Another day, another Leeds match.
On paper it looked like a certainty; MK Dons had nothing to play for and it was probably just as well. Having training on Friday with just 7/8 fit pros, they were forced to field a side containing youngsters who could’ve been forgiven for not looking forward to such a baptism of fire.
For Leeds though there was no room for pleasantries; a point ahead of Millwall with an inferior goal difference, the pressure was on. With Swindon and Charlton also still not out of the race for 2nd place, never has the phrase ‘squeaky bum time’ been so apt for Simon Grayson’s men. On a hot afternoon in Leeds, the TenForKen campaign was being launched to the masses; leaflets and stickers/badges were handed out on the grounds bordering Elland Road and by all accounts, it was a great start on the path to gaining answers about our club.
On the pitch, Grayson named a team that took pretty much everyone by surprise; young Sanchez Watt, on loan from Arsenal was named in the starting line up, while Michael Doyle and Jonny Howson were dropped; Bradley Johnson came into the centre of midfield. On hearing the news, I genuinely did nearly fall over; just how Howson has escaped the chop before now is beyond me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of the bandwagon ‘Jonny Howson haters’, he has the ability but when you only turn up every three or so months, that – in my book at least is not a prerequisite for holding down a first team place.
One unexpected surprise came in the shape of Lucas Radebe, the former Leeds stalwart who appeared somewhat out of the blue at Elland Road. Grayson should’ve give him Richard Naylor’s shirt, he probably would have done a better job at the tender age of 41. With the last game of the season, at home to Bristol Rovers already having sold out, many took the chance to get in on the act against the MK Dons which saw the attendance rise to over 25,000. The atmosphere was positive, despite the blip and the pressure from Millwall and less so Swindon and Charlton had abated, but only slightly. A tenuous position we may have been in, but the main thing was that we were in 2nd place. Our fate continued to be in our own hands.
The match was a a great spectacle, from a Leeds United perspective at least; quick out the traps with Gradel and Becchio causing all sorts of problems for the away defence and on 13 minutes, Leeds took the lead. Watt capitalised on an idle attempt at possession, nicking the ball away before putting a perfectly weighted ball into the path of Luciano Becchio who slotted calmly past the on-rushing Willy Gueret. The lead didn’t last for long though; Naylor committed one in a long line of clumsy challenges and as the free kick was swung in, Johnson made a very feeble attempt to keep hold of Dean Lewington, which failed miserably and Lewington easily volleyed the ball in from close range.
Groans rang out around Elland Road; surely we couldn’t throw it away, we wouldn’t. There was still ample time for things to change but the susceptibility of our defence is causing many a worry; since a 2-0 win over Oldham at the back end of February, Leeds have kept just one clean sheet in twelve matches. The loss of Patrick Kisnorbo cannot be underestimated but every team… every good team should have adequate replacements, we have Naylor. Since his surgery at the back end of last summer he has looked more cumbersome than ever, his reading of the game leaves much to be desired. It seems that every time a ball is hit towards his marker, his reactions are too slow so by the time he’s read the pass he is struggling to get a hold of his man. I’ve mentioned many times in the last few weeks about his captaincy traits so I won’t go on any further.
Leeds restored parity on 33 minutes as Gradel capitalised on some butter fingers from Gueret to prod home as the home side sought to put the match beyond doubt before half time and with a little help from referee Michael Oliver, that happened. Mathias Doumbe’s clumsy lunge on to Watt’s ankles brought a straight red and having failed to punish MK Dons for earlier challenges on Gradel and Becchio, it was perhaps deserved in a roundabout kind of way. It didn’t look like a straight red and the players seemed as surprised as the fans to see the card brandished but the performance of the officials up to that point left plenty to be desired so it perhaps wasn’t too shocking.
Despite being against ten men, Leeds struggled put the game to bed, chances came and went and with Shane Higgs being forced into action in the home goal, it began to feel like it could all come crashing down. The mood didn’t improve when Ben Parker went in for a challenge and stayed down; he limped off and it looks like his season had over but in truth it never really began, such are the injury problems he has suffered with this year. Howson replaced him and Johnson moved to left back although he was so untroubled, he mainly found himself supporting Watt on the flanks.
On 75 minutes, the big change came. Looking to put the result beyond doubt, who better to bring on than Jermaine Beckford? 28 goals to his name this season despite a lean spell in front of goal – by his standards before last weeks penalty at Gillingham, Grayson threw him into a match we looked likely to win and when the mood is good, the pressure is off. It showed as well, despite receiving a clout round the head he got himself on the score sheet just five minutes after coming on, Johnson’s delicate cross was awkward but in acres of space, he readjusted and volleyed in his 29th of the season. The reaction from the crowd was positive, you could see how much it meant to Beckford to score and seemingly to appease the fans and the response will hopefully spur him on to grab a few more next week against Charlton. He wasn’t done yet though, through on goal he was bundled over by David McCracken who received a straight red card and there were no complaints. Beckford stepped up and scored the resulting penalty but it could easily have been saved, the poor spot kick somehow went straight under the falling Gueret but hey, they all count.
There was time for Beckford to clinch his hat-trick but his glancing header went wide when it looked easier to score and it was about to get worse for MK Dons as Peter Leven’s lung also brought a straight red card and a furious reaction from Neil Collins who had Leven by the shirt.
While the news from Millwall wasn’t quite what we’d hoped, they had only added +1 goal to their goals scored tally while we drew level with them on goal difference and despite our extra point, it is ridiculously close. Promotion is in our hands but Charlton away is a daunting prospect, while some Leeds fans are getting a tad carried away, I myself am not so confident. Their home record reads: won 13, drawn six, lost three. We can hope though that Andy Robinson does us a favour with Tranmere when they take on Millwall and while we have to concentrate on our results, it is impossible to stop looking over our shoulders! One hopes Grayson is having greater success getting the players to look up.