Barnsley; so much to answer for. How I’ve come to resent this beastly abomination of an away trek; the familiar impending feeling of dread, pre-match drinks in a curtain draped sports hall, and that walk down that rough, coach-flanked footpath down to the pit of the hill, through into the courtyard and onwards to those turnstiles, each in their own Satanic bleakness, an individual gateway to a footballing Hades.
It mattered not that Barnsley lie bottom of the league, that they staggered into the weekend, punch drunk from the loss of their leading scorer and broken by the knowledge that even Terry Butcher and Sean O’Driscoll considered Scottish football and the dole queue to be more fulfilling day to day occupations; a record breaking run of 11 home leagues games without a win was merely a trivial detail, for Leeds were in town.
Neil Warnock claimed this time would be different, pledging that the “minimum we can give is 100%”; true it was another statement that stood testament to the adage that those in football shouldn’t dabble with elementary mathematics, but the sentiments were clear enough. Leeds, buoyed by the signing of Tonge and the loan capture of Barkley would be at it from the start, exploiting a broken, shell-shocked opposition…yes, I stopped buying into this stuff a long time ago.
So to 2.55pm, the teams stride out from the corner of the North Stand, outwards into the Oakwell arena, a pitch surrounded by a mish-mash of stands – the cheap modernist and decrepit, coalescing into a vista that has spawned the backdrop to a thousand LUFC-related nightmares. A positive start, that’s all it should take, never mind the perceived wisdom that there is nothing more dangerous than a wounded animal; if you knock ten balls of crap out of it before it has time to recover it’s strength, then it’s game over.
But Leeds didn’t start aggressively; rather than butcher the lame Barnsley beast, they gently patted it, fed it bread and milk and then when it was ready for something more substantial they offered themselves as a light, if unsubstantial afternoon buffet for to their hosts and those severely malnourished Tykes fed eagerly. It took a manner of minutes for the pattern of the game to be established; Barnsley swarming all over Leeds from the off; players in faces, tackles committed, 40/60s won with regularity and concerning ease. David Perkins ultra-blonde bonce, was once again everywhere all at once as Leeds failed miserably to match their opponents for desire.
In the middle of the park, lurked Austin, an immobile imposter inheriting a role previously filled by an all-action, tough tackling, Jamaican superman; just ahead of him, David Norris, a man with sound footballing attributes but wholly incompatible with a luddite style of play roamed anonymously. Out wide, lurked Diouf, able to hold on to the ball, but lacking the pace to do anything other than “put it in the mixer” from distance. While Tonge’s return offered a small degree of poise, any spell of possession was quickly curtailed by a team mate electing to play it long (and aimlessly). This left only Ross Barkley to offer a degree of attacking intent – shamefully, our loanee of 24 hours was by some distance the outstanding outfield player of the day.
Barkley’s efforts were not enough in isolation though as Barnsley stretched Leeds at will; with the midfield over-run, Becchio completely starved of any service and a collectively pitiful backline showing, the only surprise of the day was that Leeds made it through to the interval unscathed; opportunities had been in plentiful supply with Kenny making several excellent stops and only his right hand post denying Harewood’s 16 yard strike and Martin Crainey’s glancing header. Regardless of the status quo, patience was already snapping in the stands, the first anti-Warnock chants clearly audible and regular instances of booing from the half hour mark. Leeds were pitiful, again.
Inevitable and unavoidable changes brought new hope for the resumption as Norris made way for Paul Green and Diouf for McCormack; Leeds kicked off the half with a line-up agreeable to almost all and for the opening 10 minutes or so appeared to be rejuvenated. A fresh, conscious effort to keep hold of the ball, the energy of Green and the pace of McCormack suddenly rendered a one-dimensional side an expansive one and when Becchio cushioned a header into the path of Barkley, only the depth of the crossbar denied the debutant a moment his display merited.
A goal may have been a worthy reward for Barkley, but for Barnsley it would’ve stood as a travesty and maybe spurred on by that thought, the home side stepped up a gear and again, as the pre-match promises came to nothing in the first half, ten minutes of initial Leeds promise was brushed to one side with embarrassing ease. Barnsley finally struck on 63 minutes as Chris Dagnall, tormentor in chief for Sam Byram for the day, drew a horribly mistimed challenge from the right back; a clear cut penalty. Dagnall struck home with confidence and Oakwell erupted; a tenth playing of ‘Chelsea Dagger’ in just 4 hours of football against Leeds – God, I hate that song. Predictably, some of the locals got a little over-excited, taking a break from celebrations to pile up against a barrier in an effort to goad visiting fans. They bounced around and made all manner or gestures; it was more Conquest of the Planet of the Apes than Green Street as they struggled to decide whether to focus primarily on dancing or mockery.
