At the final whistle they ran to hug Bailey Peacock-Farrell, a reaction for his benefit rather than Marcelo Bielsa’s. The goalkeeper learned something about the harsh world around him last week but came up with the riposte he would have wanted when Leeds United needed him.
It was Bielsa's intention to drop Bailey Peacock-Farrell before Saturday’s game against Bristol City – a match he missed regardless with a knee injury – and had fate not dealt Jamal Blackman a broken leg in the international break, it would have been Blackman between the posts as Reading tried to snatch a draw with a 90th-minute penalty at Elland Road.
Peacock-Farrell found himself there instead and held it together by guessing right and tipping substitute Marc McNulty’s strike wide of a post.
Fellow sub’ Joshua Sims had won the penalty himself, taken down by Barry Douglas as the clock ticked onto 89 minutes, but his attempt to find the bottom corner found Peacock-Farrell’s outstretched hand and Leeds walked away with a 1-0 win.
Peacock-Farrell clenched his fists at the crowd and the crowd sang his name in return. It was a script he might have written himself, so soon after seeing Bielsa’s faith in him dip.
United’s head coach had tried to accentuate the qualities of Peacock-Farrell – first-choice throughout the season so far – while publicly revealing that he was ready to replace the Northern Ireland international before Blackman’s season was ended by injury.
That admission, despite Bielsa’s attempts to soften it, pointed to a loss of confidence in the way his goalkeeper had been playing but Peacock-Farrell’s save was a first step towards reasserting himself before Leeds sign another goalkeeper in January.
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Bielsa can sees little difference between the upper end of the Championship and the division’s lowest levels and there was none to be found until half-time last night but what sets Leeds apart this season is the range of tricks up their head coach’s sleeve.
On paper it was third against 20th at Elland Road, a side who have been up there all season against a side who have been down there for longer than anyone wants to be.
but Reading’s league position and a blunt edge where it matters disguised a level of understanding which kept Leeds in check for 45 minutes. Then Bielsa sent for Samuel Saiz and Jack Clarke and the strength of Reading’s resistance waned.
Bielsa has been holding Saiz in reserve for a month, preferring a starting line-up without his unorthodox playmaker, but there are moments when the Spaniard’s verve is needed and yesterday was one.
Bielsa binned Lewis Baker and Gjanni Alioski at the interval, neither of whom were being positively mentioned in dispatches, and gave Saiz and Clarke the second half. The difference was tangible and almost instant, and Reading, like Bristol City four days earlier, buckled.
Stuart Dallas forced a victory with his first goal in 14 months, a chance which was begging to be scored from a few yards out, but the match was dictated first by the change in the momentum and the necessary shift from tentative, 50-50 football before half-time to dominant, overwhelming football after it. Bielsa has made substitutions work for him this season but perhaps never more effectively than this.
The Argentinian, nonetheless, continues to follow his own mind. There were questions beforehand about Saiz’s extended omission from Leeds’ starting side and an effusive quote from Bielsa describing the him as “the most skilled player in our team” but while a 4-1-4-1 system opened up another place in midfield, Bielsa handed it to Baker instead. Baker had not started a league game this season, or at all since last September. Forty-five anonymous minutes went some way to explaining why.
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The night would have started perfectly, and potentially flown from there, had Douglas put away the chance which fell to him in the second minute with an exposed net to aim at. The left-back met Pablo Hernandez’s back-post cross with a header which bobbled tamely wide and drew a wry smile from a player who knew he might have scored.
At first glance there was more pace and aggression about Reading than there had been about Bristol City, despite a comparatively worse league position, and Peacock-Farrell averted a goal from nothing when he reacted to Leandro Bacuna’s attempt to beat him with a free-kick from a tight angle, scrambling back to push the ball over his crossbar.
Kemar Roofe was unlucky to see a cleanly-hit overhead kick hit a defender six yards out and then whipped a strike over the top on the half-hour but Reading picked holes in the left side of United’s defence and threatened twice around the 25th minute as 18-year-old Danny Loader smashed a shot against the back of Yakou Meite and Chris Gunter found Kalvin Phillips – centre-back for the night – waiting to block his attempt to beat Peacock-Farrell.
There were patches of imagination from Leeds and more threat than there had been on Saturday but a suspicion too that Phillips’ passing was needed further forward.
Reading packed players behind the ball but left enough free to counter and ensure that Bielsa’s side were forced to watch their backs. The misdirection of the first half was a summed up by Gjanni Alioski conjuring an embarrassing dive in an attempt to end Leeds’ streak of 56 games without a penalty. Mike Dean paid him back with a yellow card.
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It was the end of Alioski’s evening and the end of Baker’s too, as Saiz and Clarke replaced them.
Bielsa would have taken immediate credit for the perfect switch had Saiz’s shot from Clarke’s cut-back in the first minute of the second half not struck Andy Yiadom and trundled past a post but it had the desired effect. Reading became penned in and it took Anssi Jaakkloa’s fingernails to claw a downward header from Roofe off his line on 57 minutes, the save of the night.
Pressure had broken Bristol City eventually and to Reading’s cost, it did the same three minutes later. Hernandez read the run of Douglas who got in behind Chris Gunter and though Roofe attempt to steer in a low cross was blocked, Dallas could not fail to put away the second rebound.
There was, though, an unforeseen twist to come as the 89th minute arrived and Douglas dived in on Sims, bringing him down and tempting Dean to point to the spot.
McNulty went for the bottom right-hand corner but Peacock-Farrell second-guessed him and palmed the ball wide.
United’s players sought the keeper out at full-time, embracing him one by one.
Somehow, this has been his week.