Among the lexicon of football cliches, the phrase “fine margins” must be one of the most exhaustively used by managers, when reflecting upon and lamenting a narrow loss. Last night, anyone leaving the Madejski Stadium whose loyalties lay with Leeds United could be forgiven for grasping at that adage as they sought to come to terms with the heartbreak of a defeat that duly arrived courtesy of a concession deep into added time…of added time.
With the final whistle already imminent, Jason Pearce was presented with a chance…no scratch that, a sitter. A cheap free-kick won by Matt Smith had provided Leeds an opportunity to provide the last meaningful delivery into the box of the game, McCormack obliged and Pearce, unchallenged, less than 6 yards out, only need provide his own meaningful connection – he couldn’t. Instead, hands that rose aloft, ready to acclaim, jerked awkwardly to cradle incredulous faces; it was the trigger for a traumatic succession of emotions; in the space of 60 seconds, the masses went from disbelief, to dyspeptic to disconsolate; an exalted victory became a mourned defeat. A passage of play, comprising than no more half a dozen touches between headers, decided a contest of many hundreds. A cumbersome contact from Pearce seemingly costing Leeds 2 points, before a nifty nod from Le Fondre presented Reading with all three.
That was it, the result, distilled into a tale of two headers; class was able to decide the destination of the three points after 95 minutes of toil and commitment had failed to decipher a winner. Reading, much the better team during the first period had played second fiddle to the visitors in the second half, though neither overworked the opposing goalkeepers; 95 minutes of attrition then two gilt-edged chances and it was all done. Reading had it when it mattered, Leeds lacked it.
This you fear could become the story of the season, a theme that undermines any notions of a promotion push. In his five months at the club, Brian McDermott has achieved small miracles in transforming the mood at the club, but there is always a ceiling to what can be achieved that’s dictated by the quality of resources to hand. Those idiots who chose to criticise the performance and commitment of the players post-match on social media appear to be blind to the situation at the club…and were almost certainly AWOL when Berkshire called last night.
The fact is, to my mind anyway, the players couldn’t be faulted last night; one or two were off-form and a little laboured, but all of them put in a shift. The much maligned Varney, arguably caught the eye more than anyone, but he, perhaps more than most represents the problem we face now. McDermott appears to have all the players on board and playing to their absolute maximum and reminiscent in a way to the early George Graham days (mercifully, not too much) has moulded a very organised and tough to beat unit. But at the moment, maybe we’re even tougher to get beaten by?
To me, the team now has more than its fair share of ‘match savers’; those who can be relied upon to dig in, be disciplined and secure a clean sheet and unlikely point in trying circumstances. Match winners though? We’re still sorely lacking.
While Jason Pearce could’ve spared us all this introspection, at least until the next setback, his role is primarily a defensive one (one in which he’s excelled, comparative to last season) and any goals he contributes are best considered a bonus. Pointedly however, Pearce’s case is symptomatic of Leeds’ problems; just a scan through the starting line-up bears this out. Of the back four, who has any pedigree for goalscoring? Amongst the midfield, only the relatively unproven Murphy offers the potential of a double figure return. Further forward we have McCormack, but he’s playing in a withdrawn role behind Varney and Hunt, neither of whom have been prolific during their careers. On the bench, we had an aging Diouf, an unproven and leaden footed Matt Smith and the raw, exciting, but never free scoring Poleon. Paul Green also added his unremarkable creative and goalscoring pedigree to the proceedings along with Aidy White – enough said. Only Alex Mowatt offers the promise of something more, but has yet to have a substantial taste of Championship action.
Here we have a Leeds team that is seldom likely to find itself out of games until the final whistle, a team that can fight fire with fire and attrition with attrition. This is a Leeds team possessing enough character and organisation to nick draws from games it would’ve undoubtedly lost last campaign, the problem is that it’s not a Leeds team you feel is quite capable of much more as things stand. Snatching creditable points is a positive step forward, converting them into victories is the next step.
Both last night and in the games against QPR and Leicester, Leeds have proved they can compete with the best teams in the division, but beating them is another matter. Indeed, in such a competitive division where so many sides are evenly matched, potential difficulties in beating the clubs around us may well dictate this will be nothing more than a season of consolidation. Adam Le Fondre was the difference last night and a compelling case in point; a 30 minute run-out was all he required.
Tight games are so often decided by a moment of class or a mistake; until we possess more of the former, we can only hope progress on eradicating the latter continues apace; at the moment, when the scores are level at 0-0 going into the final 10 minutes of a game, realistically you’d have to favour the opposition. Although he may loathe to use it, the loan window is open and with players of the calibre of Albrighton and Becchio available, the coming weeks are likely to tell as everything we need know about McDermott’s realistic aims and GFH-Cs ambitions for the season. The return of Byram will help, but McCormack and him can’t do it alone.