Boxing Day in 2007 was the peak of Dennis Wise’s tenure at Leeds United and also the beginning of the end for him.
The club seemed capable of anything on that afternoon but privately Wise was starting to feel the creep of personal and squad-wide fatigue.
For all of three hours, a 1-1 draw with Hartlepool United put Leeds at the top of the League One table, five months after the club were handicapped with a 15-point deduction imposed by the Football League. Wise took satisfaction from their progress but his reaction was cautious and unexpectedly critical. “I don’t think anyone would have predicted this,” he said, “but it counts for nothing. I’d rather be top on May 4.”
Wise had stuck with United through relegation from the Championship, their points penalty and no end of criticism and controversy but he had never truly settled in the north of England. His family remained in London throughout his spell as manager and his commute was exhausting. The strain had begun to tell by Christmas, not only on him but on his players. Leeds lost to Swansea City 72 hours after their draw with Hartlepool and capitulated at home to Oldham Athletic on New Year’s Day. By the end of January, Wise had quit his post and taken up a back-seat role as director of football at Newcastle United. Even the Boxing Day trip to Hartlepool showed signs of a team running on empty. A 90th-minute equaliser from Jermaine Beckford salvaged a point at Victoria Park but while Beckford missed a glorious chance to snatch a victory in injury-time, Wise was honest in admitting that Leeds were worth a draw at best.
“I’m pleased with the point,” he said. “In the first half we didn’t play at all. It looked like a case of too many Christmas puds and dinners. We just weren’t at the races.
“It was 12 noon on Boxing Day. It was cold, it was windy and it was Hartlepool. You have to be strong, and I don’t think a lot of the lads prepared themselves properly.
“The whole atmosphere was nothing. Flat. Neither side was fantastic and you could see it being a dull game. That suits us sometimes because you don’t want the crowd up but then we gave them a goal.”
The air of frustration in Wise’s comments was at odds with the form of his side. Their record on Boxing Day showed 16 wins and two defeats from 22 games and Hartlepool were only the sixth side to take something from a game against Leeds.
They had one hand on a precious win for much of the game after defender Michael Nelson opened the scoring on 21 minutes, meeting a Robbie Elliott delivery with a firm header at the back post. The concession infuriated Wise. “We had worked hard on Christmas Eve on their set-pieces,” he said. “We conceded because some of our players lost their concentration. It was sloppy. Matt Heath was nowhere near his man. That annoyed me and I told him so. It was an uphill battle after that.”
Wise, however, had been able to count on late goals from the very first day of the season and Beckford produced another in the last minute of normal time, latching onto a long ball and driving a low shot past Jan Budtz. Another chance came Beckford’s way deep into added time but his effort slipped wide with only Budtz to beat.
“If you take away the game and put the chances on the table, we should have won,” Wise said. “On performance alone we shouldn’t have.”
With hindsight it was almost an admission from Wise that the season was taking its toll.
Hartlepool 1 (Nelson 21)
Leeds United 1 (Beckford 90)
League One, December 26, 2007
Hartlepool: Budtz, Nelson, Elliott, Nolan, Antwi, Boland, Humphreys, Liddle, Barker, Moore, Brown (Sweeney 87). Subs not used: Bullock, Robson, Foley, Mackay.
Leeds United: Ankergren, Heath, Marques, Richardson, Prutton (Carole 57), Hughes, Kishishev (Thompson 63), Westlake (Flo 77); Howso, Kandol, Beckford. Subs not used: Huntington, Constantine.
Referee: Lee Mason.