An afternoon of great promise, reduced to a post-mortem rooted in exasperated discussions regarding player selections and tactics – that’s Boxing Day 2012 in a nutshell. But let’s be clear here: Neil Warnock did opt for the right formation, selected the right players and put them in the right positions…if only the game had been kicking off at 1.35pm when he did so, we might have even won it!
Sadly it was 15 minutes past the hour of noon when the referee first blew his whistle; by the time Byram had moved to right midfield, freeing Paul Green to move to the middle, the movement and pace of Somma was tendered in exchange for a sluggish, ponderous Diouf and Rodolph Austin, for the mercy of everyone, acquainted himself with the Leeds bench there were 65 minutes on the clock and Leeds were dead and buried.
While many have bemoaned the invulnerability of Lee Peltier in Leeds starting XIs, Austin’s case is starting to appear as an even greater concern. While Brown was always a likely starter, Austin’s name on the team sheet was a bolt out of the blue – could he possibly be fit? Most asked the question and were right to; yet again, despite the voice of common sense screaming otherwise, Warnock chose to place his faith in an unfit Austin and yet again his hopeful punt backfired miserably; while earlier on the campaign the Jamaican found himself thrust into the firing line despite being clearly jaded having returned late from internationals, or just having started too many games, this time he stepped into the breach having played none at all.
Within minutes of the kick-off it was clear to see; his touch was poor and he wasn’t so much a solitary yard, but rather, several of them off the pace. Against a free-flowing, pacy Forest outfit the pairing of Brown and Austin was a disaster waiting to happen…though we did have to wait.
As a matter of fact, for a while, everything was going well; a good trip down, great free breakfast and cheap booze at Catchem’s Corner a few miles north of the ground, there was even the news that Adam Drury was a starter; the festive spirits lived on – Santa was in tow, in fact about a hundred were, all decked out in blue. A boisterous walk to the ground from Meadow Lane, accompanied by Leeds songs and directed at the behest of the North Pole’s best drew bemused and amused looks from on-lookers, though also probably traumatised younger supporters of both clubs – Santas can’t typically be found in such number, carrying half-empty bottles of lager, smoking Benson & Hedges and urinating against walls and under bridges in full public view…Billy Bob Thornton obviously created a new classic archetype!
Into the stadium on onwards to kick off; Leeds started brightly, in fact they dominated; fears about a midfield pairing offering the mobility of a couple of zombies on treadmills, cast aside as Leeds imposed themselves. On 12 minutes a deserved opener, the reward for a spell where the home side were unable to escape their own penalty area for full couple of minutes; Thomas’ high cross nodded back by Green who then pounced on Diouf’s effort to convert from a couple of yards. The reality of the opposing line-ups was lost as celebrations gave way to chants of “Leeds are going up!” It wasn’t to last.
Forest responded, the balance of possession shifted and Brown and Austin were called upon defensively…and it all started to fall apart. For a while, Leeds held steady, Kenny had to extend himself to tip a free-kick around the post but had little else to contend with. In the stands, attentions turned towards a bloke in the Forest end who was unwise enough to wear a suit – insults were hurled, but the Forest fans replied with interest: “He pays your benefits” rang out from the Bridgford Upper – 1-0 to the opposition in the stands. Moments later the man in question was escorted out by steward to find a more discrete vantage point…an honourable draw.
With the sideshow over, the intensity of home team’s play was ratcheted up a level; cries for a penalty bellowed out as Byram somehow managed to juggle the ball in the box while keeping his arms away – the Leeds fans then responded in kind with sarcasm, making exaggerated “handball” appeals with every touch following of the ball…after a while it seemed tedious, but then Paddy Kenny collected a loose ball in his hands and hundreds spontaneously rose to appeal in unison…”HANDBALL!!” – it was the last cause for a smile in some time and fittingly celebrated with a chorus of “We’re only here, to take the piss!”
