Leeds were there once and for long enough to know what Sunderland are getting themselves into, but the mention of League One brought to mind how long it is since Leeds escaped from it: eight years in the division above, steadfastly going nowhere. Paul Heckingbottom has a way of measuring the time. He was still playing professionally in the year Leeds broke out.
There has been no culture of progression at Elland Road or no success in creating one and while Chris Coleman, Sunderland’s manager, contemplates his arrival in England’s third tier two years after standing on the touchline for a European Championship semi-final, it should not be lost on Heckingbottom that his squad have been as flaccid since Christmas. Leeds are in Sunderland’s bracket, minus the shocking league position.
That message came loudly from a 1-1 draw with Sunderland on Saturday, a game of flailing punches in which both teams made it to the bell. There was entertainment throughout but much of it the equivalent of rubbernecking as Leeds tried to avoid the meltdown of defeat to a side who lose to everyone, and Sunderland sought the first leg of a miracle. “A point’s not enough,” said a dejected Coleman. “A point today was never going to be enough for us.” And with that, Sunderland were gone.
Coleman’s players, to their credit, played at Elland Road as if the last chance saloon was in full swing. “I know for a fact that if they’d performed like that between the start of the season and now, they wouldn’t be in this position,” Heckingbottom said. In his own dressing room, United’s head coach can find no way of flicking a switch. Eleven games in and Elland Road, if it keeps its gaze from the touchline, can see only the same football that punished Thomas Christiansen with the sack in February. As if to make the point, Gaetano Berardi revisited the worst of the Christiansen era with a straight red card in the 90th minute.
Berardi has form for recklessness and four years with Leeds have done nothing to cure it. That streak has been beyond the control of several managers but other things are within Heckingbottom’s gift to change: collective and individual form, the tactical enterprise of his team, their mental backbone and their joyless psyche. Leeds did not ask Heckingbottom to qualify for the play-offs when they appointed him but his players have made no pretence of getting there either. On the contrary, they are hanging themselves game by game. It is not unlike 2012, when it suited Neil Warnock to see deficiency exposed in the squad he inherited.
Heckingbottom, evidently, has the handicap of injuries; eight before Saturday’s match and enough to bring Paudie O’Connor, the 20-year-old Irishman in United’s development squad, into his defence. The back five against Sunderland told its own story – a winger at right-back, a debutant at centre-back, a right-back operating as a left-back and a goalkeeper who was third choice a month ago – and Sunderland carved chances out of it. Defences like that are there to be disemboweled.
Leeds responded in kind and struck the frame of Sunderland’s goal three times, albeit once with a header from Gjanni Alioski which smacked the underside of the crossbar and drawing an offside flag. “I think both managers are sitting here thinking ‘what if that had happened?’,” Heckingbottom said. “But I can’t say ‘if only that went in’. Whilst we hit the woodwork three times, we could just have easily have lost.”
O’Connor, who grew hair on his chest playing senior football with Limerick, did not look like wilting, even after Heckingbottom reacted to Sunderland opening the scoring on 48 minutes by sacrificing a midfielder and switching to three at the back. Paddy McNair claimed Sunderland’s goal, rifling a shot into the roof of Bailey Peacock-Farrell’s net as United’s defence paused and Donald Love chipped a pass over the top.
It was something of a surprise that the game had been goalless for so long. Ronaldo Vieira struck a post in the 19th minute and Pablo Hernandez, who eventually claimed United’s equaliser, saw Lee Camp knock his goalbound volley wide of the far post with a knee. Ashley Fletcher, the striker who United pursued for so much of last season, shook Peacock-Farrell’s bar with a header from a corner four minutes before half-time.
“If one of our chances goes in, it’s a totally different game,” Heckingbottom said. “We might be able to play on the counter-attack and give our technical players more space to play in. Whilst there’s always a gameplan, the score in the game and the timing of goals always has an impact.”
McNair bagged the first but Hernandez – so used to carrying Leeds – reeled Sunderland in on 72 minutes, backing up Love inside the box before curling a gem of a finish into Camp’s far corner. Peacock-Farrell, again, came into his own and protected the point by tipping away a firm header from Fletcher and preventing Callum McManaman’s shot from flying into the top corner in the sixth minute of injury-time. Camp dived to turn away Samuel Saiz’s effort on 85 minutes and was nowhere where Saiz’s free-kick in the last minute rebounded off the inside of a post. At its most eventful it was anyone’s game.
The tingling desperation got to Berardi, who raked a boot down McManaman’s shin within seconds of the midfielder coming off the bench. The foul caused a flare-up between several players and Jansson and McManaman were booked after wading in. Berardi, meanwhile, took the walk of shame for the third time this season. “That’s a straight red,” Coleman said. “I’ve been a defender and I was no angel but you’ve got to call it as you see it.”
Increasingly, those calling it as they see it at Elland Road are growing less and less tolerant. Heckingbottom is creeping forward at a rate of less than a point a game, with results which offer little to buy into. Progression, it seems, will not come this side of the summer.
“I can see us trying to make the best of it and the players committing to what we’re doing with the people we’ve got available,” Heckingbottom said.
“It’s difficult when we’re putting out a team but we know we can only alter it in one way, which is to be attacking.
“That’s not where I want to be. I want to be in a position where I’m free to influence the game at any point. We want to be selecting from our best players all of the time, with competition for every position and being able to make changes during a game dependent on the situation.
“I’ll never use it as an excuse but it’s limiting us in terms of what we can do and how we can play, one hundred per cent.”