THE value of Leeds United’s equaliser at St James’ Park showed in the reaction of two of the most sedate members of their camp.
Garry Monk allowed himself a punch of the air and Rob Green was over the halfway line before Newcastle United had fished the ball from their net.
With 95 minutes on the clock and Leeds level at 1-1, even an experienced campaigner like Green could not help himself. The goalkeeper, who was in front of a packed Gallowgate End, admitted he had only been mindful of lapping the goal up “as far away from their fans as possible.”
“You celebrate,” he said, “but then you’re asking how long’s left!” The few remaining seconds gave Newcastle no chance of salvaging a win from a game they had dominated.
Green described Friday’s draw as a “big point” and in light of earlier results, it was. Leeds were a minute away from leaving St James’ Park with a two-point advantage over Fulham, the club who are trying to break into the Championship’s play-off places, and Chris Wood’s late volley reclaimed some initiative. Green, whose saves kept Monk’s side in the match, classed it as the biggest result of the season.
“It probably is,” he said. “To go into the final push with the way that game went really gives us a lift. It’s a point but it feels like a big point and with a minute to go you were biting someone’s hand off for a point.”
That’s the standard of a top striker. You get some quality on the ball and there’s an even-money chance he’ll stick it away.Rob Green, on Leeds United team-mate, Chris Wood
Friday’s results were difficult to avoid and Monk suspected that most of his squad knew the state of play in the Championship before Leeds and Newcastle began tearing into each other. It came as no surprise that of all his players, the eldest was the one who took to the pitch with no idea that Fulham and Sheffield Wednesday were so close behind. “I didn’t see them,” Green admitted when asked about results earlier in the day.
United’s bench, however, told the story on Friday, bursting out of the dug-out after Wood volleyed in Kemar Roofe’s cross at the end of a fraught second half. Green defied Rafael Benitez’s side with full-stretch parries either side of Jamaal Lascelles’ 68th-minute goal and Newcastle’s finishing cried out for injured top scorer Dwight Gayle. The body language of Monk as Wood’s strike beat Karl Darlow was that of a head coach who believed his squad had reasserted themselves at the death.
Leeds hit the crossbar in the ninth minute through Alfonso Pedraza, with Roofe narrowly failing to convert the rebound, but lost their way before the interval and did not see a single chance in the second half until Wood snatched his 28th goal of the season.
“It’s priceless something like that,” Green said. “It’s why people are worth what they’re worth up front.
“Chris looked exposed and a bit lonely up there but we can play badly and he still gets a chance and tucks it away. He made the finish look simple but everyone in football knows that that’s a quality finish. That’s the standard of a top striker. You get some quality on the ball and there’s an even-money chance he’ll stick it away.
“Newcastle had some near-misses on their part. We hit the bar early on and had the save straight after but that was it in terms of chances for us. Then you get a bit of quality on the cross and a bit of quality on the finish and I’m celebrating at the other end of the field.
“If we’re talking about the performance then we weren’t on the ball, in the second half in particular. We didn’t ask enough questions. We started quite brightly and it’s disappointing because you think you’re going to take confidence from that and do more with the ball. But we stuck in there and it’s that old adage in football: no matter how badly you play, you always get a chance.”
Monk’s players were back at Thorp Arch for training and recovery sessions on Saturday and barely had time to draw breath before today’s game at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers. United have two home fixtures remaining after this afternoon’s and only four games left in all. Six years ago it went badly wrong for Simon Grayson’s Leeds squad over the Easter weekend but the club, at present, are a close to the Premier League as they have been since the 2006 play-off final.
Asked if his players had been aware of the wins recorded by Fulham and Sheffield Wednesday before an evening kick-off at Newcastle, Monk said: “They were probably on their phones in the afternoon but I spoke with them about that after the Reading and Brentford (defeats). I felt that the distraction of where we were in the league, what this point could mean or that point could mean, was there.
“A lot of them haven’t been in this position before, fighting for a play-off place, so we sat with them and went through it all. When we do best is when we focus on the one game in front of us. That’s what they did against Preston (in a 3-0 win last weekend) and it’s what they did again against Newcastle. It’s what we need to do in the remaining games.”
Monk was forced to name a poorly Ronaldo Vieira on the bench on Friday having planned to start the 18-year-old ahead of captain Liam Bridcutt. Vieira is expected to be fit enough to play today. At the back of his mind, Monk also has a sizeable dilemma over how best to handle centre-back Pontus Jansson, who received his 14th yellow card of the season at St James’ Park.
Jansson is one booking away from a mandatory three-match suspension and a caution this afternoon would see him miss the rest of Leeds’ regular fixtures. A yellow card after today would force him to miss at least part of the play-offs should United qualify.
The Swede’s influence was again apparent at Newcastle where countless tackles and clearances contributed to an engrossing contest. For all Newcastle’s dominance, United’s resistance left Benitez’s players exposed in the dying seconds.
“The lads at the back defended admirably,” Green said. “Newcastle have got quality in abundance up top but we managed to stick at it and get some sort of reward. They’ll be disappointed and we’re thrilled with the point.
“We put bodies on the line and took a lot of blows, conceded a lot of possession and a lot of chances. But we sell out (tickets) everywhere we go and that’s the bare minimum that’s asked of you. As players it’s something you can pride yourself on and the lads at the back have been like that all season.”
Wolves, whose lost to champions-elect Brighton on Friday, have little left to play for with relegation no longer a realistic concern. Leeds have not won away from home for a month but their strong form at Elland Road continues to underpin their fight for a top-six finish.
Green, a veteran of previous promotions, said: “It’s about being brave now. You need bravery to play your football and play without pressure.
“We were in the bottom three after six games. That’s pressure. Sometimes you’ve just got to play with freedom and you want to the young lads to have that confidence. I’ll have a go at them for not trying or not putting the right workrate in but if you go out, try to play and make mistakes, no-one will have a go about that.”