The impromptu meeting held with Leeds United’s players at Thorp Arch yesterday is what happens when a club’s distress crosses a line.
There was no sense of Brian McDermott playing to the crowd by ordering his squad to clock in and pick apart their 6-0 loss to Sheffield Wednesday. It was his way of saying that the situation at Leeds is as severe as it seems; a situation which will not improve unless the poison is drawn.
Not a single member of McDermott’s team was alive or kicking when United last lost a league game 6-0. Neither was he.
The year was 1959, for those who care, and the team responsible Manchester United. Only a few thousand souls will have suffered that scoreline but on Saturday, on Sky and in Sheffield Wednesday’s back yard, the gaping eyes were everywhere.
McDermott called it “public humiliation”, the best two-word summary of a brutal derby. He tried to remember a heavier defeat in his managerial career but could only think back to a 4-1 loss at Plymouth during his days as caretaker of Reading. What worried him more was that this was the worst he had seen for all of seven days.
Differentiating between Rochdale and Sheffield Wednesday is like choosing between fatal injuries. Suffice to say McDermott has a crisis on his hands.
Leeds were hammered at Hillsborough by ineptitude, staggering misjudgements and the inspiration Wednesday took from the developing shambles. Ordinary teams slowly begin to resemble Barcelona.
“You don’t often get the perfect performance and the perfect result,” said Wednesday’s caretaker, Stuart Gray. You don’t often play a side like Leeds.
There was a time recently when the one certainty about McDermott’s players was their ability to hang in every game.
After Reda Johnson scored the opening goal on Saturday, the ensuing disarray was depressingly foreseeable.
McDermott bemoaned “unbelievable individual errors” at full-time and he had several to stew on. At least one of them was his own. Given two new signings in Jimmy Kebe and Cameron Stewart – wingers, runners, the players Leeds have been begging for – he squeezed them into the same formation which let him down so badly at Rochdale.
“The players probably struggled with the set-up,” McDermott said. “I’ve got to hold my hands up to that. But you’ve still got to compete and get amongst the opposition. I just didn’t want to change things too much from what we’d been doing before.”
The mistakes did not stop there. With 20 minutes played, Lee Peltier dithered as United’s defence ran out to play Johnson offside and the hulking defender had several precious seconds to bring down a chip from Kieran Lee, look for a flag and lift the ball over Paddy Kenny.
The last minute of the first half was worse again. Marius Zaliukas, his afternoon deteriorating quickly, played an unwise pass to Rodolph Austin who lost the ball and sent Connor Wickham running towards Kenny’s box.
Tom Lees stepped into cover him leaving Lee to wade through silent tundra on the left wing and tee up Atdhe Nuhiu at the far post. Half-time, 2-0 and only straws to clutch at.
Leeds are, as McDermott put it after the debacle of Rochdale, a team running out of steam and the arrival of Kebe and Stewart did not change that.
Kebe, who offered to “pack his stuff” for a move from Crystal Palace as soon as McDermott phoned him last week, must have felt like doing the same when he was substituted on 66 minutes. But there is more to United’s pitiful form than fatigue alone. McDermott’s vow to “go back to basics” was proof of that.
Basics are the root cause of so much of the trouble since Christmas. It is debatable whether Leeds have a more debilitating weakness than the tepid ball retention which requires their players to run themselves to a standstill and gives opposition as stellar as Rochdale and Wednesday the freedom of the pitch.
McDermott did what he had to do at half-time and brought Matt Smith into the equation, breaking up a 3-4-3 system which had cowered into 3-6-1. There was no more obvious player in United’s squad for Kebe and Stewart to feed, notwithstanding the absence of much useful possession, but Smith had been on the field for a minute when he was shown a red card by referee Lee Probert.
That in itself was a mistake of sorts, a harsh interpretation of Smith catching Johnson in the face with his upper arm as he jumped for a high ball. McDermott promised to appeal and expects to win but he did not dare to pretend that the red card was especially influential.
As for Gray, his opinion was clear. “At the end of the day with the way we were playing we’d have won against 11 men anyway,” he said.
The consequence of Smith’s dismissal was the absolute assurance it gave Wednesday. They have had bad days aplenty at Hillsborough this season so a free ride was gladly taken. Connor Wickham scored a third goal in the 50th minute by driving into Kenny’s box and striking the ball off the inside of a post, and Chris Maguire’s deflected free-kick brought a fourth.
Caolan Lavery, who had been on loan at Plymouth Argyle until the middle of last week, was made to look like Wickham’s peer, stepping off the bench and striking twice.
His first finish on 80 minutes owed much to Zaliukas’ missed header and an open field behind him, and his second – scored in the last seconds of injury-time –found the corner of Kenny’s net from 20 yards. Again, the blunder was Zaliukas’.
The contrast to Wednesday’s finishing was United’s failure to produce a shot on target until the 72nd-minute, an Austin hit-and-hope from 20 yards. When the final whistle came, the stands emptied to the sound of Madness’ House of Fun and McDermott braced himself for another post-mortem.
He was asked at one point whether the afternoon had presented any positives. That and that alone, made him laugh.