The 101st minute at The Riverside brought ecstasy, pain and the latest goal Leeds United would ever dream of scoring but at full-time football had the good grace to know its place.
Marcelo Bielsa rattled off a quick press conference and left to visit Jack Clarke in hospital. Tony Pulis gave short shrift to questions about the award of 12 minutes of injury-time. “All of our thoughts go to the lad Clarke,” Pulis said. “I hope he’s okay.”
Those additional minutes were crucial, just as Kalvin Phillips’ equaliser in the second-last of them could be, but more attention centred on the circumstances which caused an unusually late finish. Clarke was taken ill on Leeds’ bench in the second half and received oxygen from paramedics before being transferred by ambulance to hospital in Middlesbrough. Bielsa indicated straight away that the teenager was responding well but the game has seen before that incidents like it are no joke. It was, as Pulis said, a worrying turn for a “very talented young player.”
The pick-me-up for Clarke as he underwent medical assessments was news of a goal from Phillips which redefined Fergie Time. Leeds, in almost 100 years, have never struck as late as the 11th minute of stoppage time and in the space of less than 24 hours, the midfielder’s header produced the second of two moments which seasons like to turn on.
Leeds were seconds away from dropping to third place in the Championship on Friday night before Villa blitzed a 3-0 deficit at home to Sheffield United. They were seconds away from seeing Middlesbrough and other clubs bunch up tightly behind them when Phillips ghosted in at the near post and finished off Gjanni Alioski’s corner. Somehow United led the Championship at full-time and two points dropped at The Riverside did not make it feel any less like Bielsa’s weekend.
For most of the second half United’s’ head coach was in the firing line of a fifth defeat in seven matches, a run not far removed from the worst of the form witnessed under Thomas Christiansen last season. Bielsa’s nerve is holding up better than Christiansen’s and Leeds’ wobble has come far later in the day but they are feeling their way through a decidedly difficult patch. A win at the Riverside would have helped. The draw when it came felt just as good.
Bielsa sensed Phillips’ equaliser in his bones, even when the clock ticked past the 100th minute. Pontus Jansson had hit a post earlier in the game, proffering a rebound which Patrick Bamford - £7m-worth of striker back at the club who sold him to Leeds - stabbed wide with a vacant net in front of him. Middlesbrough drew first blood through Lewis Wing in the 48th minute but Pulis felt the flow of the tide against him.
“Second half I thought Leeds were the better team,” he said. “They really pressed us and the lads dug in.”
Leeds, under Bielsa, have a knack of resisting the temptation to panic and fitness levels to die for.
Pablo Hernandez, who Bielsa named on the bench, replaced Clarke at half-time - a substitution which seemed more to do with Clarke’s input than his health - and showed the biggest of cahoonas late on, gambling with searching, long-range passes which, amid so much tension, risked coming to nothing. The last of them forced Ryan Shotton to scuff a header behind and when Liam Cooper met Alioski’s corner, Phillips was waiting to nod the ball past Middlesbrough goalkeeper Darren Randolph.
“If we take into account the 15 minutes of the first half where we were not at ease, apart from this segment we dominated and created chances,” Bielsa said. “We deserved to score the goal and we deserved to score other goals.
“We were always playing in the opponent’s box even if we couldn’t finish our attacks. We didn’t lose the ball before arriving in the box. This made me think we could score.”
Bielsa was driven to a little experimentation on Saturday by a 3-1 defeat to Norwich City seven days earlier, a game of first-versus-second which left Leeds with wounds to lick. Phillips reclaimed his role in the centre of midfield and Clarke was preferred to Hernandez. Bielsa attempted to find room for both Kemar Roofe and Bamford, who six months on from leaving Middlesbrough was making his full debut for United, but the pair made hard work of connecting and Bamford’s day was summed up by him missing Randolph’s goal when Jansson steered Jack Harrison’s cross against the inside of a post in the 73rd minute.
There are issues in Bielsa’s team - one of them Luke Ayling, whose out-of-sorts form is failing to give Leeds what they need at right-back - but underlying confidence in the way they are playing. Whether Bielsa’s uncompromising reputation is keeping the players in line or whether they trust inherently his form of attack, there was no hint of them ditching the plan. Kiko Casilla kept rolling the ball out in injury-time, encouraging Leeds to build with patience.
Bielsa’s side were given ample space to play before half-time but contrived to give away the better chances. Aden Flint, the Boro centre-back, failed to connect properly with an unmarked header from six yards and nodded another over the top from underneath Casilla’s crossbar. “How Flint doesn’t score that is beyond me,” Pulis said. Casilla read a shot from George Saville, parrying it away with one hand, and watched Wing whip the ball beyond his right-hand post from 20 yards.
Three minutes into the second half, Jon Obi Mikel - a relic of a different Premier League era but still in possession of the poise he showed at Chelsea - dispossessed Phillips, let Saville play in George Friend and watched as Friend picked out Wing on the edge of the box. The forward controlled the ball before smashing it past Casilla. There were other instances where Wing created trouble and Boro were compromised by an injury which forced him from the field after the hour.
Hernandez, thought, took a hold of the strings and justified his introduction by Bielsa, a coach who is making more half-time substitutions in one season than most coaches make in their careers. Pulis could not deny that the pressure was intense or that an equaliser was on the cards. “Leeds have good players, they've got everything you need to get promoted,” he said.
“They've got pace in the right areas and they deliver real quality into the box. I've been really impressed with Leeds this year.”
It is telling for Bielsa that while results have been drying up, appreciation of his team continues to flow in a league whether other club have no expectation of his team dropping off a cliff. Leeds do not look like doing this easily but then Leeds never have.
They are, in a way, a mirror-image of their head coach: leopards who don’t change spots.