The sun shone and Leeds United won – 2-0 – a turn of events which Elland Road has stopped taking for granted. Recriminations were suspended on the last day of the season, leaving the club to start the process of addressing a year they would rather forget.
There has been no sunshine at Leeds, metaphorically or physically, since their results petered out with the summer last September and a 2-0 victory over a docile Queens Park Rangers side did its job by keeping the peace.
The eyes of the Championship were turned elsewhere yesterday, oblivious to two clubs completing formalities at Elland Road. It falls now to Andrea Radrizzani to ensure that Leeds are not this irrelevant at the end of his second season here.
The promise of his first is what has made the implosion of it hard to take. On Friday United’s captain, Liam Cooper, described this as the most disappointing of his four years with Leeds and the teasing of September, when the club briefly topped the Championship, made the failure of it worse. Leeds are used to unfulfilling campaigns but, as a rule, they often see the mediocrity coming.
The scale of optimism after seven games of this season increased the size of the let-down.
QPR, in contrast, were never afforded so much as a sniff of anything better than a mid-table position and, on the evidence of their defeat at Elland Road, their campaign was signed off well in advance of it. Leeds made far more of the exercise and scored in either half through an overhead kick from Kemar Roofe and a chance for Kalvin Phillips which QPR’s goalkeeper, Joe Lumley, kindly laid at his feet. It was comprehensive in a way which United, with Paul Heckingbottom as head coach, have rarely been. They have never had the pleasure of winning at a canter.
Any good result is a relief for Heckingbottom but, as learning curves go, Radrizzani’s has been as steep as some traversed by other owners before him.
The Italian cut a relaxed figure yesterday, walking the West Stand touchline before kick-off, but he left his comfort zone by buying into professional football, and a year in the firing line exposed his understanding of the game, and of Leeds as a club and a crowd. Blame has been widely shared – between players, head coaches, senior management and, rather erroneously, Wolverhampton Wanderers – but the extent of the problems with performance and image carry the buck at the top.
It has set Radrizzani up for one of those summers, a test of his capacity to dust Leeds down.
Any root-and-branch review will wait until the players first navigate a politically-contentious tour of Myanmar this week, the club’s latest brush with poor publicity, but the premature demise of this season gave Radrizzani all the time he needed to make expedited decisions. He has Heckingbottom’s future to clarify after a flat 16-game audition from his head coach. There are players who, if Leeds can find a way to move them on, have signed themselves out of Elland Road without a fight. The relevance of yesterday’s game against QPR, a meeting of 14th and 15th, was the clear water that followed it.
Radrizzani, according to those close to him, is acutely aware of the public view on Heckingbottom and the negativity caused by the emotionless drift under him. Heckingbottom for his part has been fighting to keep himself in the building and earn himself the grace of a full summer. Where Radrizzani is concerned, his view can only come down to gut feeling. Leeds have been guilty of changing managers too ruthlessly over the years. Their owner might equally wonder if there is a better time to twist than at the start of the close season.
Heckingbottom’s struggle has been in refreshing the squad’s style, their mindset and their buoyancy. There was an element of experimentation with yesterday’s formation and, with many of the same faces, a better showing against a QPR side who were easily outworked. Of most interest in the starting line-up was the return of Luke Ayling, fit again after the ankle injury he suffered on New Year’s Day.
It would be going some to class Ayling’s bout of surgery as the blow which brought the house down but as a proven and largely consistent right-back, he was missed. That is one position United can leave alone.
Ayling’s busy enthusiasm was infectious, taking him down his side of the pitch at the first opportunity and at every other that followed. Leeds as a whole looked more balanced. The game itself lacked the same early tempo, as everyone present knew it would. Mentally some on show – QPR’s players in particular – were already in the heat of Marbella and the drama in the first half-hour was minimal. More attention was given to a fan crowd-surfing from the bottom of the South Stand to the top.
For Heckingbottom’s players, it began in the 28th minute. Adam Forshaw’s corner was flicked goalwards by Pontus Jansson, only to hit Caleb Ekuban on the goalline. Ayling’s shot on the rebound was blocked and Phillips’ attempt to smash a third effort in was thwarted by a crowd of bodies. QPR’s vulnerability was shown and two minutes later, it found them out.
Forshaw hung up another corner and a prodded header from Phillips found Roofe lurking in the six-yard box. The forward dispatched the ball with an instinctive overhead kick. In a year of so little collective progress, Roofe’s haul of 14 goals has gone somewhat unnoticed. Between a hat-trick at Loftus Road in December and yesterday’s strike, he has taken a liking to QPR’s defence.
QPR made no similar inroads – a volley from Josh Scowen which floated over the crossbar and a wayward header from Matt Smith early on – and there was no great mystery about their chronic away record. Tom Pearce and Gjanni Alioski threatened a second goal before half-time, the latter heading a fraction wide from Pearce’s cross.
Two minutes into the second half, Phillips put the afternoon to bed by returning Lumley’s scuffed clearance with a clinical finish from the edge of the box, shooting left-footed inside the near post.
It was an end-of-season goal in an end-of-season fixture but Leeds were worth it and free from then on to cruise to full-time.
A late debut was given to 16-year-old striker Ryan Edmondson who, on an afternoon when much went right, almost scored with his first touch.
It felt like the calm before the storm, the severity of which lies in Radrizzani’s hands.