Elland Road, 12.30pm – a godforsaken hour for a football game featuring a team that supporters struggle to get excited about playing host to opposition that few people (contrary to popular perception) care about. All this in a season that many have already given up on. Ahead of the game, Neil Warnock spoke of how negotiating a week involving games against the Lions, Leicester and Palace without defeat would be “perfect”, who could blame fans for lacking any belief in play-offs charge?
The resounding answer about the relative attractiveness the spectacle was spelt out in the empty blue seats, as less than 19,000 home fan deemed the game worth bothering about. Only 120 travelled up from Bermondsey, the remainder doubtless considered the numerous restrictions they had to abide by and hurdles they had to negotiate, just for the opportunity to take up exorbitantly priced seats in a dilapidated stand, not to be worth the effort…for some reason.
And so the game kicked-off, the atmosphere more akin to that at a village green cricket match than the bear pit of poisonous hatred the police would have you believe they were having to contend with. The pitiful Millwall contingent were just about visible, clustered together in the higher reaches of the West Stand, surrounded by a wall of police and stewards; a scene that resembled some kind of large scale (well largish…) naughty step. In all, there were 300 police present – that’s 2.5 for every away supporter that attended. I can only imagine that Dave Jones will be afforded a collective that’ll number at least two dozen coppers, flanking him from all angles with a wall of riot shields, should the neurotic levels of security at Elland Road prevail…
Oh for such an excitable response on the pitch, where Leeds continue to impress as a defensive unit but depress as an attacking force. Millwall in truth did expose the home side in the opening stages, most notably as perennial thorn in our side/pain in the ar*e (delete as appropriate) James Henry latched on to a clever Martyn Woolford flick, leaving Paul Green trailing in his wake, and drilled the shot against the outside of the post.
Leeds for the most part laboured, edging possession while not doing an awful lot with it, that was until Sam Byram intervened. While Warnock made the exasperating revelation this week that he’d suspended his search for a winger as he would feel obliged to play them (go figure!), the desperate lack of pace in wide areas was again painfully evident – step forward the solution…Byram makes another burst into the area and earns yet another penalty; Martyn Woolford hacking down the youngster in full pelt. Maybe our manager might consider picking up a right-back to play behind our Sam instead?
Sad to say it was to count for nothing. Ross McCormack on the back of converting from 12 yards at Moilneux tried his luck again. The direction was good and the power decent, but the run up was so telegraphed that David Forde was able to take the entire ‘guessing element’ out of his dive and do just enough to keep the ball out. As the fist pumping and backslapping continued around the keeper, McCormack received the ball from the resultant throw – his cross, a whisper too high for Varney dropped onto the base of the far post before rebounding across the goalmouth from where Danny Shittu was able to launch it skyward.
McCormack held his head, forlorn, awaiting the opportunity for redemption, it was to arrive 10 minutes later. Another ball into the box, laid off nicely and into the feet of the Scotsman, stood in acres of space, he chose not to hit ion the spot, using the ample time he had to shift it to his right foot and open up the angle, now just to despatch home…it was a painful moment, as if Leeds suddenly had two Luke Varneys – the tamest of swings of the right foot and a soft landing on his ar*e – it resembled a showpiece exhibit from a display comedy misses. An apologetic drop of the shoulders accompanied Ross’ jog back up the halfway line; he was still receiving sympathetic/encouraging pats on the head come the next corner.
It was the final meaningful action of the half as Leeds trundled off for the 10th league game in succession, goalless. The theme pervaded the half-time entertainment as Ben Fry’s keen eye for seemingly physically retarded spectators triumphed again. Maybe the soul destroyingly poor efforts in the ‘You Bet You Score’ game were a deliberate ploy to make Ross feel better about himself?
If that was the plan of the Macron jacket poster boy/Yorkshire Radio guru it had the desired effect. In a second period where Leeds again had the edge, only Michael Tonge from long range offered David Forde anything substantial to deal with until McCormack drew a clumsy challenge from Allan Dunne on 71 minutes. The referee pointed to the spot again, though this time the Scotsman chose to remain a peripheral figure while Stephen Warnock made a bee-line for penalty spot. On the bench, his name sake Neil, frantically tried to bring on El Hadji Diouf to assume responsibility, but the full-back was having none of it. He stepped up and leathered it; it was passed Forde before the keeper had the opportunity to make a guess this time.
A new hero was born. While the back five as a whole have functioned superbly in recent weeks, Warnock had suddenly assumed top billing; a clattering challenge that reduced James Henry to a crumpled heap earned further major kudos from the Kop and left the visitors to play out the remaining minutes with 10 men. Then just as the faultless Peltier threatened to upstage him by denying Andy Keogh with a last ditch challenge in the 6 yard box, back came Stephen again, not only taking out a Millwall player but also Luke Varney in the process. The genius of Warnock’s work lie in it’s execution, not only had he averted danger with another thunderous challenge, but in laying out Varney had even somehow earned the Whites a free-kick! Good work fella!
To compound a day of misery for the visitors a very strong penalty claim failed to impress Mike Jones, as a sheepish looking Sam Byram hurriedly hid his offending arm from view after Alan Dunne’s goal bound effort had it’s trajectory rudely interrupted.
So another game out of the way and the remote promise of a play-off charge just about remains. Though maybe, just maybe Neil, 2 points from two away trips won’t suffice anymore Neil?