by Phil Hay
Crises in football are never as bad as you think they are, Brian McDermott insisted on Friday. Quite so.
From the ashes of a pitiful month came a performance which even Leeds United’s manager at his most optimistic could not have seen coming before lunchtime yesterday.
There was little talk of the play-offs or promotion from the Championship after a brutal execution of Birmingham City, just the realisation that United’s squad – with or without loan signings – need not play as badly as they did at points of September and early October.
That did not stop the crowd at Elland Road reading the scoreline twice at full-time. It took some believing.
A side who cannot score goals scored four – three before half-time – and a defence who humiliated themselves at Derby County on October 5 were made to look like the Berlin Wall by the shambles in front of Birmingham goalkeeper Darren Randolph. There was a club in trouble at Elland Road yesterday and it was not Leeds. Lee Clark, City’s manager, has a job on his hands.
He and McDermott were amazed for different reasons by a blistering first half. City were 3-0 down by the end of it and anxiously counting the minutes to their escape from the stadium. Ross McCormack, Rodolph Austin and Matt Smith punished them with a run of goals which constituted less than half of United’s chances. McDermott’s view was that the international break fell at a good time for his players. Not half.
McCormack pushed the pace up front and the tireless Austin bulldozed City. A 74th-minute header from Matt Smith rounded off the day nicely. The spine of United’s team wagged mercilessly and Birmingham’s backbone was nowhere to be seen. That combined with ninth place in the Championship put a different perspective on life at Leeds.
United have been forced to deal with a nemesis or two this season; a club in Derby County who hold nine successive wins against them and others in Millwall and Ipswich Town who rarely lose at home to Leeds.
Birmingham’s head-to-head record before yesterday was five straight league victories and their manager, Clark, had never lost a match at Elland Road.
It begged the question of which teams Leeds actually compare favourably to, though Clark’s face was thunder by the interval and worse at full-time.
McDermott has tried and tested almost every conceivable system and the formation used by him yesterday completed the set: a three-man defence with Scott Wootton restored to it and Sam Byram and Stephen Warnock used as wing-backs.
Smith’s selection up front in a team struggling for goals was arguably overdue and demonstrably astute.
The only peril for McDermott was the space behind Byram and Warnock and the presence of Jesse Lingard and Chris Burke in it. Burke in particular has a keen fan in United’s boss, who tried without success to sign him on the first day of September. Leeds dealt with his threat and that of Lingard by monopolising possession and killing City in a hail of bullets. It can be done, on this evidence.
Byram’s third-minute burst into City’s box – halted by a sliding tackle from Dan Burn – was an example of the way in which McDermott wanted his team to work. Among the players who McDermott trusts and uses regularly, Byram resembles a winger as closely as anyone. McCormack, by comparison, is the most obvious route to goal, despite his clinical touch fading from the end of August onwards.
His finish against Bournemouth came after a missed penalty and the waste of a sitter from four yards and he was found wanting again in the eighth minute with only Randolph to beat.
Burn – a veritable bombscare in the middle of Clark’s defence – missed a through-ball from Warnock but Randolph advanced quickly to the edge of his box and met McCormack’s hasty shot with his legs. The keeper was well placed again to save another goalbound effort from the striker when Austin’s crossfield pass sliced City open.
Birmingham did likewise to McDermott’s backline in the 14th minute and Burke’s scuffed hack beyond the far post gave a warning of sorts, but the chaos in the visitors’ box was endemic. They had no magic wand when Randolph gave McCormack sight of an opening goal three minutes later.
Burn and Randolph made hard work of completing a simple clearance and the keeper advanced from his area with ill judgement, losing possession to Austin. McCormack took a ricochet 20 yards out and had the presence of mind to whip it past two covering defenders and into the net. Randolph cringed in front of the cameras as McCormack took a bow.
From then on, Clark could see his first taste of managerial defeat in Leeds coming. Austin should have added a second goal but mishit the ball after McCormack and Luke Murphy tied City’s centre-backs in knots.
There was, naturally, the odd wobble, the worst self-inflicted. Alex Mowatt’s loose kick to Burke on the edge of United’s box was returned with a shot which almost ducked inside Paddy Kenny’s right-hand post but a goal stemming from the individual brilliance of Austin put the game beyond City with 34 minutes played. The Jamaican international picked out McCormack with a 40-yard pass from his own half and covered the ground like an genetically-modified bull to bury the Scot’s precise cross with a downward header.
On the stroke of half-time, McCormack cracked the ball off Randolph’s knees and Smith followed up to score a third.
A fly on the wall of Clark’s dressing room would have suffered perforated eardrums and the hapless Burn was withdrawn along with Lee Novak. Nikola Zigic pulled on a shirt but the striker who brought on Simon Grayson’s sacking with four goals at Elland Road was not in that mood or form. As Clark looked around for someone to punch, Leeds played the clock down. Randolph got his legs to Austin’s strike on the hour and United withstood a short onslaught in which Tom Lees cleared Burke’s header off the line, Kenny tipped a Zigic shot over and David Murphy rattled a free-kick against a post.
With those chances missed, Smith arrived at the far post to smash Mowatt’s cross past Randolph having been denied by the keeper’s reflexes seconds earlier.
And so the question: where has this team been hiding?