Brian McDermott has a theory that most of the promoted teams in the past decade played and survived as Leicester did on Saturday. Cardiff’s win in Leeds on the way to the title last season was almost identical in its nature: a victory defying the game itself.
Nigel Pearson, Leicester’s no-nonsense manager, laid his cards on the table straight away by saying the scoreline and David Nugent’s 88th-minute goal were “a bit hard on Leeds” but City are in that zone where everything falls into place regardless of style or the spate of chances they allowed Leeds to eke out before half-time.
Ross McCormack missed the best of them and Nugent picked a point from United’s pocket when a turn and a ricochet on the edge of Leeds’ box gave him the only sight of Paddy Kenny he had all day. “That was tough to take,” McDermott said. “It was a one-goal game and Leicester nicked it.”
In normal circumstances McDermott’s would have taken the rub of the green. But the situation at Elland Road is extraordinary for him, as pressurised as he has known in nine months as boss. The past two weeks, he confessed, have been the “toughest of my life as far as managing goes”, throwing up vicious losses at Rochdale and Sheffield Wednesday and embroiling him in the politics of a highly-political club.
He spoke on Saturday of copying Leicester’s strategy and making Leeds a mirror-image of every side that has recently beaten a path to the Premier League.
Promotion, however, is a long game which spent last week hiding behind a few more immediate aims. McDermott worried about nothing more than a performance against Leicester which did his squad credit; and with that banked, his sole wish was a swift conclusion to the takeover that continues to hang over Leeds.
Ownership is rarely a manager’s turf but McDermott has talked openly enough in the past few days to make it clear that the buy-out of United by Sport Capital – announced in November, promised by January but still deprived of the vital thumbs-up – is bothering him. A niggly distraction or a major complication, he described it as the “number one priority for this club” after Nugent drew blood. “That’s the key for me, the key going forward,” McDermott said.
His hope is that the buy-out of Leeds by Sport Capital, the group fronted by United managing director David Haigh, will be good enough, stable enough and ambitious enough to allow him to do what Leicester have done to their squad and thrive in the same way.
Pearson’s side are well clear of Leeds and well clear of the rest of the Championship, though the game on Saturday did not show them in that light. Their error-strewn first half was United’s time to strike but McCormack hit a post, saw a lob cleared off the line and came off second-best with Kasper Schmeichel when Paul Konchesky’s mad backpass in the 17th minute dropped to McDermott’s new captain and played him clean through.
“We made a lot of mistakes,” Pearson said, “and it wasn’t a polished performance. But you need to be able to win in different ways. That’s the key.”
Leeds clicked before half-time and outplayed Leicester, a team with four straight defeats behind them turning the screw on a side with five straight wins.
McDermott’s input over several intense days at Thorp Arch took effect quickly. But in a flat second half, City stemmed the end-to-end flow of the match and belatedly settled.
Kevin Phillips came off the bench with 15 minutes to play and gave Leicester the wit needed to force the issue. When Liam Moore swept a cross to the edge of United’s box, Phillips stepped over it, Nugent flicked the ball around Tom Lees and reached it again before Kenny could stop him sliding it into the net.
“If you look at last 10 years, the teams who’ve got out of this league and won promotion have been replicas of what Leicester are doing,” McDermott said. “They’ve got pace in wide areas, they’ve got strikers who can score, they’ve got midfield players who can get on the ball and pass it, a solid back four and a decent goalkeeper. The last 10 years don’t lie.
“You look at their team and in my opinion that’s what we have to emulate. A team where you know what you’ll get every week. I’ve been in situations where you’re top of the league and you nick games. That’s what they’ve done and you respect teams like that.
“But for me, this is the first time as manager of Leeds when I’ve been able to put out a team which I think is the way we need to go, to get to where we need to get to.”
His choice of line-up was not predictable; a four-man defence for the first time since October and a midfield of Michael Brown and Rodolph Austin in between two bona fide wingers.
Brown and Austin gave Leicester grief but either side of them, Jimmy Kebe and Cameron Stewart meandered.
Kebe passed a fitness test on a back injury three hours before kick-off but spent much of the second half stretching his legs and treating his muscles. He was substituted moments before Nugent scored.
Leeds coped without any special influence from their wingers and up front, McCormack and Luke Varney had their way for 45 minutes.
Varney laid on the first chance with a cross from the left wing which McCormack glanced against Schmeichel’s left-hand upright and he gave Leicester’s defence no rest.
Jamie Vardy struck a post at the other end and Anthony Knockaert floated a shot over Kenny’s crossbar but McCormack had the golden ticket, the one-on-one with Schmeichel which the former United keeper won. Varney’s attempt to sink the rebound was thwarted by Konchesky.
The timing of the interval suited Leicester and the second half was largely chanceless. McDermott expected to take home a point and a performance as the contest wound down in the final 10 minutes but he is facing up to five straight losses, United’s worst run since the denouement of Gary McAllister’s tenure in 2008.
“Brian’s a hard-working manager,” Pearson said. “He’s shown that he can have success. You just hope that you get the time to build the type of side that reflects how we as managers want to play football.”
McDermott hopes for that too, though on Saturday he would have settled for a result. But Nugent from nowhere stole the points. That’s Leicester. That’s the Championship.