This is the future as Neil Redfearn sees it. It’s the future as Massimo Cellino sees it too. There’s consensus over football at Leeds United and little to fight about when the penny drops.
It dropped on Saturday and dropped emphatically, as United’s head coach believed it would. Redfearn has been careful in the weeks since his appointment to avoid promising too much too soon but a flawless win over Derby County was no upset in his eyes.
“It’s been coming,” he said, and it genuinely has. Bit by bit in his five games in charge, Leeds have started to get the measure of the Championship. They had Derby worked out long before full-time and the league leaders accepted a 2-0 defeat without much complaint. The odd decision aside, there were no complaints to be aired.
Redfearn is adamant that it will not be like this every weekend, not at such an early stage of his tenure as boss, but the performance against Derby is what he aspires to. It is football which, produced consistently, would carry Leeds up and out of the Championship. When Cellino says next season for promotion, afternoons like Saturday vindicate his confidence.
United’s owner warned at the outset that progress with him would be piecemeal, and piecemeal it is. There were plans afoot for United to stage a team photo on the pitch before Saturday’s game, four months on from the traditional date, and the Italian would not pretend that his ducks are in line, but he asked Redfearn for a competitive side and he is getting one. Cellino would have to go back to Brentford in September to find a game when Leeds were embarrassed.
Their dangerous, unpredictable streak was something that Derby’s manager, Steve McClaren, picked up on beforehand. “I told my players that if they were below their best, this Leeds team would hurt them,” McClaren said. “We were below our best. We could have been here until midnight without scoring.” United’s goalkeeper, Marco Silvestri, did not have a save to make.
Beyond Derby’s league position, the markers for progress were numerous. For one, the result ended County’s ridiculous dominance over Leeds, condemning them to a first defeat in 13 meetings. Will Hughes, who has grown accustomed to murdering United’s midfield, was made to look his tender age by two other precocious teenagers, Alex Mowatt and Lewis Cook.
“They’re in the same ilk as him and on the same level now,” Redfearn said. “Hughes is a top young player and Derby have got a few of them but they’re no better than our top young players.”
Redfearn knew that Mowatt and Cook, two former academy footballers, would play for him and support him. They are his boys and his products. But the faith in United’s head coach runs deeper than that, held by players who grew up elsewhere.
Mirco Antenucci scored both of United’s goals, one either side of half-time, and forced Derby to keep an eye over their shoulder as they chased a lost cause in the second half. Even the striker was surpassed by Stephen Warnock.
There have been times in the past when Leeds and Warnock felt like an awkward fit – uncomfortable with or uninspired by each other – but the left-back has arrived in the past four months. “Infectious,” Redfearn called him afterwards. He covered the pitch like a rash.
Warnock took the captaincy after Redfearn dropped Jason Pearce and made way for Giuseppe Bellusci in the centre of defence, a brave call which Redfearn did not have to defend. Leeds were watertight for all but a few moments. Warnock had a hand in their second goal on 50 minutes but his anticipation mattered more: so often in the right place at the right time and so often the last line of defence. His sliding tackle which denied Chris Martin a tap-in five minutes from the end was improbably brilliant, even if Kwame Thomas should have buried the rebound.
“Steve’s enjoying himself,” Redfearn said, “and maybe because the football we’re playing suits him.
“You’ve got to remember he’s been in the Premier League. He’s used to playing a certain way. But he’s got the bit between his teeth and his a class act.”
United’s luck held in the 85th minute and Thomas took the loose ball from Martin’s half-chance and lashed it over an exposed goal. Leeds were fortunate too that an edge-of-the-box foul by Liam Cooper on Cyrus Christie midway through the second half did not lead to a penalty or a red card but Derby were praying for a lifeline in those seconds.
Leeds had slowly driven them to desperation and exasperation. McClaren, who spent an hour in the press box and grew grimmer in face as the match wore on, was philosophical in the end.
“There were two good sides out there and Derby played their part,” said Redfearn graciously. “They’re top of the league for a reason and they’re the best side we’ve played. People will look at the result and think they played badly but they didn’t. They played well, we played better.
“They started well but after 10 minutes of the game we came onto them and I think it shocked them. They’re not used to that. They’re used to people being direct but we’re not. They got out-passed and we had a cutting edge.”
McClaren agreed with that. “In Antenucci, Leeds had someone who could put the ball in the net,” he said. The striker scored his first two minutes before the interval, clipping a shot past Lee Grant after Mowatt dispossessed Hughes and worked the ball into the box from the left wing.
Hughes was guilty of stopping and claiming in vain for a foul as Mowatt took possession and sprinted away from him.
Five minutes into the second half, Derby’s defence split open again. Warnock overlapped and took Mowatt’s pass before squaring a cut-back to Antenucci. The forward’s finish was precise and deadly, placed beyond Grant’s fingertips and inside his left-hand post.
For much of the game, McClaren would have killed for Redfearn’s aggressive full-backs. He would have killed for Antenucci too. His lot at Pride Park might take Derby into the Premier League this season and County’s standing in the league is something to envy but Saturday was a rare experience for Leeds: to be in possession of players who should be the envy of other clubs in the division; as fit as Derby and as assured as Derby.
“This has been coming in the last four performances,” Redfearn said. “Against Charlton, in the first half against Blackpool and definitely against Blackburn. But this performance was complete.
“It’s important that the lads feel comfortable with what we’re doing but I’ve been saying to them and to others that if we get the performances right, we’ll get results too.” There is no longer any doubting that.
Leeds United: Silvestri; Byram, Bellusci, Cooper, Warnock, Bianchi (Austin 68), Cook, Mowatt; Adryan (Tonge 90), Doukara, Antenucci. Subs (not used): S Taylor, Berardi, Pearce, Dawson, Sharp.
Derby County: Grant; Christie, Keogh, Shotton, Forsyth, Mascarell (Bryson 66), Hughes, Hendrick, Russell (Thomas 66), Ibe (Dawkins 66), Martin. Subs (not used): Roos, Buxton, Eustace, Coutts.