The pragmatist in Brian McDermott will call this a lull but perhaps the strain is starting to show.
A hard Christmas and the fall-out from it encourages the view that he and his Leeds United squad have exceeded their true capacity to master the Championship this season.
Leeds approach the new year with the play-offs directly above them but with wounds to lick after their defeat at Nottingham Forest yesterday. It was not the result itself which resonated so much as the cost of seven short days in which all but two points have gone begging. Matt Derbyshire’s late bullet at the City Ground took Forest’s return to seven.
McDermott might drag up the fixture list and argue that – last Saturday’s derby against Barnsley aside – the final week of 2013 had the potential to end this way after the Football League dropped back-to-back away matches on Leeds, both against teams with an eye on the play-offs. But the run from Barnsley and Forest – interspersed with a 1-1 draw at Blackpool – had an undercurrent of fatigue that Leeds would be rash to ignore.
This is, technically, a season without expectation insofar as the board at Leeds are asking their manager for nothing more than a finishing position which exceeded last season’s – 12th or higher – and there was limited confidence at the outset of Leeds finishing the year as prominently as they have.
McDermott refused to be drawn on how he thought the squad he inherited and tweaked in the summer would fare, saying he had “genuinely no idea”, but he has never shouted the odds about promotion either. The new year will tell whether Leeds have been punching above their weight or are simply the victims of a brief, festive wobble, but reinforcement of their team would help. It is no bad thing to see January 48 hours away.
United were beaten at Forest by Derbyshire’s sublime finish in the 83rd minute, a 20-yard missile produced seconds after Ross McCormack’s equaliser gave Leeds a shot in the arm. For a few brief moments it appeared to have teased a point from a scrap in which McDermott’s only fit and proven goalkeeper, Paddy Kenny, played through the obvious pain of an early injury and his midfield experienced one of those tired, gruelling, inanimate days. Derbyshire did not even give them time to enjoy it.
Leeds have experienced more profitable yuletides, and two points from three games amounts to a stutter in a long week. In its entirety it felt less like the post-Christmas annihilation suffered on Neil Warnock’s watch in 2012 but the club’s league position is begging United’s board to set McDermott loose in the transfer window.
Forest are one of the clubs who intend to invest next month – Davies said before yesterday’s game that he was looking for “some firepower and depth”, with Forest already fifth in the table – and McDermott might believe himself that Leeds would be asking too much of his own squad unless they commit to doing the same.
A takeover has been pending at Elland Road for several weeks, fronted by club managing director David Haigh and backed by Andrew Flowers, the managing director of Enterprise Insurance, and those working on the buy-out expect the Football League to approve the deal within days of the transfer window opening. The claim from the outset was that McDermott’s spending power in January would be better because of it, a promise which ought to hold water.
For four months Leeds have ridden the imbalance of their resources and the limitations of a group of players who made hard work of keeping relegation at arm’s length last season, and they have ridden them well. But a heavy weight rests on a small core of professionals and the first 20 seconds of yesterday’s defeat at Forest reminded McDermott of that.
The game had barely passed the kick-off when Marius Zaliukas sold Kenny short with a mis-hit pass and obliged his keeper to expose himself to the full weight of Greg Halford’s challenge for the ball. Halford walked away while Kenny writhed on the ground. Several minutes of treatment followed.
United have been without Kenny’s understudy, Jamie Ashdown, since April and recent X-rays of Ashdown’s broken toe did not offer much encouragement of a swift comeback. Alex Cairns was McDermott’s alternative at the City Ground – a youngster with the experience of only one prior appearance, that as a substitute in a 5-0 defeat to Blackpool two years ago – and the United boss left Kenny on the field. It was apparent before long that Kenny was struggling to kick the ball with any clout.
If Forest were aware of his handicap they took time to exploit it. In his haste to shoot, Jamie Mackie scuffed a meek, 13th-minute strike in no particular direction as United’s defence parted in front of Kenny and Leeds made the effort to keep stretches of the game in Forest’s half of the pitch. But they were picked apart in a flurry of self-destructive football on 23 minutes.
Michael Brown drew a booking which had been on its way from the moment he caught Andy Reid in the back of the head in the opening exchanges by hacking down the same player with a sliding tackle 40 yards from goal. Reid, whose assists this season are about to run into double figures, pinged the free-kick to the far post where Halford leapt above Zaliukas and planted a header beyond Kenny’s reach.
Within seconds of the restart Reid appeared unmarked 18 yards from Kenny’s goal and attacked him with a chip which beat the keeper and landed on the roof of his net. By the half hour, Kenny was urging his bench to pull him from the fray as Cairns warmed up on the touchline. Leeds pressed on and Jack Hobbs intervened to prevent Matt Smith nodding Luke Murphy’s corner into the corner of Forest’s net on 33 minutes.
Forest had two more sights of Kenny before half-time, with Radoslaw Majewski forcing him to push a rising shot around a post and Jamie Mackie hooking Djamal Abdoun’s cut-back wide. Leeds gave their keeper a once-over before the second half and allowed him to continue. Again, the pressure on him was sporadic.
Abdoun brought a two-handed parry from Kenny midway through the half but Leeds hung in for long enough for the stadium to grow tense. Gboly Ariyibi was sent on for his debut and saw bright lights of a dream start when Smith’s knockdown fell to him. A wild volley sent the ball out for a throw-in.
If McDermott had the feeling that this was not his day, the closing stages confirmed it. Reid struck a post with a deft hit from 20 yards and watched as Leeds broke forward and teed up McCormack. A low shot from Byram was cleared against the body of Forest keeper Karl Darlow and dropped kindly for McCormack who turned the ricochet into an open goal.
The impetus swung but reversed immediately as Forest’s attack from the kick-off played Derbyshire to the edge of United’s area where a bludgeoning swing of his foot hacked the ball into the top corner of Kenny’s net. The irate argument that ensued between the keeper and Austin was frustration personified.
Nottingham Forest: Darlow, Jara, Lascelles, Hobbs, Lichaj, Lansbury, Mackie (Cox 84), Majewski (Chalobah 73), Reid, Abdoun (Derbyshire 69), Halford. Subs (not used): De Vries, Harding, Paterson, Osborn.