The fight was there at the point of desperation, as it has been in too many desperate moments recently, and in injury-time the width of the crossbar denied Leeds United the result they need to set their season alight.
Another stirring fightback placated the crowd at Elland Road, while leaving the sense that a draw was not enough.
Prior to that, with 71 minutes gone, it was all over bar the shouting, in terms of yesterday’s game against Bristol City and Leeds’ season as a whole; all over barring a sequence of results which the club have not looked like producing since Christmas.
If, as Paul Heckingbottom said, Bristol City was not a must-win fixture then it was unthinkable in the context of the play-offs for his team to risk losing it as they did. Their barrage at the death was as inspired and compelling as other parts of their performance were bad.
Eight points is the gap to Bristol City in sixth and in that Heckingbottom can find a glimmer of hope. Had it stretched to 11 last night, the gaze at Elland Road would have turned reluctantly to next season and the task of giving Heckingbottom some power to punch with. Leeds are hanging in, though only just.
They have been living on the edge for two months now and it cannot have failed to dawn on anyone that tough love and hard decisions are needed, about the squad itself and the building of it.
Leeds wanted Heckingbottom for his discipline and the tactical ability which had others in their league trying to prise him from Barnsley, but the club’s head coach inherited from Thomas Christiansen a chain of weaknesses, the blame for which cannot be laid solely at Christiansen’s door.Phil Hay
At this rate the comparison with the 2016-17 season, the last before Andrea Radrizzani bought out Massimo Cellino, will not be flattering but their success in salvaging a draw yesterday proved that the lights have not gone out.
Leeds wanted Heckingbottom for his discipline and the tactical ability which had others in their league trying to prise him from Barnsley, but the club’s head coach inherited from Thomas Christiansen a chain of weaknesses, the blame for which cannot be laid solely at Christiansen’s door. Heckingbottom wanted a fast start against Bristol City, football on the front foot as he put it, but in the first 16 minutes his players conceded twice from long throws, a route of attack for which City manager Lee Johnson recalled a catapult in Hordur Magnusson. He broke down the door with a couple of knocks.
Felix Wiedwald threw in the first goal, missing a punch and leaving Famara Diedhiou to knock the ball into his net, and Bobby Reid was given as easy a finish for the second, condemning Leeds to another afternoon spent chasing a deficit.
In the end, spurred on by an audience who were sarcastic for a while but fiercely supportive when it mattered, they dug out a point with a 72nd-minute finish from Pierre-Michel Lasogga and a tap-in from substitute Kemar Roofe 10 minutes from time.
“It was a difficult atmosphere,” said Johnson afterwards. Bristol City, already chastened by a very recent collapse against Sunderland, were left hanging on as Adam Forshaw and Kalvin Phillips passed up excellent chances and Lasogga drove a 94th-minute header against the crossbar. It was enough for an ovation but, by a whisker, not three points.
Leeds might still require 10 more wins to make the play-offs and the prime concern for Heckingbottom is not so much where those results will come from but how the next win will materialise.
Elland Road last saw a home victory two months ago and Bristol City were allowed to cruise through a meek first half. So limited was the response from Leeds in that period that the sense of a campaign dying a death did not seem limited to those looking on but there is commitment left in Heckingbottom’s camp. How far it can take them before May is another matter altogether.
Leeds reached kick-off in the bottom half of the Championship, the side-effect of a 1-1 draw in yesterday’s East Anglian derby at Carrow Road, and nothing said more about the descent the club have been in.
The league table, from Heckingbottom’s perspective, looks as it looked to so many previous Leeds managers at this time of year: not irretrievable but asking an awful lot. On one hand is a gap of eight points to sixth. On the other is the realisation that Leeds need 30 from their remaining 14 games to match last season’s final tally of 75.
The club saw no discernible bounce from Heck-ingbottom’s appointment at Sheffield United eight days earlier, suffering only a 2-1 defeat with a familiar smell, but he gave his line-up more of a shake yesterday, using Caleb Ekuban and breaking from Leeds’ recent tradition – if not his own – by playing two up front. His complaint at Bramall Lane of Leeds starting on the back foot was countered by Stuart Dallas stinging the palms of City goalkeeper Frank Fielding with a goalbound shot in the fifth minute, but not for long.
If the intention was to keep Johnson’s defence on its toes, Heckingbottom had not counted on his own caving in so easily again. City’s opening goal, claimed in the 12th minute, was a route-one calamity which Magnusson caused with a plain long throw. The Icelandic centre-back had been called into City’s side by Johnson, no doubt with that weapon in mind, and when Wiedwald dropped short with an attempt to punch it out of a crowded box, Diedhiou steadied himself before stabbing into an unprotected net.
Five minutes later, the same tactic reaped the same reward. Magnusson planted a throw-in onto Aden Flint’s head, Marlon Pack drove the knockdown into the six-yard box and Reid did the rest from unmissable range. Heckingbottom stood with his arms folded, as shell-shocked by the aerial barrage.
In reply there was very little for him to hold on to. Vurnon Anita – reappearing at right-back after many weeks on the periphery – laid a nice pass into Pablo Hernandez but Hernandez’s low, fizzing cross failed to find an outstretched boot. Pierre-Michel Lasogga trusted his shooting from distance around the half-hour but a scuffed finish smacked of desperation. So much about Leeds in the past two months has.
Wiedwald redeemed himself marginally by denying Ryan Kent – once a loanee under Heckingbottom at Barnsley – a third goal by diving to parry an effort which was headed for the far corner but the dent to the German’s confidence was evident. A spiritless half in which Leeds’ retention of the ball was chronic received predictably scathing treatment at the interval. City, though, had fallen apart in their previous game, dropping a 3-0 lead at home to Sunderland, and Leeds are growing accustomed to mounting second-half fightbacks. Aden Flint pinched the ball off Lasogga’s toes as the striker shaped to shoot in the 52nd minute but United were on the edge six minutes later as Wiedwald dived to stop Diedhiou sneaking a header inside his far post after Laurens De Bock retreated into trouble.
Once a Hernandez effort was blocked amid strong shouts for handball, Heckingbottom brought Roofe and Hadi Sacko on from the bench, in the hope of conjuring inspiration from somewhere. The questions he posed were duly answered. With 18 minutes to go, something clicked and Hernandez’s cross to the far post was driven in by Lasogga, the first useful ball served up to the striker all game. Eight minutes later, deja vu began to set in on City’s bench.
Hernandez whipped a corner into the six-yard box and a deflection left Roofe free to slide the ball in from a few yards out. His goal left 10 minutes for both sides to chase a win and as City panicked, Leeds did all the chasing.
Forshaw curled a finish just wide with Fielding flat-footed, Kalvin Phillips headed over from point-blank range and Lasogga rattled the bar with the last touch in injury-time, meeting a Hernandez’s cross with a sweet header.
There are many things out of kilter at Elland Road, and luck is one of them.