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leeds united 2 – 0 wigan athletic: control

leeds united 2 – 0 wigan athletic: control

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By the rules of the playground, beating Wigan means Leeds United are now the holders of the FA Cup. Yay us. Does this mean we can play in the Europa League, now?

This was a battle between consistency and chaos, but for once the consistency was on United’s side, while we retained chaos as our weapon of choice for the two goals. 

Wigan used to be good at this, but I suppose it was always inevitable that owner Dave Whelan would revert to type. After switching from Paul Jewell to Chris Hutchings to Steve Bruce, Roberto Martinez ruled over four years of, if not peace, then security, as his chairman backed him through times good and bad. The good faith on both sides was rewarded with the FA Cup. They got relegated at the same time but still. Whelan seemed to regard things like relegation and heavy defeats as occupational hazards, and would overlook them for a trophy and for the pleasure of having Roberto around the place. 

It worked, too; Wigan are a far better club for having had Martinez – they’ve got a trophy cabinet now, for a start – and Martinez is proving it wasn’t a one off, taking Everton up to fifth after last night’s meta-ironic win at Old Trafford. 

Without him, though Wigan have reverted. Owen Coyle has been chewed up and spat out, and last night that decision was one of the differences between the two teams. Wigan played like a team in need of a manager, failing at the same things over and over, with no sign of a decision to change or try something new. They best they could do was bring Grant Holt on as sub, a new toy for Jason Pearce to play with.

Leeds, meanwhile, looked like exactly what we are: a team with a manager who looks like he’ll be here for a while. That longevity means that, like Martinez at Wigan, we’ll have to excuse a few things along the way. Hopefully relegation won’t be among them, but defeats in Blackburn – and the away form in general – will have to be taken on the chin, as long as the overall trend is upwards, and for as long as McDermott is having a visible effect. 

McDermott’s influence on the players is tangible even from the stands; you can tell from watching what Brian has asked them to do. At the end of the game, Wigan’s players looked like they were still waiting for their instructions. 

Leeds had played it a bit too long to Varney and Smith at Blackburn, McDermott confirmed after the game, so he’d told the players not to play that big long ball to Smith’s head so much in this game. That meant Leeds worked the channels more; it also meant low cross after low cross aimed unsuccessfully at the feet of Smith, when pinging a ball from wide at his head, Sterland to Chapman style, could have destroyed Wigan. But it didn’t matter; we were getting the ball wide, and we were getting the ball in. There was a consistent forcefulness to our play that meant, while this match was far from a thriller, there was never much prospect of a defeat.

Besides, we had chaos on our side, and quality set pieces. Corners were a constant disappointment in the last home game, but this time Alex Mowatt pinged some lovely high, dipping balls right into the six yard box, and while Wigan tried to deal with the knockdown, Ross McCormack forced the ball over the line, but not by much. 

It was McCormack himself who put in a free kick from wide for the second; did Pearcedogg touch the ball on its way in? The dubious goals panel will no doubt decide, and try not to let their thinking be influenced by the ridiculousness of Jason Pearce scoring two in three games, but Pearce is a useful measure of the role of chance in our attacks on Wigan’s defence. We weren’t fluid from open play – and Smith sure wasn’t, when he was through on goal with options left and right and he… let’s not talk about it – but we could make things happen by putting in quality set pieces and forcing the ensuing chaos to bend to our will.

On Radio Leeds after the game, McDermott could be heard heckling Jason Pearce as he was asked whose goal it was. “He’s not still trying to claim it, is he?” yelled the boss in the background, following it up with more cat-calls about it being a “great strike.” It’s probably not just the win that has McDermott relaxed enough to disrupt his player’s local radio interviews and make fun of them. 

You never heard that kind of thing from Simon Grayson, except maybe at Old Trafford and after Bristol Rovers when Andy Hughes got him involved with a bottle of champagne, and on a stage in Sherburn last week Grayson revealed some of the reasons why: he was battling every day with the hierarchy of control at the club just to be able to do his job.

McDermott doesn’t appear to have that battle. His only fight is with his own managerial ability, and with the players he has, fighting to get the performances out of them that will get the club up the table. In other words, his only battle is the one he’s paid to fight: managing the team as best he can. At the moment he seems to have the resources he needs – the various takeover scenarios currently shaking out could either improve or destroy that, but for now we’ll deal with right now – and he seems relaxed. What’s more, he seems in control. 

A defeat at Blackburn is only a problem if you can’t control it; like a ball bouncing quickly towards you from an unexpected angle, you have to trap it, to make sure it can’t pick up speed and bounce away from you. From delivering instructions in the dressing room and the dug out, to echoing in the background of press interviews in the corridors under the stand, McDermott is exerting an influence and a control that is moving United up the table. That was the difference between Leeds and Wigan in last night’s game: Leeds United have a manager.

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