ANOTHER TASTE of the Neil Warnock experience which always lingers as sourly now as it did in the worst of his days at Elland Road.
Cardiff City head the Championship this morning after giving Thomas Christiansen flashbacks of Leeds United’s whipping at Millwall.
There were differences between the defeats and a marked difference in the extent of last night’s savaging but Cardiff did what Millwall had done by exposing Christiansen’s choice of team and knocking Leeds out of the calm demeanour which drove them to the top of the division. Cardiff were helped by mistakes and first-half red card shown to Liam Cooper, but this was Warnock being Warnock: doing a job in a game which even Christiansen, one of the Championship’s newest coaches, knew the veteran would crawl over burning coal to win.
Leeds have not taken this treatment often this season – only once at the New Den, where Neil Harris provided the same source of motivation in the opposing dug-out – but the similarities were stark, even if Christiansen’s players were guilty of lacking any precision when possession came to them in a destructive first half.
Lax when it mattered, Cardiff were clinical and scored twice before half-time through two moments of class from Junior Hoilett.
The winger laid on the first and scored the second having done more than anyone to torment Christiansen’s defence.
United’s head coach gambled with his line-up, resting Samuel Saiz and Pierre-Michel Lasogga having learned at Millwall that plan A could be something of a risk on the wrong patch.
To his frustration, Kemar Roofe struggled to lay a foot on the ball, Mateusz Klich struggled through a hard league debut and Pablo Hernandez limped towards another half-time substitution. Leeds were in deep trouble before Cooper, already on a yellow card, was sent off for a risky lunge in first-half injury-time.
Sol Bamba, employed as a defensive midfielder by Warnock, could hardly have had it easier until the early stages of the second half when Leeds, with 10 players, began to properly prod Cardiff’s defence. Kenneth Zohore followed up his 28th-minute opener by stretching Cardiff’s lead to 3-0 with an hour played but Leeds were worth Roofe’s reply on 67th minute, little though it mattered.
The loss will need more dissection and a more considered response than Millwall’s 1-0 win.
Leeds dropped to second place in the league at the final whistle which, as disappointments go, was relative to many previous seasons and relative to the era when Warnock was in charge.
The 68-year-old is hanging in for an eighth promotion at another club who have warmed to him. It is ever more striking that Leeds did not.
The season is 10 games old but Cardiff saw enough importance in last night’s fixture to dangle a carrot in front of their lapsed supporters, cutting ticket prices down to single figures and generating an attendance which fell just short of the largest seen at a club game at their stadium.
Warnock, who talked of the Leeds job being “at the wrong time in my career and for the wrong chairman”, said he wanted “those of you who aren’t regulars to become regulars” and the football sold itself to the home crowd.
Leeds were stripped of an ill Eunan O’Kane and Christiansen sold a handful of dummies by dropping Saiz and Lasogga to the bench, implying that failures at Millwall had registered with him. Plan B did not serve him any better in Cardiff.
Warnock had done his homework and sent his players out to press high and force Felix Wiedwald to take risky short passes or go long. The German reverted regularly to the second option in a first half lacking any sign of a goal from Christiansen’s side.
The early tempo was not helped by a spate of injuries suffered by Christiansen’s players. Pontus Jansson took a blow to the head in the early minutes and Hernandez tweaked an ankle in a sliding tackle on the halfway line. Stuart Dallas needed treatment after being caught by Lee Peltier inside Cardiff’s half. All three played caught their breath and played on.
The initial chances that materialised were fleeting and inconsequential. Joe Bennett, Cardiff’s left-back, drove a deflected shot wide after a long throw from Sean Morrison forced a soft headed clearance from Jansson, a closer effort than a strike from Gjanni Alioski which beat the near post from an angle. Christiansen’s players were organised enough but ragged in Cardiff’s half, failing to make anything of the gaps that appeared.
Kalvin Phillips was forced to take a yellow card for a 24th minute foul on Hoilett after Cardiff robbed Alioski and tore up field.
When Klich, O’Kane’s replacement, lost possession in a more dangerous area on 28 minutes, there was no-one to help. Hoilett sprinted into the box, lost his marker and teed up Zohore six yards out, finding the striker hanging back in a position from which he could not miss.
Nine minutes later, Leeds allowed Hoilett to creep into space outside their box and the winger took the invitation with a beast of a finish to the left of Wiedwald.
Cardiff sensed a win in the offing and the situation could only have worsened for Christiansen had Cooper’s two-footed tackle on Loic Damour drawn more than a yellow card.
For Cooper it was a short reprieve. In the fourth minute of first half injury-time, United’s captain dived into a challenge on Nathaniel Mendez-Laing and incurred a second booking, regretting the foul as soon as he had committed it. The offside flag which sprung up as Sean Morrison tapped in the resulting free-kick was almost sympathetic.
Matthew Pennington replaced Hernandez at the interval and for the first time, Leeds began returning fire. Gaetano Berardi drove a 54th-minute shot within reach of Neil Etheridge after sprinting in behind Cardiff’s defence and Alioski’s strike on the rebound was cleared before it could beat Cardiff’s keeper.
Roofe promptly drew another block from Etheridge after running onto Luke Ayling’s pass.
Berardi’s miss was a last opportunity to change the night. On the hour, Hoilett skipped away and found Morrison, a centre-back, lurking in all the space he needed to lay on another tap-in for Zohore. Roofe replied seven minutes later with a shot which deflected in off Etheridge’s right-hand post and there was something for Christiansen to dwell on in Leeds’ persistence in the face of a certain defeat. It offered small consolation at the end of a very sore night.