Managerial strife is something Harry Redknapp and Brian McDermott could discuss at length.
The new year has been hard on McDermott but the end of the season is threatening to get nasty for Redknapp and his expensive cohort at Queens Park Rangers.
Redknapp is accustomed to defending beleaguered coaches and would doubtless have given McDermott heavy public support were he not preoccupied with defending himself. QPR are perilously close to accepting what Leeds United would love to steal – a ticket to the play-offs and the riveting drama that comes with it. At Loftus Road they are starting to fear the worst.
That the play-offs are a worry for QPR reveals the different planets that they and Leeds occupy. McDermott would have taken a top-six finish before a goal was scored this season and since Christmas he has been happy to keep his job and his head above water. For Redknapp, a position beneath the automatic promotion places is his worst nightmare; something his anxious demeanour reveals.
An injury crisis, as QPR call it, has left Redknapp to rely on players as limited as Ravel Morrison and Jermaine Jenas, the midfielder whose goal denied Leeds a victory at Loftus Road on Saturday. Crises are all relative and McDermott would say that he has seen worse but while Redknapp frets, United’s manager feels calm descending on his own club.
Massimo Cellino, the Italian who waits and waits for the Football League to pass judgement on his takeover, was anything but calm in the directors box at QPR: gesticulating and kicking imaginary balls as a 1-1 draw played out. By the end of the game, McDermott was mildly frustrated by a winnable contest that got away from his side. “The way it panned out, we’re disappointed not to win,” he said.
United’s manager cut short the negativity there, preferring to concentrate on what he thinks is an improving team and an improving situation at Elland Road. He had dinner with Cellino on Friday night and took a point away from a fourth game successive game away from home the following afternoon. That point was of little value in the context of the play-offs but the draw at QPR was a more structured, competitive affair than previous games at Brighton or Middlesbrough.
For 44 minutes Leeds had QPR where they wanted them, as accomplished a first half as they have produced away from home this season. But Rangers dug an equaliser out of nowhere just before half-time and controlled most of the game from then on. An opportunity missed, perhaps? “I never look at it like that,” McDermott said. “I look at it as a point gained – another point on the board.
“I want positivity around us now, that’s totally what I want at Leeds United. We’ve had a little period of time when it hasn’t been the most positive but maybe we’re coming into a period where we’re getting better.
“The players have given everything again and in the first half we played really well. We should maybe have killed the game off. But we’re improving. I definitely feel that.”
There was a team beset by pressure and doubt in the early stages at Loftus Road and that team was not Leeds. QPR’s lack of cohesion undermined their tactics and United, with Connor Wickham’s unmissable frame alongside Ross McCormack, harried Redknapp’s defence. His initial formation was dispensed with before half-time and replaced by a straightforward and more certain 4-4-2. But by then QPR were already a goal down.
McCormack had penalty saved by Robert Green in the 11th minute after Richard Dunne met the striker’s run with a clumsy tackle which took his legs from under him, but Green was beaten four minutes later when Armand Traore tripped Rudy Austin and McCormack flicked a 20-yard free-kick into the net.
Replays showed a strong deflection off the head of Kevin Doyle but, through ill fortune or not, the goal backed QPR into a corner.
For as long as Leeds made QPR toil, Wickham complimented McCormack in the way that McDermott asked him to when he signed the forward on loan from Sunderland last week. The 20-year-old pulled a shot wide on the turn before half-time, and another effort from McCormack – set up by Wickham’s pass – struck a leg and bounced behind.
Their partnership up front did not look manufactured or hastily hatched...
“Connor’s a young player, an England Under-21 player, and I thought the combination between him and Ross really looked quite natural,” McDermott said.
“We could have gone in two or three up but obviously they scored just before half-time.” QPR’s goal, claimed by Jenas in the 45th minute, was clinical and out of the blue. Prior to it, United’s goalkeeper, Jack Butland, had seen nothing more troubling than a weak Jenas header which he plucked out of the sky. But the midfielder found a gaping hole in the Leeds defence as he lost Luke Murphy and took a pass from Kevin Doyle, and his precise finish beat Butland to his right.
Redknapp needed that equaliser like he needs players of Charlie Austin and Joey Barton’s ilk to shake off their injuries. His side drew reassurance from the scoreline and Traore had the chance to score again inside the first minute of the second half, played through by Morrison but denied from close range by Butland’s right leg.
The opportunity was a flowing start to an otherwise bitty spell. Wickham dragged another shot inches beyond goal after the hour and then saw his moment in the 89th minute when he met substitute Alex Mowatt’s free-kick with a header which Green parried away from goal. United’s chances were few, however, and Saturday brought another tepid offering from McDermott’s wingers, Jimmy Kebe and Cameron Stewart. The away end was calling for Sam Byram before the final whistle.
In the fifth minute of injury-time QPR left-back Clint Hill anticipated a flick-on and buried a sublime volley from an angle but saw an offside flag raised as he pointed to the sky. On a generally pitiful afternoon for the match officials, the two key decisions were beyond reproach.
“We’re not happy with a point,” said QPR coach Kevin Bond. “But it was a fair result. Having seen it again, it was a penalty. And the offside goal was a good decision too.”
The problem for QPR, as their backroom team appreciate, is that they’re not quite there. In the context of the play-offs, neither are Leeds. But there is a steady tone about McDermott’s comments which was lost for a while after Cellino waded into Elland Road.
“There was a time when we weren’t talking about what was happening on the pitch,” McDermott said, “but we’re talking about football again – talking about players and talking about trying to get as many points as we can. The club’s a calmer place, there’s no doubt about that, and it needed to be. And we’re getting better. That’s the most important thing.”
QPR: Green, Hughes, Onuoha, Dunne, Hill, Traore, Jenas (Carroll 82), Henry, Hoilett (Keane 62), Morrison (Benayoun 85), Doyle. Subs (not used): Murphy, Sendles-White, Maiga, Yun.
Leeds United: Butland, Peltier, Lees, Pearce, Warnock, Murphy (Brown 81), Austin, Stewart (Mowatt 70), Kebe (Byram 90), Wickham, McCormack. Subs (not used): Smith, Hunt, Wootton, Cairns.