A huge win over Reading in the bag and Millwall on Saturday looms with less intent than it might have done. What was billed as a game with everything riding on it could finally burst Leeds United out of the Championship’s relegation fight.
The club have kept themselves about the waterline all season and they are safer than ever after leaving the Madejski Stadium with endless credit for an immense job on a big night. Another Luke Murphy goal, the currency which holds most value at Elland Road these days, and a Sam Byram header claimed the result which the outside of a post had threatened to deny them.
While Murphy is finding the net with most of what he touches, Steve Morison cannot buy an appearance on the scoresheet from anywhere. The goal Morison seems destined never to score eluded him again when his first-half shot struck a post but Murphy’s bullet on 63 minutes took a scalp which was begging to be taken from an early stage. Byram prevented a late kick in the teeth with a euphoric, point-blank finish at the end of normal time.
United’s head coach, Neil Redfearn, might have settled for a draw beforehand and moreso when illness began eating away at his squad but news of Millwall’s win at Birmingham City – the sort of result the south London club have been struggling to turn up – made a similar result in Berkshire essential.
Leeds’ advantage over the bottom three, over Millwall themselves, remains at five points. It could be eight by 5pm at Elland Road on Saturday.
For a while, the scoreline at St Andrews cast Morison’s effort in a costly light; a glorious chance to take the initiative in a match which Leeds had more than enough of. The striker was on hand to take a flighted pass from Lewis Cook with Reading at sixes and sevens in the 36th minute but his attempt to place the ball into the far corner of the net failed to nestle in it.
There was ample adventure from Leeds regardless and as the pressure built again, Murphy beat Royals goalkeeper Adam Federici with a firm hit which the Australian reached but could not stop. Federici had no chance at all on 90 minutes when Byram ran in to nod home Morison’s cross. The winger’s reaction told a thousand stories. Hope springs eternal.
For Redfearn, last night’s victory came in spite of awkward and disrupted preparation. He gambled unsuccessfully with his formation against Brentford on Saturday, removing his sitting midfielders to United’s cost, but Reading away on a midweek evening called for a tighter set-up.
The reorganisation should have been straightforward enough – Alex Mowatt in, Billy Sharp out, and a line-up which Redfearn might have used at the weekend given the chance again – but illness accounted for Rodolph Austin and Liam Cooper ahead of kick-off.
Tommaso Bianchi and Giuseppe Bellusci stepped into the breach – Bianchi for all of 30 minutes before injury claimed him too – and the loss of Gaetano Berardi to a fever of his own led to the inclusion of four strikers on the bench. It would have been a forthright policy had it been entirely unenforced. Adryan, again, was left outside the 18.
The circumstances were not conducive to Leeds’ first-ever victory at the Madejski and nor was a badly-scuffed pitch but Reading attempted to press Leeds without success in a first half which amounted to little more than an agonising near-miss from Morison.
Steve Clarke’s players tried repeatedly to pass, chip and force their way in behind Redfearn’s full-backs but the game did not see a shot on goal for 17 minutes. The save which Bianchi’s volley brought from Federici was the first anxious touch for either keeper.
Federici had been more seriously exposed seconds earlier, however, as Cook’s driving legs took him quickly over 20 yards and worked Morison into space inside Reading’s box. Byram stood three yards from goal waiting for a cut-back but Morison’s pass got caught in the legs of Michael Hector before Byram could finish it off.
That opportunity came and went quickly but it encouraged Leeds to think that Clarke’s defence was less than impenetrable. For much of the opening 45 minutes, the visitors were more disciplined and accomplished. Reading found Leeds as aggressive as themselves and a heavy, 50-50 tackle between Bianchi and Danny Williams left both players limping around shortly before the half-hour. Redfearn was forced to replace the Italian with Casper Sloth soon after.
Only on rare occasions did United switch off and find themselves backtracking. Nathaniel Chalobah, the on-loan Chelsea midfielder, caught Redfearn’s defence asleep in the 29th minute when a quick free-kick ran into Marco Silvestri’s box but his cross had no hope of finding a deadly touch inside a packed area.
When Sol Bamba committed himself upfield and allowed Nick Blackman to break away, Bellusci covered in time to stick a foot out and turn the winger’s shot behind.
Leeds, nonetheless, had the chance that mattered when Morison struck the woodwork on 36 mins.
The striker was picked out by a beautiful pass from Cook after Oliver Norwood passed to no-one in the centre-circle. Morison took time to control the ball and cut inside before curling the ball off the outside of Federici’s left-hand post from 14 yards.
His first goal of the season refuses to come.
The second half started as loosely as the first had finished and there was no inclination on United’s part to dig in. With 63 minutes gone, a spell of pressure paid off with another priceless goal from Murphy, enough to settle the game at a stroke.
The midfielder was given time to collect possession, steady himself and beat Federici from 25 yards with a driving shot which smashed through the keeper’s right hand. As United’s players massed around Murphy, Reading’s number one had the sheepish look of a keeper who should have done better.
Leeds could not have asked for more of Silvestri when, with 17 minutes left, he dropped down to meet Danny Williams’ shot with his legs after United’s defence lost track of the forward. Yakubu, Reading’s new and ageing signing, was on the field by then and the hosts were going for broke but United had the bit between their teeth and seemed to grasp the urgency of the evening.
Murphy displayed it again with a fine tackle on the halfway line, causing havoc and sparking the attack which ended with Byram heading in Morison’s dinked cross before diving into the away end as the clock moved into injury-time.
Leeds will treasure this result like few others.