Regardless, if it was a conquest that they looked to mark, its confirmation wasn’t long in arriving, indeed it took the regularly disastrous pairing of Tate and Pearce only 3 minutes to combine for the second goal; this time, Tate who’d spent the entire game backing away from his man (his role in the first goal should not go un-noted) instead got ‘touch tight’ to Marlon Harewood who simply rolled his opponent and slipped through Dagnell who lost Pearce and calmly slotted home. Chelsea f**king Dagger again…
The knockout blow had been delivered on the pitch and suddenly the gloves were coming off in the stand – “We’re shit and we’re sick off it!” made an emphatic return, becoming more vociferous and heartfelt in delivery as each lamentable minute passed by; “Warnock. Time to go!” quickly followed. Following the desperate surrenders of the last two Oakwell visits, the inconceivable was happening – somehow Leeds had managed to outdo themselves again.
On the back of a 5-2 and a 4-1, a 2-0 defeat may on the surface not seem quite as bad, but make no mistake, it represented the most shameful display of them all. Leeds were outplayed to the same extent as they were at Hull, only this time against a team at the bottom of the league; in 90 minutes minutes they failed to muster a single shot on target, nor even a corner! The last two visits to Oakwell have effectively ended Elland Road careers; in September 2010, Fede Bessone disappeared down the tunnel never to be seen again while the New Years’ Eve defeat last season more or less sounded a death knell for Simon Grayson’s reign.
The question now is should it do the same for Warnock? On the evidence of recent performances it’s becoming increasingly difficult to make a compelling case for the defence; poor runs are a common phenomenon for all but the strongest Championship clubs where so many sides are of similar ability – form, confidence and luck are all transient qualities and most Leeds fans are realistic enough to know that. However, concerns about current performances run much deeper than this, for the second consecutive away game, Leeds have failed to test the opposition goalkeeper even once, while against Bolton and Brimingham they mustered a grand total of three efforts on target (one a penalty) and all via the left foot of Luciano Becchio.
In other words, over 6 hours of football have been played since any Leeds player other than Luciano have tested the goalkeeper – a truly damning statistic; and how does Warnock respond to this? He criticises Becchio’s display at Oakwell, claiming the Argentine has had his head turned by other clubs. Frankly, who wouldn’t? Leeds don’t possess a squad with the quality or strength in depth necessary to push for an automatic promotion place, not by some distance, but the personnel is certainly sufficient to compete for 6th position; in the likes of Byram, Tonge, Austin, Diouf, Green, Norris, McCormack and now Barkley, to name but a few, we also possess players who are more than capable of playing the sort of progressive, passing, high tempo football needed to succeed at this level. Yet under Warnock, the qualities for which these players are noted have been stifled, strangled even, by a neanderthal playing style that ensures that current position of 11th is greatly flattering.
If doubts about the opinions of those who stood witness to this shambles at Oakwell remained, they were surely dispelled come the full-time whistle. Becchio left the pitch alone, seemingly appalled at his situation, reciprocating the applause of those sympathetic to his cause; the remaining players trooped off together, amid a hostile reaction. Warnock was the last to leave – he initially signalled to the supporters to acknowledge Ross Barkley for his contribution for which they needed no prompting, but then when he offered his own thanks it was thrown back at him in a sea of deafening boos and vitriol. The Leeds United jury found him guilty on all counts.
Having enjoyed the style in which QPR strolled to the title in 2011, I believed that Warnock had proven that there was more to his footballing philosophies than long balls, percentage passes and “getting it in the mixer”, sadly upon his return to Yorkshire he seems to have regressed to stereotype. His irrepressible enthusiasm is now conspicuous by its absence and the players have stopped responding to him.
The first priority GFH should’ve had was to either back Warnock with a contract extension or signal their intent to start with a new man. Instead we’ve had three weeks of uncertainty and an increasing general acceptance that the manager will bow out in May; experience shows that when such departures are scheduled, problems typically emerge in the dressing room as players feel less inclined to respond to a man who’s not going to be present in the long term.
So now we find ourselves back in January again, back in limbo again and back on the precipice of waving goodbye to the play-offs for another season. December 21st, the day of the GFH press conference was the moment to clarify Warnock’s future, for the owner’s to resoundingly illustrate their faith in him and for him to commit to the club. Three weeks on and I fear it may be too late.
Leeds United are currently heading down a fatalistic road on a journey that’s scheduled to last for another four months. It might just be time to drop off Warnock at the next junction and start planning long term, from root to tip rather than waste even more time.