by Phil Hay
Brian McDermott has had more infuriating nights at Reading but not so many that he can remember.
A game that looked destined to end in a satisfactory draw resulted instead in an injury-time defeat, with a red card thrown in for good measure.
The dream scenario for Leeds United’s manager, much as he refused to say so, was to go back to the club who sacked him six months ago and take them to the cleaners.
For his replacement, Nigel Adkins, there was scope to prove that swapping coach-for-coach as Reading did in March was a clever and calculated move.
Neither boss made a point to the other but Adam Le Fondre’s late, late header prevented an equal share of the honours.
Leeds have been here before with Le Fondre, beaten by two headers from the striker on their last visit to the Madejski Stadium.
McDermott was in charge of Reading then and knew what to expect when Royston Drenthe swept a free-kick onto Le Fondre’s forehead in the sixth minute of added time.
The forward glanced the ball and the pace of the delivery did the rest. United’s players looked genuinely crestfallen.
The dispassionate side of McDermott’s character would have been happy with a goalless draw.
For all that his history dominated a regular Championship match, a Wednesday night at Reading is the definition of a difficult away fixture.
Leeds were on the cusp of a good point when a foul by Stephen Warnock earned him a second booking to add to one he received in the first half.
Graver consequences came seconds later.
There were relatively few occasions when Leeds looked like taking more than a draw home with them and Adkins was able to argue that the better performance came from Reading.
There was no question that the better chances were theirs, though Jason Pearce should have forced the issue moments before Le Fondre did. Leeds had conceded four league goals before last night and were again hard to beat, as McDermott would say. Le Fondre simply has their number.
McDermott’s attempts to paint his time as manager of Reading positively were reciprocated by a matchday programme in which the 52-year-old was everywhere; pictured with the Championship trophy and made to feel that his time in Berkshire was good for everyone concerned.
He was not allowed to have it all his own way, however, and heavy traffic delayed the arrival of him and his team at the ground, denying him the chance to flick through Reading’s programme. The waves parted 45 minutes before kick-off and Leeds squeezed their warm-up in.
It helped McDermott that little in the way of reorganisation was needed.
The injured Lee Peltier stepped out of United’s team and Tom Lees stepped in, a simple swap at right-back.
McDermott restrained himself and did not involve Sam Byram at all though, as it happened, the game and the space available out wide would have been perfect for him.
The complications for Adkins developed early on.
Jem Karacan invited injury by clattering Ross McCormack as the Scot pounced on a loose pass and Karacan was stretchered from the field with seven minutes played.
The home crowd chanted about dirty Northerners, ignoring the self-inflicted nature of their midfielder’s wound.
The loss of Reading’s protective point was a potential bonus for McDermott but Leeds made only bits and pieces of it.
Rudy Austin hacked a distant free-kick over Alex McCarthy’s net with the first chance of the night and Lees appeared in a position on where United would have wanted McCormack, running unmarked onto Varney’s 12th-minute cross and shanking it as defenders do.
There was evidence early on of a lack of pace affecting Reading centre-back Sean Morrison and fragility on the right side of their backline but Leeds were not flawless either.
Paddy Kenny pulled off a two-handed save to deny Danny Williams as the midfielder attempted to pick out the corner of his net, then positioned himself well to hold Hal Robson-Kanu’s attempt to beat him on 22 minutes.
The game flowed openly and without restraint as a contest between McDermott and Adkins was always likely to.
There were moments of impact too as Danny Guthrie felled Austin and Alex Pearce slid through McCormack from behind.
Both players were booked.
Varney drilled a low effort at McCarthy and Hope Akpan – Karacan’s replacement – raised Kenny’s hackles by erroneously claiming for a penalty.
McCarthy cut an anxious figure when Austin let his right boot swing and lashed the ball past a post on the half-hour.
It seemed impossible after 30 minutes that the game could finish goalless.
There was no suggestion on the part of either team at playing for a draw.
Reading, with Le Fondre on the bench, lacked a fox in the box to finish off their work on the wings.
Morrison wasted their best chance by failing to bury Guthrie’s free-kick with a free header from close-range.
Leeds kept much of the game in Reading’s half but wrong-footed their defence infrequently before half-time.
They were glad of the chance to regroup by the time the interval came, squeezed by a strong finish from their hosts.
Jason Pearce stuck a leg in to prevent late chaos in United’s box after Robson-Kanu turned Scott Wootton inside out on one touchline.
The second half did not let up and Morrison completed a hat-trick of miscues with another point-blank header sent high into the crowd.
Leeds threw men at Stephen Kelly, Reading’s right-back, and were a precise cut-back away from a goal three times in quick succession.
Before long, the changes came. Noel Hunt, who made little impact against the club he left on a free transfer in July, made way for Dominic Poleon on the hour and McCormack whipped a shot inches over the crossbar as the substitute’s run made space for him. Le Fondre followed soon after. In the time that remained, both teams were a deadly final ball away.
Gareth McCleary’s arrival brought back memories of a grim night at Elland Road involving Nottingham Forest and his right foot but Leeds pinned him down and Pearce should have buried Reading when he knocked an easy header past McCarthy’s goal.
McDermott looked on in a familiar pose, hands in pockets, believing that an emotional reunion been safely negotiated with pride intact. Le Fondre’s goal turned his night upside down, a dramatic twist was not in the script.