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leeds united 2 – 4 reading: guts

leeds united 2 – 4 reading: guts


I’ve been saying for ages that Rodolph Austin has had a great goal in him, ready to happen. And there it was: a netbuster, a golazo, a piledriver from distance. That traction engine in his right foot was finally good for something.

But what a waste of a great goal. What a waste, in fact, the whole period of play was from when Smith pulled one back to ironic cheers, to when Austin inspired genuine belief in the crowd and the team, to around the 85th minute, when it became apparent that the dream comeback just wasn’t going to happen.

After the game Brian McDermott tried to use that second half burst into life as some sort of justification for the whole game. After Mathieu Smith came on, “We could have scored five,” he said, which is technically true, but glosses over the question of whether Smith should have started, and ignores the fact that Reading could have scored ten.

To be fair to Brian, he is right to point out that he is only the latest fall guy for a decade of failure at the club; and he is right to point out that while the situation off the field remains a mess, he can only do so much with the situation on the pitch.

And to be even fairer to Brian, the twenty minutes when it looked like Leeds United actually stood a chance of getting something out of this game gave the game away for the players.

The first half was characterised by cowardice, and that isn’t something the manager can easily solve on the training pitch. The first half was about players being too frightened to take responsibility. On Saturday Lee Peltier committed the most conspicious of the many errors against Bolton, missing a pass to Kebe by a clear ten yards; Peltier was hauled off at half time, and Kebe didn’t last much longer. Nobody in a white shirt looked willing to risk the same fate against Reading.

McDermott made the changes that he had to, and also the changes that he could; there were arguments against persisting with Austin and Lees, but if he’d dropped them as well as Kebe, Stewart, Wootton, Peltier and Warnock he would have struggled to find enough replacements in the squad. And unfortunately Brian can only replace from within, meaning that, as he was bullied off the ball for Reading’s fourth, we had to come face to face with the reasons why Zaliukas has been kept out of the side.

The team could only change so much in three days; then there were the tactics. I don’t think McDermott is sending the players out in these various formations with instructions to play a long ball game; instead I think that as soon as the game starts to go against them, they don’t want to risk a pass to feet that could go wrong. A lob into the air in the vague direction of a couple of Leeds players shifts the responsibility from the passer, and if it doesn’t come off, the blame can be shifted too.

That was the story all over the pitch – no responsibility, no risk. Defenders letting the ball bounce because they don’t want to commit; midfielders playing vague lobs because they don’t want to risk a pass; attackers moving out to the wings so they don’t risk missing a chance if one somehow appears before them. Leeds United looked like eleven players who hoped it wouldn’t be their fault.

Smith was different. On as a sub, it wasn’t so much that Mathieu Smith is a better player than what was on the pitch before him, but he performed better and got results – as he did against Bolton – because he played without fear. If there was a ball in the air he tried to win it; when there was a loose ball in the box he pounced. When the ball was at his feet – and we know full well his feet aren’t his best asset – he didn’t shy away from trying to do something positive with it.

It worked, and when Austin pulled his right foot back and let go, that worked too. Austin can’t do right for doing wrong when shooting; he has missed so often that the ends visibly flinch whenever he even looks like taking a shot, but this time a shot was exactly what he – or anybody – needed to take. You don’t shoot, and you don’t score, but you don’t get the blame for missing; but if you just shoot anyway and do score, you can change a game around.

The idea, for twenty minutes or so, got round the rest of the team. Passes still went astray, and mistakes were still made, but more things came off because more things were actually tried, and Leeds looked all the better for it. For a while in the second half Leeds United looked like a capable football team, but only because they looked willing to fail.

Perhaps this is Brian McDermott’s job, and perhaps he should pay with his job for failing to ensure it happens. That “lost the dressing room” cliché has begun to rear its head, along with the tales of players out on the town that always come along when teams are in a slump. If players have lost respect for their manager to the extent that they’ll go out drinking after a 5–1 defeat as if nothing has happened, I’d suggest they haven’t only lost respect for the manager, but for the club, and that it’s the players we need rid of before the manager; and if players are too gutless to include an element of risk in their football for fear of failing, again, I’d suggest we need to look at the players before we look at the manager.

The manager was out there after the game. Adam Pope of BBC Leeds didn’t allow McDermott any room for excuses for the selection or the performance, while carefully measuring the need for Brian to answer questions against the fact that Brian is the only one at Leeds United who will stand up and answer questions. Massimo Cellino has given another ‘exclusive’ to his pet journalist Simon Austin at The Sun, but will he expose himself to questioning by journalists who know the club better than he does? And where was David Haigh? Where were GFH? Where were the players to explain why they let the goals in – one before half time, one-two-quick after – just the same as against Bolton?

“I’m a guy who’s just trying to get results for Leeds United,” McDermott told Adam Pope. “I’m determined, I’m absolutely determined to stop this cycle of events that’s been happening over the last ten or eleven years at Leeds. That’s very, very important to me … The thing is, it’s a club I want to manage and I want to manage going forward.”

Right now, Brian McDermott wants to manage Leeds United more than some players want to play for Leeds United, and wants to manage Leeds United more than some people want to own Leeds United, and is the only person at the club thinking in terms of the “ten or eleven years” that we’ve been through. Those qualities make him invaluable; and if the players can’t find it in themselves – or in the club – to want and think the same, then it’s different players that we need, not a different manager.

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