In the space of three turbulent weeks last season, Leeds United experienced the rough and the smooth of Yorkshire derbies.
A 6-0 thrashing at Sheffield Wednesday midway through January was their worst defeat for half a century, two goals short of the club’s worst defeat ever. It was followed at the start of February by a 5-1 rout of Huddersfield Town, Leeds’ highest-scoring result in that particular derby since 1946.
Both results raised eyebrows but memories of the abject performance at Hillsborough will linger for longer; the dismissal of Matt Smith after 60 seconds on the pitch, United’s total collapse with 10 players in the second half and a backheel by Marius Zaliukas - knocked senselessly into his own box - which said everything about a team who had lost their heads.
Only three members of the Leeds squad battered in Sheffield remain intact but the club return to Hillsborough tomorrow with a score to settle in the truest sense. There is often more to derbies than simple local rivalry but with Leeds and Wednesday stuck in mid-table with two games of the Championship season to go, humiliation of each other is the sole intention this weekend.
Neil Redfearn was in the dug-out for last season’s 6-0 loss, working under a manager in Brian McDermott who gambled with his tactics and suffered the consequences. United had signed two out-and-out wingers that week, loaning Jimmy Kebe from Crystal Palace and Cameron Stewart from Hull City, but McDermott defied his reputation as a 4-4-2 exponent by using a 4-3-3 system and leaving Ross McCormack alone up front.
Leeds trailed by two goals after 45 minutes and were helped, albeit briefly, by an excellent save from goalkeeper Paddy Kenny at the end of the first half. McDermott urgently reverted to 4-4-2 at half-time by calling up Smith from the bench but the striker lasted for exactly a minute before an aerial collision with Reda Johnson earned him a straight red card. Wednesday went for the jugular.
“That was a really frustrating day,” Redfearn said. “Everything went right for Wednesday and everything that could go wrong went wrong for us.
“But we’ve been on the right side of a local derby when we beat Huddersfield 5-1 last season. I was there for that game and if you aren’t quite right in a local derby, it can happen. You can get swamped. If one’s side not up for it or not quite ready you can go under.
“We’ve got to make sure we’re ready. We know the importance of this game and I’ve stressed that all week. I have to say there’s a determination to get a result and there was determination at Charlton last Saturday. You could see that among the players.”
Wednesday are 12th in the Championship and their position is indicative of the combination of a tight defence and an attack who score few goals. Their 1-1 draw at Elland Road in September is the sort of result which Wednesday’s squad are familiar with.
The South Yorkshire club are adapting to new ownership after a takeover by Thai businessman Dejphon Chansiri at the end of January, a deal which ended Milan Mandaric’s tenure. The structure of management at Hillsborough was altered again this week with the appointment of Glenn Roeder and Adam Pearson to a new sporting committee. Pearson, a former commercial director at Elland Road, has long been linked with mooted buy-outs of Leeds.
Their manager, Stuart Gray, looks relatively secure in his job. Redfearn, by comparison, cannot say if Leeds will keep him in place next season. His motivation at present is to ensure that, after five losses back-to-back, he and his players do not go out with seven defeats on the bounce.
“This group of players have done absolutely everything they can to keep the club in the division,” Redfearn said. “They’ve done that successfully.
“The season’s fizzled out a little but I still see a determination to do well for Leeds. While that’s still there we can take it into the next couple of games.
“We’ll look at Sheffield Wednesday and we’ll look at the surface. The surface (at Hillsborough) isn’t great and we’ve got to think about that. It’s a Yorkshire derby and we’ve got to think about that too. I need to have a clear head about our game-plan. I know their strengths and I know their weaknesses.”