Neil Warnock was tempted to miss Leeds United’s game at Cardiff City and scout players for next season instead.
For much of the 1-1 draw he endured, his unconventional idea seemed eminently sensible.
It is hard to know what he has left to discover about the squad at his disposal but he can have learned little on Saturday. Little, that is, beyond the fact that his low opinion of it ought not to change. Warnock summed up a laboured match in one cutting sentence. “If we had anything about us we’d have won that today.”
Leeds don’t and they didn’t, hence the need for a new broom and a clean sweep. Their persistence and a 73rd-minute goal from Luciano Becchio earned them a point – as good a result as the club tend to accrue in Wales – but the frustration for Warnock was his team’s inability to take hold of a game so sterile and so flat.
At face value the final scoreline made satisfactory reading. Leeds have a grisly record at Cardiff and Eddie Gray – present on Saturday as a radio pundit – retired from playing in the year when they last won in the Principality’s capital, far back in 1984. Around 30 away supporters dressed up as St George for the club’s final journey of the season but even they could not inspire the slaying of a Welsh dragon.
For Cardiff, Becchio’s goal mattered, leaving their play-off position vulnerable with the Championship term about to conclude this weekend. The club’s manager, Malky Mackay, blamed that on a brilliant second-half save from United goalkeeper Andy Lonergan rather than on the header from Becchio which came soon after. “That’s probably what got them their point,” he said.
Lee Mason, City’s highly-regarded striker, gave Cardiff the scent of victory by scoring a goal which Warnock and his team would rather not watch again. In a season of lame concessions, his 41st-minute lob made a late appearance near the top of the list.
Cardiff had done nothing to merit that lead and they made a full contribution to an afternoon of forgettable football, but it could not be claimed that beating United has taken exceptional class this season. Eighteen losses and counting, with one game to play. A 19th on Saturday would have been harsh.
It remains to be seen whether they are asked to return to this unhappy hunting ground next season. Cardiff are four games from the Premier League, without looking so close or so good. Their strength, as the division shows, is their ability to resist defeat as consistently as they have. Leeds never truly threatened it.
Mackay’s unchanged team was indicative of Cardiff’s steady league form. Warnock, as ever, tweaked his own after the obligatory red card shown to Darren O’Dea at Blackpool. Given their recent disciplinary record, it was something of an achievement for Leeds to reach full-time with 11 players on the field, left alone by a referee who has not dismissed anyone since August.
In that respect they were slightly fortunate. Mark Halsey could have taken a dimmer view of a 14th-minute scuffle between Robert Snodgrass and Stephen McPhail, a scuffle for which both players were equally responsible. Halsey declined to book them and their confrontation was as lively as the first half got until Mason woke Cardiff up.
Against the team ranked sixth in the table, Warnock’s team looked comfortable. The level of anxiety affecting Cardiff was difficult to gauge with the division so favourable but Saturday’s game felt like a pregnant pause, a fortnight before the start of the play-offs.
City narrowly avoided a concession in the fifth minute when Snodgrass’ quick feet forced a corner and Ross McCormack glanced it wide from a position which begged him to score his 20th goal of the season. For a long time, Cardiff came no closer and Mason, who signed a new contact on Friday, found himself alone and uninvolved for all but a handful of moments.
He made nothing of a chance from close range on 10 minutes, misdirecting a header after the ball sprung unexpectedly to him six yards from goal, and his overhead kick from a Peter Whittingham cross caused Lonergan no problem. Otherwise, the ball was lodged between either box for extended periods.
Warnock had altered his formation by recalling Becchio to fend alone up front and using a three-man midfield of Adam Clayton, Zac Thompson and Danny Pugh. The system was stable for half-an-hour but United’s manager was forced to replace Leigh Bromby when the defender collapsed clutching one knee after directing a simple pass to Tom Lees.
With no player next to him, the severity of the injury became apparent immediately and Bromby was treated for several minutes before being carried down the tunnel on a stretcher. The home crowd applauded him sympathetically.
Cardiff made a brief pretence at picking Leeds open after his substitution and Lees appeared in the right place to head Whittingham’s cross away from Kenny Miller on 36 minutes, but the contest was no spectacle at all. The body language of an animated Mackay contrasted with that of Warnock, a boss who has already seen all he needs to see this season.
Leeds’ attempts to play Snodgrass, McCormack or Becchio into the game were in vain, and the first 40 minutes came and went without a shot on target at either end of the pitch. When Mason scored, the goal conceded was hopelessly soft.
Whittingham lofted a pass in behind Alex Bruce and Lonergan’s indecisive advance towards the ball gave Mason time to dink it over him. The forward’s finish was calm and clinical but easily afforded to him.
It is goals like his that will encourage Warnock to demolish his defence during the summer. Darren O’Dea was released from Leeds last week and others will follow. Bromby is unlikely to play again before Christmas. The improvement seen in the early weeks of Warnock’s reign was sharp but short; too short to persuade him that this team can improve over time.
Paul Connolly, Bromby’s replacement, almost gifted Cardiff a second goal in injury-time when he missed a header and allowed Whittingham to play Miller in behind United’s defence. Lonergan held his nerve and remained on his feet long enough to meet Miller’s low shot with his legs. The save kept Leeds in the match, for what that was worth.
Mark Hudson should have changed that early in the second half when he met Liam Lawrence’s cross with a free header, dipping it over the bar, but Leeds began to establish some control with an hour gone, more balanced and threatening with Connolly in his natural position. Pugh dragged a shot wide from the edge of the box and Becchio nodded a header off target, vague nods towards the equaliser which arrived 17 minutes from the end.
Becchio claimed it, sniffing around in the six-yard area and heading home Connolly’s cross moments after Lonergan met a sweet Andrew Taylor volley with an improbable block. The stadium greeted Becchio’s goal with confused silence, wondering if it really mattered. Middlesbrough’s win over Southampton later in the day ensured that it did but in the grand schemes of both Leeds and Cardiff, Becchio’s strike should make no difference to this season or next.
Cardiff City: Marshall, McNaughton (Blake 90), Turner, Hudson, Taylor, McPhail (Kiss 64), Gunnarsson, Whittingham, Lawrence, Miller (Earnshaw 90), Mason. Subs (not used): Heaton, Ralls.
Leeds United: Lonergan, Lees, Bruce, Bromby (Connolly 33), Robinson, Snodgrass, Pugh, Clayton (Nunez 60), Thompson, McCormack (Webber 60), Becchio. Subs (not used): Forssell, Taylor.