Paul Heckingbottom got the obligatory question about the play-offs, as if there was any chance left. Jaap Stam was not even asked to broach the subject. Those were the days for Leeds United and Reading, two clubs who sit and wonder where last season went.
There is not much mystery to their mutual regression, only the cold realisation that neither club was careful enough with the promise they were showing, but the shift in 12 months has been hard to swallow. Leeds’ appearance at the Madejski Stadium last April had so much riding on it, a tense collision between two top-six clubs which Reading edged, but their return there on Saturday was as lacking in box-office appeal as Championship fixtures get. A 2-2 draw took Reading a step clear of relegation. It sent Leeds home to get ready for the summer, assured that their season is over.
The game itself kept the Madejski entertained, ending with a clearance by Reading goalkeeper Anssi Jaakkola which struck the back of Pierre-Michel Lasogga and hit the inside of a post, but the rivalry which Stam managed to manufacture with Leeds last season has lost its edge.
Reading last won at the Madejski Stadium in November and have not won at home on a Saturday afternoon for almost a year.
An own goal from Eunan O’Kane in the 58th minute ensured that Leeds remain without an away victory since Boxing Day. Sequences like that kill a campaign and in Reading’s case it might yet do more damage than that.
O’Kane bundled a shot from Leandro Bacuna into Leeds’ net two minutes after Pablo Hernandez had driven United in front with a trademark piece of class, the sort which should make the offer of a new contract at Elland Road an inevitability this summer.
Between O’Kane’s own goal and the post rescuing Jaakkola on 87 minutes, Heckingbottom felt aggrieved. “That’s where we are at the minute,” he said. “But listen, you make your own luck. We believe in hard work, pushing and trying to get better. Then you don’t have to rely on luck.”
The evidence of Heckingbottom’s first seven games as head coach will not make him think that luck has been much of an influence on Leeds.
It ran for Reading in the second half on Saturday but only after a first half in which Bailey Peacock-Farrell, Leeds’ 21-year-old goalkeeper, averted a 2-0 deficit with three crucial saves.
Leeds were trailing to a 16th-minute strike from Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, a shot driven under Peacock-Farrell after Sone Aluko spotted a dog leg in Heckingbottom’s defence and passed through the middle of it, but Peacock-Farrell clawed a Bodvarsson tap-in off his goalline, denied Mo Barrow one-on-one and flicked a top-corner finish from George Evans over his crossbar with half-time approaching.
“At 2-0, it’s difficult,” Hecking-bottom said. “It’s difficult being 1-0 down in this division. For me (Peacock-Farrell’s saves) were the defining moment in the game.”
Peacock-Farrell has helped to soften a demoralising week at Leeds. A more-than-adequate replacement for a rattled Felix Wiedwald, Heckingbottom found the youngster stepping forward with more conviction than any of the players in front of him. His reflexes were made to count in the 43rd minute as Adam Forshaw anticipated a chipped pass from Samuel Saiz and drove in Reading’s box, squaring the ball to Pontus Jansson who side-footed an equaliser past Jaakkola.
Hernandez, now 32, is at the opposite end of his career to Peacock-Farrell but Leeds have been strangely coy about their intentions for a midfielder whose contract ends in nine games’ time. Heckingbottom, who took charge on February 6, called him as “one of the best performers when I’ve had him available” but would not commit on the question of whether he wanted Hernandez to stay beyond the summer, even after another sweet goal from him.
Leeds had a spring in their step at the start of the second half, encouraged by Heckingbottom to pass forward with more intent. “At half-time we had to change things in possession,” United’s head coach said. “We weren’t really hurting them enough. In the second half we wanted to be positive with how we passed. We were better at that. We weren’t just keeping the ball for the sake of keeping it.”
Fifty-six minutes had passed when Leeds waded forward, led by Saiz, and Hernandez whipped a shot across Jaakkola and into the far corner. His goal briefly promised to make headlines and Hernandez was carried off the field by chants of ‘sign him up’ when Heckingbottom substituted him in the last 10 minutes.
“Pablo’s been one of the best performers for me when I’ve had him available,” Heckingbottom said. “My priority is working with him and seeing if we can improve him further.
“The priority is keeping him fit between now and the end of the season, to give him the best chance to help us and help himself in terms of his contract.” The prevailing view is that Hernandez has already done enough to merit an extension.
Elsewhere in the side, a rethink is needed and Leeds were in front for only two minutes. Barrow, their former loanee who scored the winner for Reading at Elland Road in October, carried possession forward on the counter-attack and when Bacuna tried to drill an effort into Peacock-Farrell’s far corner, O’Kane dived in and prodded the ball into his own net.
“The second goal’s upsetting me,” Heckingbottom said. “It’s initially from our free-kick. We decided to play it quick, we’ve got three men behind the ball but as our three men run forward, Mo Barrow runs forward too.
“When their keeper claims it we give them the option to hit us on the counter.
“It’s those details that have been costing the team throughout the season when you look back. It’s those things we have to iron out because the players were oblivious to it when I pulled them up on that after the game.”
The remainder of the game was tense and Leeds had the better of it. Gjanni Alioski, who clipped the outside of a post in first half, drew a full-stretch save from Jaakkola with a shot across goal in the 80th minute and Lasogga – called up from the bench to replace Caleb Ekuban for the last quarter of an hour – almost forced the most peculiar of winning goals when he charged down a kick by Jaakkola three minutes from time. The Finnish keeper could not believe his fortune as the ball trickled against the inside of a post and rolled back into his arms.
“If we’d gone on for 10 minutes without their equaliser, we’d have got even stronger,” Heckingbottom said. “Everything we wanted was happening and we were dominant. I’m frustrated not to take the three points. There was plenty there today but we don’t win.”
Leeds have not won enough under Heckingbottom or won enough since September. Their results defy continuity and the decision to drop Lasogga was one of six changes on Saturday, only one of which was enforced.
After a 3-0 defeat to Wolverhampton Wanderers last Wednesday, a match in which United rolled over, Heckingbottom felt compelled to act.
“You can’t be satisfied when you’re getting beat,” Heckingbottom. “Regardless of what Wolves are and where they are, I know you can compete against them. I know you can beat them. I want to get that across to everybody.”
Leeds and Reading both feel that predicament. There is much to transmit and much to address if the sparkle of last season is to find them again.