A 1-1 draw with Ipswich Town last night was a mere interlude in the posturing and infighting that is rapidly infecting Elland Road.
A month ago Leeds were talking about the Championship play-offs; planning for them even, albeit tentatively. Transfers, results, money, ambition –United seemed to have all of it.
But these days the table is a sad afterthought, lost in the mire of a takeover that is more malignant than ever.
Leeds are 12th in their league and a large, eight-point step away from the play-off places. Five straight losses and a draw with Ipswich have seen to that in a period of total stagnation, but the one thing General Custer refused to do as the arrows flew was blame the foot-soldiers beneath him. The fault for the decay at Leeds goes higher and deeper, far beyond the dressing room.
Those shouldering most blame know who they are.
Where United will be in 24 hours’ time, never mind a week, is impossible to say. You doubt whether even the board are able answer that with certainty. United could be Italian-owned at a moment’s notice; they could also fall into the hands of two British groups whose interest goes back several months. Or they could reside for a while longer in the hands of a Bahraini bank which has dragged United into a game of poker and pounds.
A sixth successive defeat was at least averted last night by Ross McCormack’s 19th goal of the season, scored from the penalty spot in the second half and six minutes after Paddy Kenny failed criminally to guard his own net against a hopeful shot from David McGoldrick.
McCormack’s concession raised a cheer like few United’s players have heard this month and it gave his manager, Brian McDermott, an ounce of breathing space at a club who are suffocating him with their scheming and inaction. McDermott among others deserves better than this, as he must surely know.
Football did its best to get a look-in yesterday but the supposed takeover is everywhere in Leeds. Other clubs have crises and other clubs have problems but even at one as strained as Manchester United, the raging arguments concern results and the standard of players in their squad. United carry those worries too but here the problem is ownership; always ownership.
Staff at Elland Road last night were told to prepare for the appearance of Massimo Cellino, the twice-convicted Italian who owns Cagliari and seems keen to get his claws into Leeds. His associates have been shown around the club’s stadium and training ground twice in the past week, the most recent tour taken alongside acting United chief executive Paul Hunt, and Cellino is giving off all the signals a buyer would. Despite that and strong claims that he is already trying to offer jobs at Leeds to those he knows, a box set aside for him in the East Stand is believed to have stood empty throughout the meeting with Ipswich.
Cellino’s presence in Yorkshire, however, was enough to stoke the ire of Andrew Flowers, part of the Sport Capital group who have been fighting for a 75 per cent stake in Leeds with an increasing lack of conviction. In a statement released an hour before kick-off, he attacked club owner Gulf Finance House for engaging with and indulging Cellino and revealed that Sport Capital had reduced their offer to GFH on account of “a number of things have come to light which were not as originally described”.
In short, the takeover is in serious trouble. And so are Leeds. Quite how McDermott maintained his equilibrium to plan and prepare for last night’s match while politics flared and Italian leather strolled around Thorp Arch is anyone’s guess, and Luke Varney’s impending transfer to Blackburn Rovers saw him left out of United’s 18-man squad. He was replaced by El-Hadji Diouf, a player who McDermott half expected to leave Elland Road this month.
In the circumstances and the chaos, Diouf might now be the sort of asset who Leeds suddenly need. There is little prospect of any other players arriving before the transfer window closes, unless something gives in the fractious dealings between England and Bahrain. McDermott has changed his team this month but not substantially enough, and the performance against Ipswich was spirited, tight but very hard work.
Ipswich reached much the same standard and the first half at Elland Road was a gentle affair.
McGoldrick’s misguided volley in the 18th minute made Kenny stand flat-footed and watch his far post anxiously but in the main, both goalkeepers soaked up the drifting rain without a care for half-an-hour.
The better attacks that Elland Road saw still came from Ipswich before the interval. McGoldrick went close again when Jay Tabb cut down the left wing and picked out Paul Anderson with a cross which the winger teed up for McGoldrick, but Jason Pearce appeared in time to guard the goalline and hack a mis-hit shot to safety. Tom Lees twice averted trouble with sliding tackles behind a trailing defence and Kenny’s low save from Ryan Tunnicliffe prevented the ball from finding the furthest corner of his net.
United’s first shot came on 34 minutes, a Rudy Austin special from 30 yards which Dean Gerken pushed beyond his post, and they asked questions of Ipswich before half-time without unlocking the door. A cross from Stephen Warnock slipped off the head of McCormack as Ipswich lost the striker inside their box six minutes later. Mick McCarthy had hoped that McCormack – a target of West Ham United last week – would be as quiet as he was before the break.
Soon after half-time Leeds’ nerve began to fail them. Ipswich worked on the anxiety which showed itself in United’s play and McDermott’s defence had already escaped from a couple of tight corners when McGoldrick’s strike from a speculative distance slipped inside Kenny’s near post. The keeper appeared to be trying to urge the ball wide and lay on the ground
His error was only as bad as Luke Chambers’ rash sliding challenge which handed Leeds a penalty six minutes later. The defender clipped the legs of Cameron Stewart as Stewart reached the byline and McCormack dispatch the penalty high into Gerken’s net. McCormack thought he had scored again soon after but his top-corner effort deflected over the bar and Gerken’s fingertips turned his 73rd-minute volley away. There was fight in those minutes and defiance too but Leeds need more than that. They need help and assurance, and they need it from the top.