Nothing ever changes in Barnsley.
Well, never for the better anyway; the grim, brutalist architecture of the town centre remains untouched by progress, only tainted more by the passing of time; decay and abandonment permeate from shopfronts, progressively disappearing behind permanently closed shutters, while the high street fashions are more befitting of the period when Danny Wilson first joined the club as a player, never mind a manager. Barnsley is not so much like the land that time forgot, but more the land that time considered sweeping under the carpet, before ultimately electing to secure in the bottom of the cellar behind a securely bolted door.
For Leeds fans, the trip down to South Yorkshire is tinged an extra sense of foreboding; the Groundhog Day experience extending beyond the town centre and a quarter of a mile to the north where Oakwell lies. Since our return to the Championship, that stadium has played host to consecutive humiliations; the first a 5-2 thumping that signalled a ‘wake up call’, weeks into a new season and the death of Fede Bessone’s football career, the New Years Eve drubbing the following year was enough to convince many that Simon Grayson’s time was coming to an end, while last season’s pathetic 2-0 surrender had people entertaining similar thoughts about Neil Warnock.
Away days usually function as breaks from the drudgery of visiting Elland Road, but Barnsley spares nobody. The short journey barely distinguishes the trip from a home fixture, while the inevitable herding towards the Metrodome – another sports hall-cum-soulless drinking venue that essentially doubles as a low(er) class version of the Pavilion – makes it feel like another day at Elland Road…only with a darker edge, that fear of what’s to follow.
Hope has long overtaken expectation in the hearts of those who’ve continued embark upon the dolorous trek, and perhaps all things considered, it was far from surprising that only 4,141 chose to do so this time. Bleak days out are usually included in the cost of a season ticket, so to ask supporters to pay for the privilege was always a push with the season effectively now over.
With precious little to have excited us on the pitch in recent times, the day seemed to be more about spoiling the fun of others, rather one where we could celebrate the talents of those representing us. 2014 has so far been a series of metaphorical kicks in the testicles, so delivering one of our own, and in the process, not only breaking a hoodoo, but going a long way to ensure that an opening on the fixture list didn’t exist for our opponents to set the ball rolling again next season…it kinda seemed aspirational.
This is what this season had been reduced to; the notion that a victory over Barnsley could become the defining happy memory of the closing months – grim. Our happiness, our crumbs of comfort being found in the awfulness of Barnsley. I’d like to dismiss it, deny it, to pretend otherwise, but when the dominant chant of the day was “We’re only here to send you down”, there’s no escaping the fact.
Still, any sort of victory, or a draw…heck, even an honourable defeat would symbolise progress in a season that’s once more been one of stagnation, so at least a game that shouldn’t have really mattered, actually really did matter. Small mercies.
And so it appeared on the pitch. Promises of redeeming past sins in S71 for once appeared to have substance; Leeds started the brighter side and Matt Smith had an early chance, though his angled header was comfortably saved by Luke Steele, but minutes later, a breakthrough. Smith, as was the case for much of the half was the focus of a long punt forward, his header into the path of McCormack was treated with such a moment of deft, poetic, balletic skill that it shamed the personnel around him, his flick took him clear, his left footed finish, enough to evade the grasp of the keeper and grant licence to a wholly justifiable, manic roar toward the banks of cavorting Leeds fans behind goal.
It was a blink of the eye moment and so out of kilter with the play that sandwiched it either side, that anything other than a 1-0 final scoreline and accreditation of match winner to Ross would’ve been a criminal act. Those expecting Leeds to push on and exact punishing vengeance upon Barnsley (the vast minority) were to be disappointed, but those fearing a reaction from the home side and a familiar meek surrender (the vast majority) were to be spared. Although as the half wore on, Barnsley began to make an impact in the final third, threat levels were negligible; Pearce and Lees had little to deal with on the floor, while Zaliukas cruised along, albeit increasingly prone to aimlessly punt the ball like those around him; the midfield, so noticeable against Blackpool functioned less effectively, but with the ball so often sailing over their heads and Barnsley so lacking in possession, it didn’t seem to matter so much.
When Barnsley did start to get the upper hand, McDermott elected to replace the injured Zaliukas with Hunt in an effort to increase Leeds’ attacking potency, when it proved to do so, you suspected that it simply had to be our day. In fairness to McDermott’s most beloved, he turned in what was arguably his most effective cameo since his arrival, albeit as much as his build-up play was constructive, in front of goal he was rather more self-destructive. Barn Door Billy liveth on.
The closing stages of the game played out much like those that had preceded it, like a non-event. Leeds looked very comfortable, though that was as much a reflection of a woeful opposition as it was of a disciplined performance…it certainly wasn’t down to the quality of our ball retention. Cellino may have (incorrectly) cried foul at the Football League when Leeds endured a five week spell without a home game, but he certainly couldn’t question how charitable the fixture list has been for the first two games of his stewardship. Whether these two performances have been enough to garner six points against any other clubs is very much open to question.
When McDermott arrived last April he immediately eased relegation fears, overseeing consecutive victories over Sheffield Wednesday and Burnley, the latter game especially excited fans, as the players went out and performed with a sense of freedom and style, slick passing and imaginative movement off the ball sent supporters home with a tangible sense of hope and optimism. This time around, safety has been achieved by regressing back to the direct game we hoped Brian would rid us of. Against Barnsley, the shackles of relegation pressures may have been off and boardroom distractions gone, but that was hardly reflected on the pitch…but at least it was enough to see off Barnsley and possibly kill off their survival hopes, and in a season without meaning, that counted for something.
Style, substance and solace have been all too rare commodities for all too long. If performances continue to lack the former traits and we’re left as supporters, once again, clamouring for the latter, then it’s unlikely that McDermott will still be around for his ‘Year 2’ progress report.
For months, too much has been said and too little done. One year on and progress on the pitch remains a fallacy rather than a reality; a Scottish striker the sole reason why we resemble a poor lower mid-table outfit and not relegation certainties.
McDermott is said to be meeting with Cellino early next week. If he is to stay, the rebuilding process should begin immediately. His task looks every bit as daunting as it did last summer – for that, he must shoulder much of the responsibility. Some may cite the takeover drama as reason enough for another dire campaign, but as a defence for a playing style and squad that hasn’t evolved, it falls down.
Something finally did change at Barnsley yesterday, now that spirit must continue apace at Elland Road.
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