Leeds United teams don’t do derby games; that’s been a general rule of thumb at Elland Road for longer than anyone cares to remember. For years now, too many such fixtures have conformed to an all too familiar and depressing template, where the Whites come face to face with a club and a following that care passionately about playing us, in stark contrast to our utter indifference towards them.
While it’s reassuring as a Leeds fan to be regularly reminded of the hatred we continue to generate amongst Yorkshire’s lesser lights, regardless of our status; it has become a real problem on match days. While Simon Grayson achieved much during his tenure, motivating his starting XI against the likes of Huddersfield, Hull City and Sheffield United wasn’t really his forte…then there’s Barnsley.
On the basis of the last couple of seasons, I’ve come to look forward to a clash with Barnsley with the same sort of relish I’d expect ahead of an encounter with a proctologist; consecutive hidings at Oakwell and surrendered home points – the default sensation come the full-time whistle in such clashes has been “utterly p***ed off”.
Then there’s Keith Hill, a man not so much sporting a chip on his shoulder, rather a full sack of King Edwards; again in the build-up to the game, he was sniping away, warning of gamesmanship on Saturday, calling for strong refereeing and the like. It must still eat away at the balding, Bolton born cockalorum that he was never considered for the Leeds post ahead of Warnock, having made a play for it back in December when he suggested how much better the club would’ve been faring had he been in charge. Hill didn’t get the job though (thank God!) and with Warnock now at the helm, the suspicion prior to kick-off was that the halcyon days of regular triumphs for the Matalan Mourinho and his contemporaries would finally be at an end.
That was the theory, albeit the logic looked worryingly flawed during the opening 20 minutes as Barnsley started strongly and the established derby pattern bedded in. Leeds struggled to cope; Austin and Tonge seemed unsure about their roles, neither of them pushing forward to support the strikers with any real conviction, but both abdicating defensive responsibilities. Having twice failed to prevent Kevin Davies from scoring at the Reebok, Austin now stood motionless as Jacob Mellis broke into the box after only 4 minutes, only to steer wide when it seemed easier to score.
Stephen Dawson and David Perkins (again) were running the show as the visitors stroked the ball around as they pleased; on 7 minutes Barnsley were almost through again, only a clumsy challenge-cum-air shot from Jason Pearce was sufficient to halt progress – it was ugly, it was desperate, and matters had to be addressed.
Hope is currently a fragile concept at Leeds and the sparsely populated East Stand – a monument to the consequences placing greed above ambition – served as a reminder of the underlying unrest that lurks around the club. Yet, as productive as the self-imposed exiles of the masses may be in nudging Bates towards the exit, it is also a shame that the players currently wearing the shirt are denied this support, as if nothing else, they are unequivocally committed to the cause, and will ultimately give any side a game…and today all it took was a change of system.
Leeds adapted to a 3-5-2 formation; Peltier moved towards the middle to become the left-sided centre back of three, while Aidy White dropped back from the midfield to play at wing-back. Suddenly the home side had much more of a solid look about them; Leeds had more bodies in the middle of the pitch, where previously they had been overrun and the problems caused by Tonge’s tendency to repeatedly drift infield from the left, exposing Peltier in the process, were addressed. As such, the game became a far more even affair, albeit with the exception of one superb Diouf cross headed over by Becchio, the threat offered by Leeds was relatively minor.
That Leeds took the lead was quite a surprise then, even if the source was rather less so; while Stephen Foster’s decision to end Lee Petier’s run from deep with a body check that bordered on an assault was undeniably a foul, whether it took place inside the 18 yard box was another issue entirely. Becchio appeared duly unconcerned about the validity of the decision as he dinked in from 12 yards. By his own admittance, Neil Warnock didn’t watch the penalty being taken, which seemed a shame, as doubtless the sight of our Argentine forward getting bollocked by our manager for trying to be “flash” while still celebrating the goal, would’ve made for a priceless spectacle.
It was a bitter pill for Barnsley to swallow and things got a little too much for Keith Hill shortly afterwards. Today’s dismal referee of choice, Darren Deadman, having harshly booked Becchio on the back of cries from Barnsley fans, then immediately found himself also playing up to the home fans who demanded retribution following a nondescript Craig Davies challenge – Hill responded by attempting to start a stand-up row with an entire section of the West Stand.
Come the second half, Leeds began to look a little more comfortable, helped by increasing familiarity with the new system and the early introduction of David Norris for a sluggish Tonge. Chances were few however, and the majority went to Barnsley; the best of the half went to Marlon Harewood, who with the goal at his mercy, side-footed back in the direction of Paddy Kenny, who was able to fling himself at the ball and save at full stretch.
As Barnsley became more desperate and Michael Brown (not for the first time) was christened a w**ker by the away support, Jason Pearce (not for the first time) found using his body as the last line of defence to be a wholly effective tactic. As time ticked by, Leeds found themselves increasingly reliant on Diouf as a sole attacking outlet who obliged magnificently; the Senegalese striker’s use of the ball, his ability to retain it and where possible, bring others into play was an object lesson to all those around him and a reminder of what it’s like to have a top class experienced player at Elland Road…and it’s been a while! As Diouf jogged over to take a corner he’d just won in the dying minutes, those in the Kop and the North East Corner rose as one to acclaim him and he responded in kind – the unlikeliest of love affairs is in full bloom!
Barnsley were still afforded one more gilt-edged opportunity, but could only muster a weak header after Austin again lost his man at a set piece; this time though, mercifully, it wasn’t costly. So come the final whistle, the players and Warnock were able to celebrate and reflect upon a terrific fortnight for the club that has brought a cup victory over Everton and 10 points from 12, all in the midst of an injury crisis! Warnock left the pitch all smiles; in contrast a sulking Keith Hill made for the tunnel stony faced, left to curse a combination of bad fortune and the referee. If looks could kill, Darren would be a dead man.
In the post-match interviews, Warnock claimed not to have a clear view of the penalty incident, stating that he would need to see a replay before passing judgement; Hill was in no mood to play the diplomat however, openly lamenting the decision…while skirting over the inability of his forwards. He did try to remain measured and typically noble in his criticism though, saying: “I better be careful, I’m not a rich man…I’m rich in values, but not with cash”.
Barnsley fans surely shouldn’t fear a relegation battle while under the stewardship of such a self-important, righteous leader and will doubtless take comfort from his unrepentant parting shot: “I don’t hide. I’m Keith Hill; 6 foot 1, 16 stone, was 13 stone. I don’t hide! – Kevin Blackwell, you may just have a soul mate!
Maybe derbies are gonna be a whole lot more fun this season…?