Leeds United’s game against Nottingham Forest did well to get a look-in, engaging as the afternoon was. The situation at Elland Road is such that football finds itself vying for attention with other matters more complex and intriguing.
It has been that way since the start of the season and Saturday proved no different. Forest’s demise was preceded by a fit of disclosure from Ken Bates in which the long-anticipated takeover of Leeds – or investment as Bates religiously calls it – sounded closer than ever. Alongside him in the directors’ box were representatives of the group who are bidding to acquire some or all of his majority shareholding.
A lengthy interview with Bates on LUTV, the club’s official television station, did not paint the complete picture or touch at all on what the fate of United’s chairman will be if and when major investment comes to Leeds but it went further than before in implying that a deal was now expected. “The potential investors are looking to conclude things as soon as possible,” Bates said.
United’s manager, Neil Warnock, will believe it when he sees it; not because he doubts the sincerity of the grand plan but because the promise of investment has been hanging in the air for months. One legacy of that uncertainty is the patched-up squad who raised themselves impressively to inflict Forest’s first defeat of the season. For Warnock it was business as usual on Saturday: football first and financial investment whenever it arrives.
“It’s encouraging,” said Warnock when asked about Bates’ latest remarks, “but I don’t hold my breath when I hear these announcements.
“It’s best for me to wait until everything’s concluded because it’s only then that we can expect things to change. But it’s a positive step and that’s what we want. It’s what the fans wanted. In fairness to the chairman, I think he wants a positive result from this as quickly as possible. I do believe that.
“But I hope the people who are investing watched the game closely because what’s not to like about that? We don’t have many boring games and our performance was great. We showed no weakness as a team and it was a day when Leeds United Football Club showed what it can be.
“I’m talking about everything and everybody.
“I can understand why people would want to get involved and I wish I’d been here 10 years ago. It’s almost a pity that I’ve come at this stage of my career rather than with a good few years ahead of me.”
This has the potential to be his final season as a manager but at 63 he still has the motivational knack.
Leeds were bereft of players on Saturday and in pessimistic quarters bereft of hope but the abject afternoon was Forest’s to endure. Warnock’s problems stacked up beforehand; Sean O’Driscoll’s appeared in a costly first half.
The former Doncaster Rovers manager had nothing good to say about those 45 minutes afterwards, claiming his side had looked ready to fold “with a whimper.” United’s tactics gave Forest no space to work in and two examples of flailing defending were seized upon by Leeds. O’Driscoll had no choice but to introduce substitutes at half-time – Henri Lansbury and Lewis McGugan, the latter of whom should arguably have started the game.
Warnock went down the same unpredictable route by giving 19-year-old Dominic Poleon his full debut, two days after speaking candidly and critically about the striker’s attitude. In response Poleon displayed the raw skill apparent in past appearances for United’s now-defunct reserve team and he scored their second goal with a sharp finish on 26 minutes.
The chance was something of a gift after Danny Collins and Greg Halford left a high ball to bounce and Daniel Ayala made a mess of dispossessing Luciano Becchio inside Forest’s box. Ayala’s sliding tackle pushed the ball towards Poleon who met it first time and drove a shot inside Lee Camp’s near post.
Twelve minutes on from Becchio’s opening goal, United’s sense of control was complete. Their passage through the opening minutes had been nervous, with Simon Cox smashing a glorious chance at Paddy Kenny and referee Andy D’Urso spotting a foul when Rodolph Austin nudged a corner from Andy Reid into his own net, but it did not take Warnock’s players long to find fault in Forest’s rearguard.
Becchio took advantage in the 14th minute, slicing a volley into the roof of the net after the exemplary El-Hadji Diouf turned Dan Harding inside out and flighted a cross towards Sam Byram at the far post.
Between that and Poleon’s strike, Warnock could hardly have been happier, even after Becchio missed the definition of a sitter in the last minute of the first half. United’s boss was relieved to have the Argentinian on the pitch having seen him injure an Achilles tendon against Hull City earlier in the week.
“We should have been out of sight by half-time,” said Warnock, “but with all the problems we had during the week, I can’t complain.
“It was a late decision to play Becchio but he’s a tough cookie and he knew we were desperate for him to be fit. He didn’t do too much at all on Friday. I told him to take his missus shopping. I didn’t want to do anything that risked making his injury worse.
“Forest played some good football for 20 minutes but we hung in and the first goal changed the game. In the second half you’ve had a team like theirs who play the way they do relying on long throws. I thought we were great.”
Forest’s goal came from a long throw, headed in on the hour by Dexter Blackstock after Kenny tried and failed to punch clear Greg Halford’s set-piece, but their football was more considered that Warnock suggested.
As O’Driscoll’s players swarmed over Leeds, McGugan and James Coppinger forced finger-tip saves from Kenny and McGugan whipped a free-kick fractionally wide of the goalkeeper’s left-hand post. Warnock lost his captain, Lee Peltier, to injury as others struggled through, and guided by the intelligence and experience of Diouf, United wound down six minutes of injury-time with unexpected ease as Forest’s ideas ran dry.
Warnock smiled a beaming smile, even as he registered ankle problems suffered by Peltier and Jason Pearce, a groin strain affecting Kenny and a knee injury to Adam Drury; all that before tomorrow’s League Cup tie against Everton.
“Somebody said to me ‘what do you think about Tuesday?’” Warnock said. “Tuesday? Let’s worry about that when we get there. Let’s enjoy this win first.”
Nottingham Forest: Camp, Halford, Ayala, Collins, Harding, Coppinger (Sharp 83), Moussi (McGugan 46), Gillett, Reid (Lansbury 46), Blackstock, Cox. Subs (not used): Cohen, Moloney, Majewski, Evtimov.