Only 5 days into a new year and Elland Road already had the feel of morose venue; where the promise and optimism of the January transfer window was already being slowly strangled at the hands of all too familiar soundbites about the difficulties about securing players at this stage of the season; where hopes of “one or two players in by the weekend” had again failed to materialise and where the spectre of Aidy White in the starting line-up again loomed large.
Performances over the festive period had done nothing but reassert the urgency for new blood in the playing squad and new ideas from the manager; a woeful collapse at Forest which in comparison to the humiliation Hull now seems like a fond memory, barely tempered by a fortuitous New Year’s Day victory against Bolton that represented the footballing equivalent of ketamine.
Now came the FA Cup and Birmingham City; a fixture in a competition at the bottom of everyone’s list of priorities and against the type of opponents that fail to entice – post-Christmas, out of form…nobody cared. This is not with the benefit of hindsight, nobody cared a month back when the draw was made; even then the news met with a collective sigh and “pfft!” from both fan bases.
Surely a perfect opportunity the new owners to exert their influence then? A perfect opportunity to make a gesture to herald a new dawn? To generate some excitement and get fans on board? GFH had already financed the Thomas and Tate loan deals so they clearly had influence…but they had other priorities. Unsurprisingly, in view of this, so too today, did most other Leeds supporters. Even Neil Warnock chose to stay at home in his onesie, sipping Lemsip, rather than view from the comfort of one of the many vacant East Stand executive boxes.
It had the feeling of a game that had been written off and quickly forgotten about even before it was played; even the promise of seeing a few younger players being given an opportunity was denied us; the starting line up and bench the familiar mish-mash of first teamers and those who’ve consistently failed to break through – at least the visiting supporters could savour the opportunity to see some new, youthful faces.
The first half played out in near silence; even by recent standards, Elland Road was flat. The game in truth wasn’t quite the eyesore of Bolton, there were even moments of attacking intent shown – primarily by Birmingham – but the overwhelming apathy in the sparsely populated stands if anything, made the spectacle seem somehow worse. I was stood in my usual place in N11, usually at the heart of the match day atmosphere, and I was able to conduct a conversation with a mate stood 2 rows down and 8 seats across to my left with barely the need to raise my voice…grim.
On the pitch, it’s perhaps ironic that the biggest plus to be taken was from the performance of the midfield pair; Brown got through a lot of work while Norris offered a lot of attacking threat from deep, behind them it was a rather less palatable spectacle. Come the start of the season, it appeared that central defence would be one of our greatest strengths, yesterday, people suddenly found themselves reassessing the worth of Lee Peltier.
Jason Pearce and Alan Tate exhibited all the assurance of a latter day Naylor/Collins axis of awfulness; both players have of late failed miserably to live up to the fanfare that accompanied their arrivals. Pearce was sold to us as some form of ‘lower league John Terry’, a natural leader, an old fashioned, blood and thunder centre back who would put his body on the line… but where these qualities to be seen? I don’t see him galvanising, fist shaking and geeing up players, more damningly and time after time, when he needs to put his body on the line he shies away – that’s what he did when Elliott Ward stormed through, turning away and allowing his opponent to convert stunningly from 30 yards. It’s all very well looking up for it as a sub at the City Ground when the game is lost, or in early season when everybody is up for the fight – but these are not the games where leaders need to stand up to be counted, yesterday was.
That’s not to say that Pearce is the greater problem, he isn’t, seemingly it’s Tate. Having come in and offered initial solidity at the back, Tate now has the air of a man simply going through the motions – there must be better options out there? Throughout the game the duo were taken apart at will by the pace and movement of Ravel Morrison and Nathan Redmond. It maybe wouldn’t be quite so exasperating if to accommodate the pair, our best centre back was pushed out to right back…why put Tom Lees there? Why?
Elsewhere on the pitch, Ryan Hall danced around down the right in his best anonymity cloak while Aidy White proved yet again beyond all reasonable doubt that Warnock’s decision to offer him a new contract and substantial pay rise is still his most bewildering. Both were substituted at half-time, even Warnock could see it, and he was relying on the radio commentary!
Diouf and Byram replaced the pair for the second half and Leeds at least had a discernible shape and pattern of play, they even created a couple of chances, the first Becchio clipped tamely into the keeper’s hands, the second he did rather better with. That opportunity came on the hour mark; fittingly it was on the back of more good work by Norris who somehow managed to manoeuvre himself just enough space to play in the Argentine, and that’s all he needed. Once again Becchio had obliged and has he milked the applause, the short burst of joy and relief in LS11 immediately gave way to the chilling prospect that the two sides might just have to do this all again…
Just as Leeds had a chance to build some momentum, 19 year-old Blues midfielder, Will Packwood sustained an horrific looking leg break following an innocuous challenge with Becchio. That incident rather undermined a chance that the game might spark to life and the brief signs of life in the crowd dissipated; the sound of Doyle knocking his studs against his left hand post was even audible at one stage. The willing remained in the dug-out to force a result, but despite the introduction of Somma and the increasing influence of Diouf, the visitors continued to offer the greater threat – neither team though could put us all out of our misery.
So back to St. Andrews for those souls brave enough to bare witness to a second installment. Still, at least nobody will face having to pay up to £28 for the privilege – £15 a seat for the replay.
GFH take note.