Yorkshire Evening Post 13/4/11
Derby County v Leeds United: Wilting Whites feeling the pressure
By Phil Hay
Twists and turns, Simon Grayson promised, and successive defeats to Millwall and Derby County have turned Leeds United’s season for the worse.
Beaten at Millwall on Saturday, and beaten without their customary resilience, Leeds succumbed to Derby County last night on an evening when respite seemed to be at hand.
Rarely has Grayson seen victory ripped from his grasp as swiftly or brutally as it was at Pride Park.
If nothing else, United’s manager can always rely on his team for a goal, and no source is more reliable these days than the feet of Max Gradel.
When the winger brought a key Championship fixture to the boil with a special finish in the 58th minute, Grayson saw a clear path ahead.
Five minutes later, defeat was unexpectedly in the air.
Swift replies from Jamie Ward and Ben Davies, created by a Derby side who appeared to pose no threat of a comeback, consigned Leeds to a loss that will wound them more than their failure on Saturday. United have a tendency of falling foul of Millwall; County were more vulnerable yesterday, before and after Gradel’s strike.
Leeds retained their position in the Championship’s play-off places at full-time but the pressure that Grayson long anticipated is upon them fully.
Watford are due next at Elland Road for a game of immense importance. United’s manager showed no sign of panic last night but his club’s breathing space is all but gone.
It was as clear to Grayson as it was to those watching around him that Leeds struck the wrong tone at Millwall, and his measured criticism of a team who “never got started” hinted at a rethink in Derby. Grayson’s attention focused solely on his midfield and the changes he made, while few in number, were substantial in altering the impetus of his team.
Robert Snodgrass, who carried an injury into the game in Bermondsey, took his leave of United’s squad, and Grayson made room for both Barry Bannan and Neil Kilkenny by dropping Bradley Johnson to the bench, the first time in 27 matches that he saw fit to expel the Londoner from his line-up.
The revision was a tacit admission of a shortage of creative nous in Bermondsey, where Leeds caused infrequent trouble for Millwall’s goalkeeper, David Forde, but they were no more successful in unsettling Brad Jones during a tame first half.
Kilkenny made as good an effort to examine him as anyone, retrieving his own blocked shot in the 15th minute and lashing the rebound several yards over Jones’ crossbar, but the half-chance was reflective of a cagey game.
An effort from Steven Davies bounced wide at the other end of the field with the help of a deflection, but Derby came nowhere near Kasper Schmeichel for 34 minutes.
Their mood was that of a fragile club with nothing to offer, weighed down by the strain of a forgettable season.
Nigel Clough’s defence were still able to wade through periods of pressure from Leeds, and Shaun Barker stepped in with a timely header when Eric Lichaj overlapped Gradel and broke loose down the left wing.
With no goal in sight, United’s away following of 3,000-plus were left their own devices and set about dominating the stadium’s atmosphere.
The noise was designed to encourage but neither side were able to properly harness it. Luciano Becchio received the game’s first booking for deliberately handling a cross from Bannan – a show of frustration from a striker with no possession to work with – and Kilkenny’s skilful dispossession of Ben Davies prompted a counter-attack and an opportunity which Bannan put beyond Jones’ net from the edge of the box. What better of the game there was belonged exclusively to Leeds.
As the first half wore on, United began to see Derby short of bodies when the ball dropped to them. Gradel drilled a shot directly into Jones’ hands after picking up Jonathan Howson’s pass and stepping outside John Brayford, and Howson drew the first serious save from Jones after 28 minutes when Becchio’s chested lay-off caught Daniel Ayala ball-watching.
An unhelpful angle hampered United’s captain and Jones parried his attempt from 20 yards.
Grayson could sense his players turning the screw but, without the hint of a threat, Derby came within inches of opening the scoring in the 34th minute. Robbie Savage, the ageing pillar in County’s midfield, stabbed a hopeful lob into Schmeichel’s box and found Ward anticipating his pass.
The delivery needed the slightest touch to deflect into the net but Ward failed to supply it and Schmeichel smothered the ball at the second attempt.
United’s first-team coach, Glynn Snodin, remarked before last night’s game that Savage, at the age of 36, had “no legs” to speak of, and the approach to Ward was his first contribution of note.
His second came shortly after when he threw the ball at Kilkenny after a brief exchange of words with the Australian. Referee Graham Salisbury chose not to book Savage or waste time lecturing him.
Salisbury was less understanding when Ayala dragged his studs across Howson’s right shin, inviting the evening’s second yellow card six minutes before half-time, and the delay while Howson received treatment drew the game’s meagre sting.
Stephen Pearson brought the half to an end with another crunching foul on Kilkenny, adding his name to Salisbury’s growing list of offenders.
Within two minutes of the game resuming, Derby had fashioned a better chance than any which came their way before the interval.
Pearson found space on the left wing and timed a through-ball to meet the run of Ward.
The striker attempted to beat the on-rushing Schmeichel with a low finish but pulled his attempt a yard to the left of the Dane’s goal.
The near-miss had the effect of lighting a fuse.
Steven Davies came within a fraction of turning home a cross from his namesake Ben and Gareth Roberts appeared at the right time to stop Bannan stroking Gradel’s centre in to the net.
But none of Clough’s defenders were able to react when Gradel met the ball in the edge of Derby’s box with a strike which found the top corner of Jones’ net.
With 58 minutes gone, United’s support reacted as if the game was won.
Three minutes later, Pearson outstripped Paul Connolly and picked out Jamie Ward who rattled the ball past Schmeichel. Grayson had barely recovered from that when Ben Davies met Pearson’s corner with a fine volley which Schmeichel had no chance of reaching.
It fell to Schmeichel, a keeper criticised for his performance at Millwall, to keep Leeds in touch with high-quality saves from both Davies.
Grayson introduced Johnson and Davide Somma, and later Ross McCormack, and Salisbury offered his help by refusing to award a penalty when Ben Davies went down inside Schmeichel’s box under a challenge from Lichaj. Ultimately, and through many minutes of dreadful pressure, Derby did not need the insurance.