Leeds United: ‘Deflated’ Whites in need of an on-field lift

Billy Sharp heads against the Wigan crossbar. PIC: Jonathan Gawthorpe
Billy Sharp heads against the Wigan crossbar. PIC: Jonathan Gawthorpe
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Neil Redfearn insists he and Billy Sharp will have “no problem” after the striker’s angry reaction to his Boxing Day substitution, saying: “I was far worse than that when I was a player.”

Redfearn plans to speak with Sharp and smooth over Friday’s incident but Leeds United’s head coach refused to criticise the 28-year-old, dismissing his show of dissent as “not a major issue.”

Sharp kicked a water bottle towards the home dug-out at Elland Road and walked straight down the tunnel after Redfearn replaced him with Souleymane Doukara during the second half of a 2-0 defeat to Wigan Athletic.

Redfearn had recalled Sharp to Leeds’ starting line-up for the first time since September six days earlier, using the experienced forward in a 1-1 draw at Nottingham Forest.

Sharp’s penalty secured a point at the City Ground but he and United endured an unrewarding afternoon against Wigan, succumbing to an avoidable own goal from Liam Cooper and a late finish from James McClean.

The ex-Sheffield United forward was one of the club’s most high-profile signings in the summer, joining on a two-year deal from Southampton after Leeds paid around £600,000 to settle his contract at St Mary’s, but despite Sharp scoring on his debut against Middlesbrough, his impact has been limited.

Redfearn said Sharp’s performance at Forest had earned him the right to another start alongside top scorer Mirco Antenucci but United’s boss gave Doukara the final 20 minutes against Wigan in a bid to “freshen up” his side and avert an 11th league defeat of the season.

The result dragged Leeds to within four points of the Championship’s bottom three, prompting Redfearn and captain Stephen Warnock to admit that the club were lodged in a relegation fight.

But Redfearn, a former Wigan and Barnsley midfielder, defended Sharp at full-time, saying: “I’ve done that myself in the past.

“I was far worse than Billy when I was a player. I was a nightmare.

“He wants to play, he wants to start and I understand that. But looking at it from my side it’s important that he understands it’s a team game.

“He’s part of a squad and sometimes you have to change things around to chase a game or do something different.

“The two strikers (Sharp and Antenucci) played really well at Forest, I have to say that, so they deserved to start again.

“In the first half Billy was quiet. In the second half he played quite well, looked decent and put two or three good balls into the box.

“But we just tried to freshen it up and give the team a different perspective with Doukara.

“I’ll speak to Billy about it but I don’t have a problem with it. I’d be disappointed if he wasn’t disappointed about coming off. I don’t see it as a major issue.”

Sharp struck Wigan’s crossbar with a header in the first half and Leeds were punished for failing to take a series of chances after half-time.

Antenucci saw a glaring opportunity deflect wide before the hour and McClean’s 83rd-minute strike came shortly after Sam Byram failed to turn in a Warnock corner from two yards out.

United’s form – showing two wins from their last 15 league matches – has intensified the need for new signings and the club are close to finalising a deal to take 6’2” striker Leonardo Pavoletti from Italian club Sassuolo.

Leeds hope to sign Pavoletti on loan until the end of the season when the January transfer window opens, despite the embargo imposed on them by the Football League for a breach of Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules.

Regulations governing FFP embargoes permit Championship sides to recruit players for no fee and for a wage packet of no more than £600,000 a year. United have proposed an agreement which would allow them to sign Pavoletti permanently in the summer, provided their embargo is lifted by then.

Reports in Italy say the 26-year-old – Serie B’s second highest scorer last season with 24 goals on loan at Varese – is valued by Sassuolo at more than £3m.

Leeds owner Massimo Cellino is currently in Miami and will not return to England for another fortnight but United intend to secure Pavoletti’s signature shortly after the winter window opens.

The club, meanwhile, have one more fixture before the turn of the year, away at Derby County tomorrow night. Derby are one of only six sides who have lost to Leeds this season, suffering a 2-0 defeat at Elland Road late last month.

But they came through a spell of mixed form with a crushing 4-0 win at Birmingham City on Boxing Day.

Redfearn said he had given his players a “b******ing” during half-time of their defeat to Wigan but he limited his criticism after the final whistle, admitting he was wary of “deflating” an under-pressure squad.

United’s boss also gave his backing to Cooper, despite the error which saw the centre-back chest a McClean cross into his own net 10 minutes into the match.

Leeds have been hampered by costly mistakes all season and Redfearn said: “You can work with a back-fours and organise them, and we do.

“We talk about defending in key areas.

“But when people cross the line they’ve got to make decisions.

“Top players always minimise their mistakes. World-class defenders make no mistakes.

“But I’m not knocking Coops because he’s been playing quite well recently. He’s a young guy and he’s learning his trade at this level. We’ve got to be philosophical now, move on and be strong.

“It was important that the right things were said at the end because we don’t want to deflate the players too much. We’ve got to go to Derby and get a result.

“We did enough to deserve something out of the (Wigan) game and that’s a fact.

“I’d be more worried if we were playing poorly and getting beaten.”

Caleb Ekuban

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