Derbies, said Paul Heckingbottom last week, are losing their edge as English football evolves but rarely will Leeds United and Sheffield Wednesday go through the motions like they did in Saturday’s 2-1 win for the South Yorkshire side.
Their seasons have become a joyless slog to the finish and even an injury-time win was a meagre result for Wednesday to dine out on.
It mattered to them insofar as the threat of relegation was concerned but there was little in the way of traditional bragging amid a scramble at the final whistle to escape the driving snow. The second coming of the Beast from the East gave the game some intrigue, painting the pitch white in the second half, but the spectacle was what those who brave Elland Road religiously have come to expect. Even Heckingbottom admitted to “sounding like a broken record.”
He played in derbies with Wednesday once, embracing the blood and thunder of them, but Leeds no longer do blood and thunder and most of the lightning in their vicinity has a habit of striking them hardest.
Saturday’s game had reached the 91st minute when Atdhe Nuhiu, the lumbering tank at the front of Wednesday’s line-up, shrugged off Matthew Pennington and placed a tidy shot beyond Bailey Peacock-Farrell, settling a derby which United fancied their chances of winning in added time. “The two goals, you’d be disappointed to see them at any level,” Heckingbottom said.
Wednesday are a mish-mash of a team with injuries spread across their squad, and their predicament is aptly displayed by the fact that Nuhiu ranks as a safer bet than Jordan Rhodes on the bench.
What the Sheffield club, at a ground where they last won when Leeds were headed for League One in 2007, made of United is anyone’s guess but reports of a lack of backbone in these parts have not been exaggerated. As records go, eight points from 14 fixtures is inviting clubs to come to West Yorkshire and do their worst.
Heckingbottom’s own record as head coach is no more soothing: eight games, one win and a concerning lack of change in the way Leeds are playing or the way in which the squad have been going wrong.
Result after result guides most observers to the conclusion that the squad is fundamentally flawed in a way that no head coach would resolve quickly, but Leeds have bounced under the former Barnsley manager in the way that the Titanic bounced on the seabed. Frustration was etched on his face after Nuhiu’s late winner.
The Kosovan had opened the scoring in the 72nd minute, scrambling the ball in after Adam Reach headed Jack Hunt’s cross against a post.
Leeds needed help again and it came from an improbable source via an equaliser from Jay-Roy Grot, the maligned Dutchman whose retreat into the Under-23s after Christmas has evidently done him some good.
With four minutes of normal time to play, he drifted into a couple of yards of space to nod Pablo Hernandez’s cross past Joe Wildsmith.
“When he got that goal you think ‘at least we’ve got a draw out of it’,” Heckingbottom said. “But it wasn’t to be.
“I sound like a broken record at the minute. In the last couple of games I should be coming in speaking to the players, highlighting the bits we’ve done well and why we’ve won the games. Instead I’m not. I’m going mad at reasons why we’ve lost.
“It’s pointless me coming in and making excuses. We all know why we’ve not won the game. We didnt take our chances at one end and we’ve given away poor goals at the other. Weak’s the wrong word but we’ve been punished for our decision-making.”
The best of Leeds’ chances dropped to Caleb Ekuban in the 25th minute and went begging. Heckingbottom has given the Ghanaian some rope in the past fortnight, starting him at Reading and again against Wednesday, but Ekuban is yet to score in the Championship – in no small part due to injury – and has begun to look like a forward who knows that.
He found himself six yards from goal after Hernandez and Adam Forshaw, the Duracell Bunny in Leeds’ midfield, worked a clever free-kick into the box and to his feet but Ekuban’s snatched finish smacked against Wildsmith and bounced to safety. Seconds later, with that miss in his head, another opening sailed high over the crossbar.
A goal then would have examined Wednesday’s conviction, of which there has been little this season.
“The problem is that we’ve been chasing games and going behind,” Heckingbottom said. “We need to be in front. The first goal’s a big thing for us.” Wednesday might have claimed it before Nuhiu’s opener too, with Bailey Peacock-Farrell denying Reach with his foot and Sam Hutchinson heading into United’s net as an offside flag went up at the end of he first half.
It was a minor consolation for Leeds that the pantomime villain had his celebration cut short.
Snow covered the pitch at half-time and dropped relentlessly in the second half, reducing visibility for the crowd. At times the lack of visibility was a blessing.
Gjanni Alioski hit a purple patch around the hour and Gaetano Berardi whipped a shot wide but Nuhiu struck the first blow by forcing the ball past Peacock-Farrell after Reach was allowed to attack Hunt’s cross.
Heckingbottom, who was without the injured Samuel Saiz and included 19-year-old Tom Pearce at left-back, went for Grot and Pierre-Michel Lasogga from the bench and Grot did what was asked of him, nodding in after Wednesday made a mess of clearing a corner and let possession run to Hernandez.
Elland Road was fired up by the award of six minutes of injury-time, only to see Nuhiu shake himself out of a challenge by Pennington and clip the ball around Peacock-Farrell in the very first of them.
The sagging of shoulders amongst Heckingbottom’s players was absolute.
Andrea Radrizzani, Leeds’ owner, had a go at firing them up last week with some choice comments about the general attitude and commitment of the dressing room.
One win in 15 games drove the Italian to take them on but there was no particular spike on Saturday: the same performance, the same plot and a sadly familiar outcome.
It is with Heckingbottom the same as it was with Thomas Christiansen in his final days, save only for the fact that the summer transfer window is closer.
“I know for a fact that I’ll look back at the game and there’ll be no lack of effort,” Heckingbottom said. “It’s nothing to do with that. It’s bad decisions at bad moments that have cost the players.
“You need a winning mentality but there’s more to a winning mentality than trying. There’s quality here but there’ll be changes, definitely.”