What is this? Who are these impostors? This isn’t the Leeds United I’ve grown to know and loathe…what is this fledgling football force we see before us, blossoming from 70 day old manure plot, otherwise known as the Dave Hockaday era? Yesterday’s side was at last, something to behold.
Four Italians: one large in stature, but gargantuan when bedecked in a goalkeeping colours; ahead of him another possessed with a rare gift to redeem his every defensive misdemeanour with glorious moments that enrich the soul, have the jaw plummet and define games; beyond him, another, now graduating from the school of ‘tippy tap’ to an altogether more progressive, incisive form of possession football, and then standing up top, a bearded hero offering a work rate and degree of pace that could shame every player to be wowed by the Thorp Arch facilities since Max Gradel rolled up in the shadow of Sam Vokes back in the autumn of 2009.
Around them, a cast of other unrecognisables; a left back forever underrated by the masses, now reassessed as irreplaceable, a centre back, unburdened by the expectation to organise an experienced defence, instead freed to simply concentrate on leading by example, a Jamaican, liberated from defensive duties, now suddenly thriving away from the spectre of responsibility, something made entirely possible by a 17 year-old who immediately looks like the sort of player that most youngsters might aspire to develop into by their late 20s. All this is before we even touch upon the French fella currently making a convincing fist of impersonating a raw Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink or the promising Dane…and then ponder the non-starters: a resurgent Mowatt, a returning Byram, the Brazilian ‘wonderkid’ rooted to the bench and behind him, another Italian, the Paraguayan and the Slovenian, all of whom would currently love to be in his position…
Leeds United stand alone in English football as a club able to confound both those who follow it with a passion, and the many bystanders who look on from a distance, usually with a degree of mirth. But this time, just for once, the shockwaves are ones of universal positivity, as opposed to the usual vicissitudes of change – off the pitch, it’s a joy that can be traced back to the embers of the Millwall defeat; that moment when the futility of entertaining signing the likes of Nile Ranger was cast into stark realisation, on the pitch, words cannot do justice to the transformation Redfearn has engineered.
The blueprint for Leeds is no different to that at any other club, invest in good players, trust in quality coaching and everything else will take care of itself and over the course of the last six weeks, Cellino has given his mouth a rest and contented himself with noting that – ambition and progression have superseded the obsession over firefighting; the rewards were there for him to see and drink in yesterday, 29,000 in attendance, a raucous atmosphere and a buzz that’s been AWOL, feared dead, since the slaying of QPR several Decembers ago – you sense and hope, that now he truly is getting an idea of just what he has inherited and just what it can become.
The game itself actually started in a low key manner, two sides sparring, comfortable in possession, but confined in their use of the ball, a special moment was needed to break the pattern, Austin instead opted to smash the state of stalemate. As so many things did, the goal owed much to the industry of Antenucci, his relentless pressing of the full back resulted in the ball breaking to Austin, who strode forward before rifling in a shot – for once, the trajectory was fixed at around ‘Row J’ of the South Stand, as opposed to the washing lines atop Beeston Hill and although Alex Smithies looked to be in a position to get in the way, he didn’t; whether it was the power of the shot, the swerve or just his survival instinct kicking in, he managed to evade the exocet as the ball rocketed past him. 1-0.
With Elland Road alight, a new degree of assurance and ambition characterised United’s play, while Huddersfield continued to share the possession, they offered nothing. Leeds in contrast, although not troubling Smithies with regularity, possessed the look of a team that with every passage of play, were evolving to a new level of cohesion. All in all, that was more than enough for faithful to toast upon the half-time whistle…but nobody had factored in Bellusci.