With that out of the way, Forest resumed their mission to take the piss; moments later, Tate could’ve afforded them their first tangible opportunity to do so, his clear tug somehow missed by both officials; it was not to be an issue for long, as minutes later, Tom Lees obliged with a nudge on Billy Sharp…”PENALTY!!” – Oh yes. Sharp rose to place the ball on the spot and although Michael Brown took the opportunity to get in his face (a first..and last, for the day) his efforts of gamesmanship were in vain; a coolly converted equaliser.
Half-time came as a relief; an opportunity to re-organise and for Warnock to address the bleeding obvious – he’d not shied away from half-time changes in the past, today would surely be another such occasion?
It wasn’t though and didn’t every Leeds fan know about it; the opening 15 minutes of the second half brought back to vivid life the painful closing stages of the Chelsea game. The only surprise was that it took Forest 7 minutes to score – albeit, even then, it shouldn’t have done with Blackstock wasting a free header – but when they did, it sparked 420 seconds of football that could’ve quite feasibly left visiting supporters with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The first of the goals set the tone, Blackstock rose to plant a towering header into the path of Sharp, Tate, supposedly shadowing his opponent found himself positioned closer to the River Trent; the despairing clutches of Kenny evaded, Sharp composed himself to stroke the ball past Byram. Two minutes on and Elliot Ward, a man of such imposing build he could’ve only been spawned as the result of genetic engineering, appeared at the far post to knock the ball back into the 6 yard box, five Leeds player’s stood unchallenged, ready to deal with it – sadly, Austin was the first…one hopeless, tired swing of the boot later, game over.
Chants of “We want seven!” reverberated around the City Ground after the lamentable “Chelsea Dagger” driven goal celebrations finally gave way to a bona fide atmosphere, and two minutes later the natives were up again as an unmarked Sharp converted Alan Hutton’s deep cross, though this time a merciful linesman’s flag spared the visitors the agony of fourth goal.
The second and third goals hadn’t provide a kick up the arse and this close shave merely constituted another nudge with a metaphorical pair of size 12 Doc Martens; from the free-kick, Forest won back possession, Andy Reid skipped past an out of sorts Byram and Blackstock powered home a header, rising about a foot above Tate to plant the ball home.
Seven minutes – seven horrific, scarring minutes; and even then Warnock stood motionless, the fidgeting subs, contemplating their purpose in life. “We want seven!” again reverberated from three stands; I, like most Leeds fans, found the Forest fans’ lack of ambition at that stage rather baffling: 10-1 looked very much doable. On the big screen, a lone Santa was pictured, head in hands…Christmas miracles had gone down Shit Creek.
Finally on 65 minutes, exit stage left, Rodolph Austin, au revoir Diouf, welcome and what the hell took you so long, Davide Somma and Jason Pearce. Suddenly, Leeds had a presence in the middle, movement and invention up front and a degree more stability at the back; the points had gone and Forest still threatened, but so too finally did Leeds. Pearce had one early opportunity, but his attempt at the far post at drilling the ball in wouldn’t even have been sufficient to have disturbed Robin Van Persie’s hair gel.
At the back though, Pearce galvanised the side and a goal no longer seemed inevitable every time the ball crossed the half-way line and with McCormack’s late appearance, hints of promise were offered for Hull. Him and Somma quickly combined well and within minutes had manufactured a late consolation; had Somma converted again two minutes later, Leeds could’ve been perversely in with a shot of snatching a point.
As it was, the Whites had to contend themselves with a 4-2 defeat and the knowledge that it flattered them greatly. The Santas at least found solace in that as they chose to see out the closing moments with their own private party; what else could be taken from the day is debateable. Will Warnock finally accept that Austin is a human rather than an android and as such, cannot confound medical convention any more than his team mates? Will McCormack get a start on Saturday? Time will tell.
At least in his post-match interview, Warnock had positive words about the performance of Adam Drury; getting thrown back into the team at Forest was always a tough ask; having to do so while being afforded no protection whatsoever by Jerome Thomas made it doubly so – in the circumstances, Drury performed admirably. Hopefully today marks the start of a run in the team for a proven left back, playing at left back.
God knows, today has to be good for something!