As signs of desperation go, Massimo Cellino’s purple scarf was as blatant as they get. That unlucky colour, the colour he hates, was used as a form of reverse psychology by the Italian at Elland Road on Saturday. It could not be said that it did the trick.
Leeds United’s owner has superstitious traits but the club’s predicament in the Championship is nothing to do with imaginary quirks. Even so, luck is not in their camp at the moment and Leeds felt the strain of fate conspiring, before and after Luke Murphy’s 86th-minute equaliser against Birmingham City.
United’s players are muddling through this season and keeping their heads above the waterline but they have no-one to thank for anything. The woodwork thwarted them in the second half on Saturday – albeit half-an-hour before it turned coat and rescued them – and a spate of penalty claims found a harsh judge in Dean Whitestone. The referee was as unimpressed with those appeals as the crowd were with him.
He set an eventful match in motion in the eighth minute by awarding Birmingham a spot-kick which Paul Caddis dispatched – another precise finish beyond the reach of Marco Silvestri – but the entire ground could see that City were clinging to that lead when Murphy arrived inside their box and stroked a volley into the net late on.
This version of Leeds United do not often do late salvage jobs but as Redfearn said afterwards, a 1-0 defeat would have been a travesty. Murphy’s goal was a break in the gloom which settled on the club last week as Stephen Warnock quit, Cellino locked horns with the Football League again and Ipswich Town moved in for Billy Sharp. Saturday’s point was valuable and Millwall’s defeat to Ipswich, pinning the London club in the Championship’s final relegation place, made any result a good one.
A win is what Redfearn truly needs and his side have not registered one since the end of November but Murphy’s finish ended a 713-minute wait for a goal from open play. The midfielder last scored for Leeds in April.
“You can see that we’ve not won for a while,” Redfearn said. “We looked a bit tentative but the performance, the grit and determination to go a goal down – when you need a win, when you’re under pressure to get a win – and come back was pleasing.
“If we’d got an equaliser 10 minutes earlier we’d probably have gone on and won. I spoke to Gary Rowett (Birmingham manager) and he said they were lucky to get away with a point. A point’s not what we wanted but we’re fighting and when you’re fighting you’ve always got a chance.”
Murphy is an example of the way in which Leeds are currently leaning: more and more towards players who were outcasts or peripheral a month ago. His passing – flighted balls with purpose and vision, in behind City’s defence – kept United moving forward and Steve Morison made much of his service.
Morison is unpopular with the crowd at Elland Road and aware of that fact, forever scarred by Neil Warnock’s rash description of him as a future ‘Leeds legend’ two years ago, but Leeds would have been lost without his movement and his seductive knockdowns. Morison was in Birmingham’s box causing pressure four minutes from the end of normal time when Sam Byram’s cross bounced down into Murphy’s path. A cultured volley flew past goalkeeper Darren Randolph.
The equaliser left Redfearn feeling vindicated; vindicated in using a formation which, with Lewis Cook a little lost on the left wing, was not without its failings, and vindicated in picking the team as he saw fit.
The recall of Murphy – a £1m signing from Crewe in 2013 and an unfortunate poster-boy for Gulf Finance House’s ‘investment’ in Leeds – earlier this month had the smell of a head coach scraping the barrel but in this form, he will take a shirt before most other players.
“Luke’s done nothing but impress me,” Redfearn said. “I had a good chat with him six weeks ago and talked about trying to get him in a better place. He had a rough ordeal last year. But he’s brave. He doesn’t hide, he gets on the ball and he shows the qualities you admire in a footballer. He was the game’s outstanding player.”
Leeds needed someone to usher them after Caddis’ goal on eight minutes. The crowd berated Whitestone for penalising Liam Cooper’s challenge on Clayton Donaldson but it looked like a foul from a distance. Caddis directed his penalty perfectly to Silvestri’s left.
United laboured in parts of the first half and chipped away in others. Randolph pulled off an instinctive parry on his goalline when Giuseppe Bellusci met Murphy’s free-kick with a finish from close-range. At the other end, Silvestri dealt with everything that came his way. Leeds grateful for diving saves from Stephen Gleeson and Andrew Shinnie.
In the second half, Birmingham’s shaves were closer than that. They held their breath on 52 minutes as Morison met Cook’s cross with a glancing header which came back off the inside of a post. Donaldson went just as close on 72 minutes, rattling the woodwork with a similar attempt, but even Rowett conceded that Donaldson’s chance was a break in fairly relentless pressure.
Having ignored an alleged handball inside City’s box before half-time, Whitestone let Paul Robinson get away with a dubious tackle on Byram. He refused to bend either when, in the fourth minute of added-time, the ball struck the hand of substitute David Edgar two yards inside his area.
“Their penalty looked a bit soft,” Redfearn said. “It looked like there was contact with the ball. With ours, I’ve seen them given and I’ve seen them not but I don’t want to talk about the referee in detail. A lot of stuff seemed to go against us and it’s happened quite a bit recently. It’s a little bit worrying.”
Cellino’s purple scarf fell short at the death and the moral of Saturday was that superstition is a poor replacement for common sense. It is apparent that astute signings would make a difference to Redfearn, and a troublesome cameo from Sharp told everyone that loaning him to Ipswich would be lunacy; or a best a great risk.
Mirco Antenucci – guilty of shooting instead of passing and running up blind alleys – punched the dug-out in annoyance when Sharp replaced him on 63 minutes. If that reaction was aimed at Redfearn rather than himself, it was badly misdirected.
Leeds, somehow, are holding themselves together, though the outcome of Cellino’s appeal against his disqualification as owner of the club waits ominously in the wings.
“I can only deal with what’s in front of me,” Redfearn said. He, and his players, are just about hanging in there.
Leeds United: Silvestri, Wootton, Bellusci, Cooper, C Taylor, Byram, Austin, Murphy, Cook (Doukara 78), Antenucci (Sharp 63), Morison. Subs (not used): S Taylor, Pearce, Sloth, Bianchi, Mowatt.
Birmingham City: Randolph, Caddis, Morrison, Robinson, Grounds, Gleeson, Shinnie (Edgar 65), Davis, Cotterill (Zigic 83), Gray (Novak 78), Donaldson. Subs (not used): Doyle, Thomas, Reilly, Hancox.