When a centre back with a single career goal to his name strides up and sweeps home a 35-yard free kick, most would consider it a confoundingly awesome aberration, a rarity to treasure, the stuff of legend; on the basis of yesterday, such attacking verve might yet prove to be the norm. After breaking up a Huddersfield attack on the edge of his own penalty area, Bellusci fed Antenucci then just ran and ran, and ran, it was schoolyard stuff, last minute of a cup tie stuff, as he bounded continually onward the opposition merely watched on, bewildered bystanders frozen in time, eventually Antenucci completed the most drawn out of ‘one-twos’ and Bellusci took a few more strides before executing a chip of the most outlandish audacity – it was surely in, it had to be, the whole spectacle demanded it…but it wasn’t, the crossbar intervened to deny us all something to even eclipse Tuesday night’s effort, mercifully Antenucci ensured from the rebound that the goal the run demanded was still forthcoming. As the goalscorer disappeared into a celebratory throng in front of the East Stand, the architect briefly applauded the finish before holding aloft his arms and drinking in the acclaim. The stadium was still shaking from the ecstatic aftershocks as the teams departed for the break, the contest already over.
The second half was simply about enjoyment; Hockaday’s reign had been defined by a team keen on keeping the ball, but with little clue what to do with it, in Huddersfield that spirit lived on. While the opposition continually foundered in the final third, Leeds prospered. Bianchi, no longer merely neat and tidy, danced and probed, Austin bombed forward with increasing regularity as the movement of Doukara and Antenucci afforded them both all the space they needed; Cook grew with every passing minute, ahead of a back four increasingly at home in each other’s company.
When the final goal came it was symbolic of Leeds’ play, Bianchi’s composed turn and pass, Antenucci’s lay off to an onrushing Austin who fed Doukara to calmly slot home; bar a few misplaced passes, Doukara’s laboured shirt removal celebration was the only element of his performance that lacked conviction.
At that point more goals looked inevitable, even the one sour point of the afternoon, Berardi’s needless dismissal, only checked momentum slightly. It offered Huddersfield little comfort as Leeds quickly reasserted their dominance and only the fingertips of Smithies denied Antenucci the second goal his performance richly deserved. It mattered little as amidst chants of ‘We’ve only got ten men’, the home side continued to make a mockery of their numerical disadvantage and coasted towards the rapturous reception the final whistle brought.
It’s still hard to comprehend the sheer scale progress that’s been made between the departure of Hockaday and the imminent arrival of Milanic and to pick out individuals would serve to trivialise what has been a team achievement. Redfearn will bow out laden with richly deserved plaudits and his initial decision to completely overhaul the midfield against Bolton has proven a catalyst for everything that has followed. But equally, and has Redders has been consistently at pains to point out, the response of the players has to a man, been exemplary. There are still many, many areas where the team must improve, but what looked insurmountable hurdles under Hockaday now simply resemble markers in the evolution process.
So here we find ourselves today, and in typical Leeds style, we herald what has the hallmarks of a new era by replacing the man who’s instigated it; that said, as much as it seems counter-intuitive, I still feel that replacing Redfearn in the hot seat represents a sound move. What the club have now is a man who’s grown from a reluctant caretaker into a confident first team coach, a man who has gone from shying away from the spotlight to revelling in it and is hungry for more.
In previous spells, Redfearn has presided over other manager’s players, this time with the matchday squads so dominated by new arrivals and Academy graduates, they’ve essentially been his to mould and it has shown. Nobody at the club is now better placed than Redders to know these players and it is essential that his knowledge and abilities are fully utilised by the incoming Milanic if he is to maximise his prospects of success at the Leeds; for Redfearn, the next stage of his career should be all about increasing his experience at first team level while grooming his successor at the Academy – maybe it’s time for Massimo to make a conciliatory phone call to Richard Naylor?
Once Redders has fulfilled those aims, then you sense it will be the perfect time to afford him the opportunity he’ll so richly deserve. We just have to hope Milanic can hang around long enough for him to do so, after all, on the back of the last four games he’s going to have to hit the ground running. Following Hockaday would’ve been one thing, following Redfearn is going to be an altogether tougher prospect.
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