The Championship is at that delicate stage where stamina and nerve start to matter and last night’s game at Elland Road deserved a better backdrop than the argument over who exactly was lurking outside Derby County’s training ground with binoculars and pliers on Thursday morning.
Derby want satisfaction for what they see as an scouting trip by Leeds United which encroached on their privacy and disregarded the spirit of the sport but no punishment of Leeds, if any is forthcoming, will feel as good as victory over Derby felt for Marcelo Bielsa. Above board or not in his methods of preparation, Derby were found out last night in a way which required no covert analysis.
Whether a peak through the fence around Derby’s training complex made a difference or not is for Bielsa to know but while Frank Lampard fumed over a controversy which promises to run and run, he could not pretend that marginal gains were to blame for a result at Elland Road which pushed Leeds five points clear of the rest of the Championship and left Derby trailing 11 points behind.
The scoreline was tighter than Leeds’ 4-1 win at Pride Park on the second weekend of the season but the gulf was as wide and goals from Kemar Roofe and Jack Harrison made for a 2-0 hammering. #
Football, for 90 minutes at least, had permission to hold the stage.
‘Spygate’ was everywhere before the game started, an incident which is already under Football Association investigation and which Leeds will be asked to answer for at some stage. Bielsa tried to do so before kick-off in a live interview with Sky, offering a mea culpa and accepting responsibility for the reconnaissance job in Derby, but Lampard refused to accept that Bielsa was the victim of a culture clash or that a practice which is prevalent in South America he fallen foul of English attitudes.
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“That doesn’t work for me,” Lampard insisted but Bielsa made a point of seeking him out for a handshake on the touchline. Drinks, it is safe to assume, were not shared later.
Some football was desperately needed by kick-off and the mess created by Thursday’s incident was suspended in engrossing style as Leeds went at Derby likes a teams with a grievance of their own. It was scarcely believable that in the very first minute referee Andy Davies point to the penalty spot after a foul by Andre Wisdom on Gjanni Alioski, only to realise 30 seconds later that an offside flag had been raised against Alioski.
Given the build-up, it went without saying that the decision was wrong.
Derby started under the cosh and stayed there; lucky before Roofe scored on 20 minutes to see Liam Cooper slice over from a range where slicing over seemed hard to do and deafened by a crowd who were not in the mood to apologise for anything, least of all their head coach. Leeds dealt with a lack of popularity long before Lampard was born and Bielsa’s arts, dark though they were made to look by Derby’s manager, will lose him few friends around here.
He is promising, with 19 games left, to deliver what no manager here has done in a decade and a half but Leeds have been strangely edgy in the past fortnight; league leaders still, with a cushion below them, but made to think by successive league defeats and aware of pressure from the outside to ensure that the transfer window will not be allowed to open and shut quietly.
A first signing should quell that tension next week, bringing Real Madrid’s Kiko Casilla, a goalkeeper capped once by Spain, to Elland Road on a permanent basis. Casilla is due to complete his move before Leeds visit Stoke City and at a stroke, Bielsa will have a credible, highly-experienced alternative to Bailey Peacock-Farrell.
Peacock-Farrell’s duties last night were so perfunctory that he might as well have not been on the pitch. Derby were treading water by the 20th minute, frozen by Leeds’ onslaught, when Scott Carson, the former United keeper, chose to punch a corner from a fit and frenzied Pablo Hernandez which found him in enough space to catch it.
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Jack Clarke gathered the ball, skinned Craig Bryson on the right wing and dinked a low cross to the near post where Roofe was waiting to guide the ball brilliantly into the Roofe of Carson’s net. Roofe again, the scorer of two goals at Pride Park in August and the scorer of 14 for the season. It was because Bielsa fancied him to do so well that Leeds made no effort to get involved in the deal which took Jack Marriott to Derby for £6m in the summer.
While Roofe ran the channels and niggled at Lampard’s defence. Marriott searched in vain for the ball. It eluded Derby for long stretches before being cheaply lost with the touch of a trampoline. Tom Lawrence came up with their first shot in the 34th minute, wafting it into the sky. There was nothing Lampard, with arms tightly folded, could say or do until half-time gave him the chance to send on David Nugent.
No sooner had Nugent taken up position than Leeds scored again in the 47th minute. Clarke, whose age underplays his footballing mind, tormented Derby out wide and opened up space to cross, forcing Carson to claw the ball from under his crossbar. Alioski was waiting to supply an inside pass which gave Harrison a tap-in to beat most tap-ins.
It was easy to ask at that point if the events of the previous 24 hours had pre-occupied Derby to their cost, or if Leeds were simply a class apart. The oles around the hour provided Elland Road’s verdict and the closing stages of the second half were a masterclass in wing-play from a player in Clarke who will not be spending much of his professional life in the Championship.
Derby saw more of the ball but none of the same finesse, a shadow of whatever it was Bielsa expected to meet, and their disillusion drew them into heavy, cynical fouls. All Lampard had left at full-time was the moral high ground and a captive audience, waiting to hear his inner thoughts.
For Leeds, the consequences of Spygate were for another day.