez and sized up goalkeeper Chris Maxwell. The striker slipped a shot to one side, Maxwell guessed right and pulled off a save which helped Preston depart unscathed. Persistent to the end, the visitors would have ducked out of Elland Road with three points had a deflected shot from Josh Harrop not crashed back off the face of United’s crossbar in the sixth minute of injury-time.
Leeds found themselves in that rut for much of the afternoon, pushing and pressing to the point of frustration as Preston held their shape and sniffed for opportunities. It took the dismissal of Pearson for a second yellow card to release Christiansen’s players and enthuse a large crowd.
“If you told me that in my first two games I’d take four points, I would be satisfied,” Christiansen said, “but in the first game at home I would have liked to take three points. When you play with one player more and create opportunities you should not be happy with one point. But this is football.
“In the end, the result is fair enough. Our expectation of the first home game was to take three points but we’ll accept this point and analyse why we weren’t able to take there.
“They had a good first half and we didn’t have the speed or the aggression we should have had. In the second half it was better but it was a tough game, a difficult game.”
Some of Leeds’ analysis will focus on problems which surfaced last season, not least a midfield which found the spiky intent and drive of Preston’s middle three – Pearson, Daniel Johnson and Alan Browne – difficult to quell. There were more unexpected traits too, particularly Wood failing to get the better of Maxwell when the two were eye-to-eye deep into the second half. It was, to coin a phrase, a chance he normally finishes in his sleep.
Wood was the subject of a £12million bid last week, believed to be from Burnley and rejected by Leeds immediately. Christiansen, the club and their owner, Andrea Radrizzani, are unanimously adamant that interest from the Premier League will not twist them into selling him but the £12m offer was the sound of the starting gun. In that respect, the transfer window cannot close quickly enough.
It was put to Christiansen, somewhat speculatively, that Wood’s failure to put away his 73rd-minute chance was the mark of a player distracted by the level of attention on him.
“No, no, no,” Christiansen replied.
“From my point of view I believe he put the ball where he should.
“The only thing is that the goalkeeper made a good save. This situation happens.”
At the other end, United’s keeper, Felix Wiedwald, had the odd sensation of 90 minutes without a testing save to make but with enough Preston chances to keep him on edge. Tom Barkhuizen whipped a 20-yard shot inches wide in the first half and Alan Browne twice failed to make anything of cut-backs from Jordan Hugill at close range.
Leeds’ best riposte saw Gianni Alioski drag a shot beyond Maxwell’s goal after skipping past two challenges but United were treading water and calling for Samuel Saiz from the bench before Pearson earned his red card. A 58th-minute volley from Greg Cunningham, which struck the underside of the bar and appeared to cross the line, was ruled out for offside,
Pearson has evident disciplinary issues – 16 yellow cards last season, one more than Leeds centre-back Pontus Jansson – and having slid through Eunan O’Kane in the first half, his pull of Kalvin Phillips in the centre-circle on 60 minutes was asking for trouble. “The second one was frustrating for us,” said Neil. “I’ve spoken to him about his disciplinary picture.”
United waded forward quickly, working Borthwick-Jackson down the left and teasing some sweet deliveries from him. Wood was denied by Maxwell’s reflexes and Saiz, after his midweek hat-trick against Port Vale, nodded a close-range header weakly at the keeper. Maxwell beat away a header from another substitute, Stuart Dallas, and was on his feet in time to meet Pablo Hernandez’s volley on the rebound.
Preston’s resistance was matched by a penchant for killing time, something Christiansen was philosophical about afterwards. “The referee only added five minutes,” United’s boss said. “I said to him that he could have given more time.
But if we had scored our opportunities we would not be speaking about that.” In the final seconds, Preston fired up a last counter attack and Harrop’s shot from inside the box deflected onto the face of the bar. Afterwards, Neil’s criticism was saved for away-ticket costs which ran to £44 for some of Preston’s supporters.
At those prices, and amid spiralling optimism in Leeds, a goalless match was not in the script. Elland Road drew in almost 33,000 and the ground gave rise to the almost unthinkable scenario of a United owner being applauded and cheered as he stepped from his car before the game.
“The support here is what makes Leeds big,” Christiansen said.
“I knew where I was coming to and I’ll give my best to make them happy.”