“Sometimes in life you’ve got to be careful not to be too greedy.” Brian McDermott said it and Gianfranco Zola agreed.
Rarely does a game of football reduce two coaches to the level where neither feels like shouting the odds.
Saturday was one of those games, a bewitching fight between Leeds United and Watford which touched the humility of their respective managers. You expected them to head down the road of coulda-woulda-shoulda once the dust settled but McDermott and Zola were equally nonplussed about who deserved what from 93 minutes of bedlam.
McDermott concluded that a result which might have been better could also have been considerably worse. Leeds were 2-0 down at half-time and should have won 3-2. They drew 3-3 and would have lost in the fourth minute of injury-time but for the outstretched leg of Marius Zaliukas.
“You can have mixed emotions after leading 3-2,” McDermott said, “but I thought it was going to go against us at the end. It’s absolutely a point gained and we deserved a point. Did we deserve all three? Who knows?”
Zola couldn’t answer that question either. The Watford boss moaned briefly about the validity of two of United’s goals but sounded more than slightly relieved after Troy Deeney scored the last of six in the 86th minute. “When you consider the effort from Leeds in the second half, to be fair they deserved a point,” he said.
Deeney forced a draw by knocking in the rebound after United’s goalkeeper, Paddy Kenny, beat a low shot from George Thorne back into his six-yard box. All 22 players would have been forgiven for drawing up the bridge and settling for their lot after so much immense, ambitious football but what followed was a spellbinding period of added-time in which Joel Ekstrand almost righted all of Watford’s wrongs.
The Swede found Leeds dangerously stretched – a feature of the day at Elland Road – as Deeney sounded the last attack and swung a pass into his feet six yards from goal. Ekstrand moved to attack Kenny but a recovering Zaliukas slid desperately towards him and diverted the goalbound ball past the far post. “It was a terrific tackle,” McDermott said. “The game was so open at that point and anything could have happened. It really could have gone either way.”
Forty-five minutes earlier, McDermott had been fighting to convince his players of precisely that as they sat in the dressing room and reflected on a 2-0 deficit. Watford are wading through a swamp after eight games without a win but last season’s play-off finalists have the capacity to flick a switch and Zola’s squad boasts ample amounts of pace, the attribute which Leeds toil most seriously against.
United controlled plenty of the first half but were picked off twice, the second goal coming through a fine counter-attack. Deeney opened the scoring with a sharp finish on the turn after a 12th-minute cross found its way to him via touches off Zaliukas and Lewis McGugan, and Cristian Battocchio struck again with half-time looming.
Leeds gave him the freedom of the pitch by committing numerous players forward for an Alex Mowatt free-kick and Kenny was hopelessly exposed once Hector Bellerin broke free and danced around the covering Sam Byram.
Byram had the opportunity to pull Bellerin back and take a yellow card but instead let him go, and an infield pass ran to Battocchio who held his balance and his nerve with the box filling up and curled the ball off the inside of a post.
The interval came quickly and McDermott tried to avert the feeling that all hope had gone. “All I said to the players was ‘let’s get the next goal’,” he said. “We needed to score it and we did.
“At 2-1 the whole stadium erupted as I knew it would. And at 2-1 I thought we’d go on and win the game. We very nearly did that too.”
In the opposing dressing room, Zola’s message to his team was to keep the game quiet and subdued for 10 minutes. “Perhaps next time I’ll say nothing,” he joked.
Watford were under siege from the first kick of the ball and fortunate not to concede twice to Matt Smith inside 60 seconds. Their composure deserted them completely in the 50th minute when Danny Pugh ran onto a cross from McCormack, fought off Nyron Nosworthy and chipped a shot over Jonathan Bond from an angle which heavily favoured Watford’s keeper.
There was, as McDermott put it, an eruption of noise. Zola felt the tremors too. “We couldn’t afford to show any signs of going backwards,” he said. “Especially in a stadium like this. It can be very intimidating and the crowd were on top of our players.”
Six minutes later Leeds scored again. Lee Peltier collected possession on the halfway line as Zola argued for a foul on McGugan and fed McCormack on the right wing. The Scot bobbed and weaved before teeing up Smith with a cross which the striker devoured. As pandemonium ensued, Bond parried Rodolph Austin’s point-blank header and a shot from Mowatt struck the leg of Thorne before riding up against the bar.
A header from McCormack then fell foul of an offside flag but Watford’s chances of resisting a third concession receded by the minute.
With 78 gone, Luke Murphy cleared half of the field with a lofted pass and McCormack met the delivery with a delicate touch, knocking it beyond the onrushing Bond. Zola complained weakly about a contentious throw-in afterwards. “That mistake upset me,” he said.
Watford looked beaten but Deeney reacted as a striker should when Kenny left the door ajar and Ekstrand so nearly delivered the coup de grace. There was deflation on the faces of United’s players at full-time but a feeling of appreciation around the ground. Saturday is as good as football gets in the Championship.
“There’ll be initial disappointment that we didn’t get over the line and win 3-2,” McDermott said, “but everyone will have gone home and realised that they’ve seen a fabulous game and real desire.
“Both teams were trying to win that game.
“I suppose with every one of Watford’s goals you could say that it should have been stopped but that’s football. I’d rather see 4-3 than a scrappy 1-0 and it’s a good point gained. We’ll look back at it like that.”
Leeds United: Kenny, Peltier, Zaliukas, Pearce, Byram, Murphy, Mowatt, Pugh, Austin, McCormack, Smith. Subs (not used): Cairns, Brown, Tonge, Varney, Drury, Poleon. Warnock.
Watford: Bond, Faraoni (Cassetti 73), Nosworthy, Ekstrand, Pudil, Thorne, Bellerin, Battocchio (Hall 90), McGugan (Murray 67), Anya, Deeney. Subs (not used): Woods, Iriney, Fabbrini, Forestieri.