Five red cards and surfeit of yellows has put United at the wrong end of the FA’s Fair Play League. Captain Liam Cooper defended his squad yesterday – but said they must clean up their act. Phil Hay reports.
The reaction to Eunan O’Kane’s headbutt at Ipswich Town last weekend was not helped by the fact that he spent time the previous day talking about the indiscipline of Samuel Saiz. Yesterday it fell to Liam Cooper to talk about both of them and Thomas Christiansen can only hope that lightning does not strike twice this afternoon.
The subject of discipline is unavoidable, though, and as Christiansen explained at his weekly press conference, discussions about it are taking place behind closed doors at Leeds United. The club are at the wrong end of the Football Association’s Fair Play League, with the most red cards in the Championship and a large number of yellows, but the seasonal statistics are not the issue.
What bothered Christiansen was Saiz spitting and O’Kane needlessly nutting Ipswich’s Jonas Knudsen; red cards without any sporting context at all.
Cooper, United’s captain, was the subject of one of their five dismissals, for two bookable fouls during a 3-1 defeat at Cardiff City in September, but his head coach is more willing to tolerate a red like that as a feature of competitive football.
The consequence of O’Kane’s 37th-minute offence last Saturday was a 1-0 defeat in a game where Leeds appeared to have Ipswich exactly where they wanted them.
“I don’t want to pick Eunan out but he’d be the first to hold his hand up and say it was silly of him,” Cooper said. “We accept that, but if Eunan was on the pitch, there was only going to be one winner. We were creating chances and on another day we win that game with 11 men.”
Leeds, to their credit, have not gone soft on either player.
Christiansen initially defended O’Kane on the basis of the midfielder pleading his innocence but changed his stance after seeing unambiguous video evidence. Saiz issued a public apology for spitting at an opposition player, Robbie Willmott, during Leeds’ FA Cup defeat at Newport County and followed that up by donating £25,000 to the fund created to raise money for young Leeds fan Toby Nye, a toddler in need of treatment for Neuroblastoma. As a result of Saiz’s contribution, the cost of that treatment is now covered.
In that Leeds can find charitable consolation but Christiansen took O’Kane’s red card as his cue to re-establish ground rules with his players, telling them that he would “not accept these situations”. Cooper understood his point.
“The club have said they’re not going to accept it and rightly so,” Cooper said. “Stupid red cards which can be avoided are disappointing. That’s what they’ll always be. We as a team won’t stand for that. We’ve got to sort it out and we will do.
“I think the lads who we’re talking about would be the first to admit they’ve done wrong.
“The manager let them know what he thought and the club have let them know what they think as well. They’re not bad lads and they’d be the first to hold their hands up. We’ve got to accept that. Both lads have apologised and we move on.”
While Saiz misses six games and O’Kane three, Leeds have other suspensions hanging over them. Kalvin Phillips is up to nine bookings and will incur a two-match ban when he reaches 10. Having evaded single yellow card until Hallowe’en, Pontus Jansson has crept up to seven and was punished for dissent at Ipswich.
“We’re not a horrible group or a dirty group,” Cooper said.
“It’s about finding a balance. We’ve spoken about that behind closed doors this week.
“It’s about finding a balance with the officials of not being too soft and not being too over the top. But we can’t go into games lacklustre. You’ve got to put your foot forward and make people know you’re there. Maybe we’ve taken that a bit too literally.”
Down on numbers and down on results, Leeds gave their season a push with two signings in the past 10 days: a £1.5m deal for Club Brugge left-back Laurens De Bock and the transfer of Adam Forshaw from Middlesbrough which could cost as much as £4.5m depending on add-ons. Forshaw will miss today’s clash with Millwall with a minor fitness concern but De Bock is in Christiansen’s squad, the first time United’s head coach has had an experienced and specialist left-back to call on.
“We’ve seen that they’re good players,” Cooper said. “Laurens is coming from Club Brugge and he’s played in the Champions League. He looks like an attacking left-back and he gives us a bit of balance. Adam speaks for himself. He’s got Premier League quality.
“It is a nice boost but Andrea (Radrizzani, United’s owner) has always said that he’ll only bring in players who’ll improve us. Those two definitely do.”
Those deals, on paper, leave a centre-forward as the obvious priority for United’s recruitment team. The pressure to land a striker before the end of January has not been eased by four games in which United’s only goal came via a first-ever career finish from right-back Gaetano Berardi. Leeds had ample opportunity to score at Ipswich, even without O’Kane. Cooper missed the best of them by vollying over an empty goal with nine minutes to play.
The defender said the sight of goals drying up was not a concern for him. “That will come,” he said. “It’s not like we’re not creating chances. We’re creating chances in every game and if we keep creating them we’ll get the goals. I’m not worried at all.”
Millwall’s trip to Elland Road today brings to mind one of the few chanceless days experience by Leeds and Christiansen since the Dane took over as head coach in June. Millwall inflicted their first defeat of the season in September, beating United up in the way that Leeds often get beaten in Bermondsey. Christiansen’s players were top of the Championship at the time but Millwall found a thin skin and were easily worth a 1-0 victory.
Away from home, however, the London club are without a win all season and have not got the better of Leeds since 2010. This afternoon they will have the benefit of a bigger away crowd than usual following the decision to ease long-standing travel restrictions on their supporters but United are anxious to regain a place in the Championship’s top six and bring their results under control.
“We know there’s always that bit of edge when Millwall come to town,” said Cooper, who missed September’s loss at the New Den through injury. “We know what to expect, we know what type of team they are and we’ve got to stamp our authority on the game - start at a high tempo which has been giving us a lot of joy and try to blow teams away.
“The game at their place, I didn’t play myself but it’s a tough place to go, a different experience for some of the new boys maybe. A hostile environment. But that’s the Championship and it’s not the only ground in the league like that. We definitely owe them one.”