leeds united 3 – 1 blackpool: half and halfBack
Neil Redfearn knows a lot about entertainment, but he might need to learn a thing or two about showbiz.
The first half against Blackpool was as entertaining as it was unexpected. When the late-comer next to me arrived with five minutes gone, I let him watch a minute for himself before telling him the confusing news: it’s been like this from the start.
United were relentless, hungry, hunting for goals. They seemed to want to prove a point: that although Leeds might have allowed themselves to be dragged into Blackpool’s orbit while Cellino messed around with Darko Milanic, they are, in fact, worlds apart from them.
Elland Road after eight games without a win was the place to show it. Blackpool came to Leeds bottom of the league by eight points, and a hard-fought low-scoring win, or even worse a draw – we won’t consider defeat here – wouldn’t have been enough to settle the restlessness that has taken hold of the club and the fans since Darko was shown the door. We can’t get much clarity from Cellino, so some sort of statement was necessary from Redders and his team.
The players had obviously got the message from their head coach loud and clear. The second goal is what got everybody purring; breaking one-twos that swung upfield before Tavares, on the run, broke Blackpool’s defence with the right pass at the right time to Doukara; Douks can be wayward but he gave his shot the care and attention required to secure it in the bottom corner.
But even before that Leeds were a revelation. I haven’t seen us score a goal like the second for a long time; but I also haven’t seen us start a game the way we started this for a long time, and that might be more significant. Blackpool’s defence got no time on the ball, Byram and Warnock positioned themselves almost as wingers and penned in the full-backs; anytime Blackpool approached the centre circle two of the diamond four were there to stop the attack.
Blackpool looked like they hadn’t expected to be pressed so much, and if their pre-match preparation had been based on videos of the Milanic Witch Trials then you could hardly blame them. With their opponents levered off their stride, Leeds followed up with the next part of the job: they leaned and pushed and pressed and hammered until finally Blackpool were broken through. The source was unusual – Liam Cooper, who has looked like our best defender in the last two games – although the style was in keeping with this season’s Leeds, the goal scored yet again from the edge of the box, as was new dad Mirco Antenucci’s to make it 3–0.
That our strikers don’t seem capable of scoring when they get the ball inside the six yard box is a touch concerning, but Billy Sharp is still around should that become a major problem, and that the forwards actually had some chances to miss is enough for now. Leeds’ first shot on target around the 60–70 minute mark has become a grim joke, but there was no waiting around against Blackpool.
Leeds have had credit I don’t think they’ve deserved this season for playing ‘patient’ – i.e., cowardly – football, and the first half on Saturday showed just how much better the football can be when Leeds throw out any ideas of patience, and attack without fear. One of the secrets to United’s success under Howard Wilkinson was his philosophy of beating teams in the first twenty minutes, and if that’s a part of our past we can preserve for the present, I’m all for it.
Wilko’s sides were always known for being unglamorous, though, and the downside to such early surges is that there’s no room for a big finish. It’s an old showbiz adage that you should leave the audience wanting more, and in Neil Redfearn’s run as caretaker he seemed to have that cracked – the first half against Bournemouth was as bad as any performance this season, but the second half could have gone on forever as far as United were concerned.
Against Blackpool it might have been best to quit at half-time. The change on Saturday wasn’t a Milanic-style retreat; if anything, Leeds were in such control of the first half that they became surprisingly arrogant for a team that hasn’t won for six weeks. Blackpool, it has to be said, were woeful, and apart from one brief flurry after Leeds opened the scoring weren’t in the game; but somehow they managed to dominate the second half.
Nothing evaporates as quickly at Elland Road as positivity, and as the second half ground on, and Blackpool pulled one back, and then missed a host of chances, and Tavares was withdrawn, and our midfield was overrun, the carnival ground to halt, the steel band’s instruments clattered from the float, the dancers’ costumes were ruined by the rain. The anxious and discordant frustration returned as we watched Leeds put a good result at risk of becoming an awful one, making of the first half a holiday and the second the first day back at work.
There’s still time for that postcard we sent from the first half to arrive and bring the good memories back, though. It’s a sign of how much the fans want this to work, for this particular collection of players to come good, that whenever possible the concentration has been on the positives: defeat at Rotherham will always be remembered for the debut of Tavares; the subject of the second half against Blackpool will be quietly dropped while we watch replays of that Doukara goal a few more times.
If we could only have swapped the two halves; if we could have left the stadium crying for an encore, instead of relieved it was over. But then, I’m not sure Redders’ message during the international break should be that if we’re only going to be good for one half we might as well make it the second. The task is to make us as good as we were in the first half in both halves; and to make us that good against considerably better teams than Blackpool – i.e., everybody.
That won’t be easy. We’ve had false dawns before, and plenty of them. Maybe in that sense it’s good that the second half happened, as a reminder that realism is never far away. Neil Redfearn has a real job on to make Leeds United play that well all the time. But he’s already giving it a real go.
The latest issue of The Square Ball, issue four of its 25th season, went on sale before the game against Blackpool; if you missed out, or if yours is too damp to read, you can get a digital edition here for £1 or have the full mag posted to you for £1.50 plus postage.
TSB have also been shortlisted again for the Football Supporters’ Federation Fanzine of the Year award – the award TSB won back in 2011, and promptly smashed to smithereens. It’s a public vote this year, so if you’d like to see some glory come to Leeds United this season, take a second to click and vote for The Square Ball here.