Yorkshire Evening Post 29/10/08
Whites suffer travel sickness
Southend United 1 Leeds United 0
Leeds United's players are not prone to passing the buck, but as their captain confessed last night, the club's current predicament is one he is at a loss to explain.
No sooner did Leeds uncover a remedy for what was a definite weakness in results at home than their squad have been struck by a bout of travel sickness which is far from terminal but which has become acute.
United's league defeat in Southend last night was their third of the season away from home and the players who were present at Elland Road before this summer do not need telling that the figure is two short of the total sustained by Leeds in League One matches over the entire 2007-08 term.
Several impressive statistics were created during United's fight against their 15-point deduction, but special though last season was, Gary McAllister's intention would have been to match as closely as possible the final total of points achieved.
It is safe to assume that he would not have budgeted for three away losses by the end of October, all arriving back-to-back.
That figure has materialised without an obvious explanation. United were deservedly beaten by both Peterborough United and Millwall and Southend were worth their victory last night after an end-to-end game which required only one goal to settle it.
In the meantime, Leeds have won seven matches in succession in Yorkshire, all with the bristling confidence of a team who expect to take their leave of League One in 2009.
Leeds were not outclassed at Roots Hall – a stadium that has never yielded victory to the Elland Road club – but, in similar style to their games at London Road and the New Den, they were some distance below their best.
The issue facing McAllister is that goals, which arrive so regularly in home fixtures, are less frequent outside Elland Road.
Asked afterwards why United's results had dropped away suddenly, captain Frazer Richardson struggled to find a clear reason, admitting the trend was damaging and peculiar.
He and McAllister were equally honest about the low quality of United's attacking finesse and final ball and the failing was key at Roots Hall.
They also agreed that the best solution would be a victory at Cheltenham this weekend, at another stadium where Leeds have never won.
Leeds, as a team, saw plenty of the ball last night but the same could not be said of their strikers and the breakdown of a link between midfield and attack, which has worked well this season, left United exposed to the quality of a team who do not often lose at home.
It seemed that Leeds might be assisted by the absence from Southend's line-up of Lee Barnard and Dougie Freedman, but the game was dictated by one of Steve Tilson's less renowned strikers, Francis Laurent, and settled by a full-back who United know well.
Freedman's intention had been to play against the club with whom he earned so much acclaim last season, but Tilson was unconvinced by the striker's fitness and left him out of his squad.
He took the same view with Barnard, whose hamstring strain failed to respond sufficiently over the weekend and the omission of Southend's two leading scorers should have played into McAllister's hands.
The 34-year-old Freedman was a strong influence during United's run to the play-off final in May and more immediately pertinent were the four goals he had scored in as many league games since his free transfer from Crystal Palace to Roots Hall.
Without Freedman and Barnard – the player whose goal inflicted United’s defeat at Southend last season – Tilson’s armoury looked more shallow on paper than it might have been.
But Southend’s port in the storm of injuries was Laurent, a forward who had previously operated as a substitute to good effect and the Frenchman’s promotion to the starting line-up for the first time was a masterstroke from Tilson.
Laurent ran riot for the first half-hour and played a crucial role in the opening goal, scored by another of United’s former players, Dan Harding.
Harding’s sweetly-struck free-kick after 18 minutes was the least Southend deserved for a first half performance which outshone the work done by McAllister’s players.
Laurent’s display was influential and powerful, his long legs contributing to an awkward style of play which United’s centre-backs found difficult to read and even harder to negate.
Leeds did not give Southend the same level of concern until the 32nd minute when Jonathan Douglas pulled their first chance narrowly wide of Adam Federici’s goal.
United were already trailing by then, their deficit the result of a sustained period of pressure which Southend applied effectively and which Leeds failed to repel.
Laurent’s legs were clipped by Paul Telfer as the forward spun away from the Scot and broke into Casper Ankergren’s box and a free-kick awarded on the edge of the area was flighted accurately by Harding into the far corner of United’s net.
The threat to Ankergren had grown steadily before Harding’s goal, occasionally invited by the keeper himself.
His fumble in the seventh minute presented a chance to Adam Barrett which the defender could not drive through the mass of players in United’s box, but Ankergren redeemed himself with a splendid save from Alex Revell, parrying the midfielder’s long- range effort to safety with his fingertips.
Another excellent block from Laurent was no less important, arriving two minutes after Harding’s goal, though Leeds were more indebted to Hal Robson-Kanu’s woeful shot on the rebound which carried high over an empty goal.
The problems caused by Laurent’s performance were aptly demonstrated when his turn away from Lubomir Michalik teased the Slovakian into a cynical foul and a yellow card and Michalik was somewhat fortunate in first half injury-time when he appeared to pull Laurent to the ground inside Ankergren’s area.
Referee Pat Miller gave no heed to Southend’s appeals, though the general opinion was that the match official had ignored a probable penalty and a challenge which might have led to Michalik’s dismissal.
The one source of optimism for McAllister was United’s noticeable improvement after Harding’s goal, in a short period before half-time, when Southend’s composure seemed to erode.
Douglas’ chance on 33 minutes was as inviting an opening as Leeds found and a 20-yard shot from Fabian Delph was met with a brilliant two-handed parry by Federici.
Jermaine Beckford might also have scored with a header from Richardson’s cross in added time but the chances were too few and sporadic for United to begrudge Southend their lead after 45 minutes.
The second half started with a flurry at either end as Federici’s tremendous save flicked a low shot from Neil Kilkenny over the bar and another free-kick from Harding brought a two-handed parry from Ankergren, but the opportunities soon subsided even though the pace of the game did not.
Andy Robinson and Robert Snodgrass were summoned from the bench by McAllister with 23 minutes to play, but their inclusion did not sharpen United’s edge and in between the visitors’ substantial periods of possession, Revell should have increased Southend’s lead.
Leeds made a change to their usual schedule, staying in Southend overnight to maximise their recovery before Saturday’s visit to Whaddon Road.
Their road this morning led back to Yorkshire and back to the drawing board, in search of a formula that will crack Cheltenham and plug the leak in United’s season.