leeds united 1 – 1 derby county: in the endBack
It wasn’t quite a return to the giddiness of the start of the season against Brighton, but Saturday’s sunlit draw with Derby had a little bit of that game to it, and a little bit of everything we’ve had since.
The optimistic feeling inspired by watching United actually play pretty well was familiar from the opening day, and at least this time we’re safe knowing that this wasn’t a false dawn – it wasn’t a dawn at all. Part of the loose joy on offer from this game was that it was the last of the season and nothing, points-wise, was at stake. So everybody could just do what they wanted.
Not everybody could get what they wanted, though. Ross McCormack wanted one more goal to reach thirty, two for thirty in the league, but it was inevitable that it wouldn’t happen. The game never quite got to the point I’d predicted, where his team mates would be setting the ball up for him on the goal line so he could apply the finishing touch, like when adults play with a six year old who wants to score, but Leeds were looking for Ross as much as possible. It would have been a nice sentimental touch if our runaway player of the season had got the goal he wanted and deserved at the Kop end. Nice sentimental touches haven’t really been Leeds’ thing this season though, so it was fairly typical that it didn’t happen.
Instead of sentiment we had the clinical finishing of Mathieu Smith, who scored a goal that risks passing by unheralded because it wasn’t his 30th, it was in a meaningless game, and it was only Matt Smith anyway. But that would be unfair, because when Smith took McCormack’s through ball in his stride, steadied himself and calmly chipped the ball over the onrushing goalkeeper, for a moment it could have been Marko Viduka out there, and to be Viduka for a moment is more than we could have ever expected to be asking of a player who was in non-league a couple of years ago.
There have been flashes of this sort of thing from Smith all season, passes and touches that suggest he might not just have decent feet for a big man, but decent feet full stop. His head is his most obvious weapon, though, and apart from the goal on Saturday Smith dominated in the air against the Derby defence and could have had a hat-trick.
Ross McCormack has had the headlines all season, but the romance of Smith’s contributions are a story in themselves. His trajectory is not unlike that of a certain Luciano Becchio; arriving for nothing with not much in the way of a reputation and already well into his twenties, he’s visibly improved across the course of the season and while the question in Autumn was whether he would be able to keep his place ahead of Blackstock and Varney, the question now is about how much better he can get.
That’s a sharp contrast to the biggest disappointment of the day, and one of the disappointments of the season. Luke Murphy was the contrast to Smith when he signed, the elegant million pound midfielder versus the free tree. They combined on the opening day for the season’s biggest thrill, Murphy’s last minute winner, but since then Smith has looked ever more comfortable in his new surroundings, while Murphy has struggled to fulfil his potential. Saturday was his season in a nutshell: playing too deep, he lost his marker for the Derby goal and got yelled at by Jack Butland; despite some decent moments he continued to look off the pace and was substituted at half time.
It’s all seemed like too much for Murphy this season. At Crewe he was a big part of a small club on an upward curve; promotion through the play-offs was followed by another win at Wembley in the Football League Trophy, with Murphy captaining the side and scoring the opening goal. The million pound move was just another flourish in that Roy of the Rovers rise, but Elland Road wasn’t the place for Boy’s Own stories this season. McCormack said last week that the takeover uncertainty had definitely unsettled the players, with doubt about wages being paid and whether the club would go into administration and be relegated; he cited the farcical communications with GFH in Bahrain as something the players had to deal with. I imagine that if he had wanted something at Crewe Luke would have just gone round Dario Gradi’s house, and I don’t imagine that he was prepared to have to shoulder the responsibility in the centre of the pitch of a club that seemed to be falling apart.
Next season is the time for Murphy, as hopefully it won’t be the time for one or two others. Michael Brown offered up his once-a-season cameo, treating Derby’s Will Hughes like Boris Johnson in a charity match, spoiling his game purely for the fun of it. Brown even went with a Cruyff turn in front of the Kop, a crowd-pleasing effort from a player who has given me absolutely no pleasure in a Leeds shirt. Whether there would be some credence to giving him another year or keeping him to work at the Academy or not, a line has to drawn with Brown; he’s been synonymous with our decline, arriving just as Johnson, Kilkenny, Schmeichel, Gradel and Howson all left. I’m not saying everything since has been Brown’s fault, but I am saying we should let him go just to make sure. The downside is that Massimo Cellino’s superstitions mean there won’t be another no.17 at Leeds United, so we’re effectively retiring Brown’s shirt, another undeserved accolade for a player who should have left after his first year.
It looks as though Danny Pugh will go now too, despite doing as much as anybody to get the ball to Ross on Saturday it didn’t erase a lackadaisical season of tossing the left back spot back and forth with Warnock. Butland’s loan is over, the smiles from his first clean sheet at Middlesbrough having given way to desperate anger at the defence he’s found himself lumbered with; Tonge has ended the season well but Cellino might see him as a cost worth cutting, likewise Austin, who I still like but who might be worth a transfer fee to somebody. Then there are the ones who weren’t there: Varney, Diouf, Green.
That was part of the relief of this game, too – knowing that it was the last that will be like this. The departure of so many under-performers is only part of it, but it’s a big part; as well as the rationalism of freeing up wages from the likes of Varney, I’m really just sick of the likes of Varney being at the club, and not seeing him, Brown or Pugh on the squad photo next season simply be a relief on its own.
Another side is the optimism that we’ll keep and see improvements from Smith, Murphy, Mowatt and Byram, and there’s the third factor: the elemental yet random force of nature that is our new owner. GFH surprised us last summer with Luke Murphy – and I still wonder if they misread how many zeros were on the transfer fee and surprised themselves – but his signing was still within the boundaries of the ‘new start’ that they were pushing at the time; a million quid transfer seemed like a natural part of their ‘project.’
Right now it’s impossible to know what Cellino has planned, because although he’s giving a fair few interviews he isn’t giving much away except his character. We’ve learned a lot about Massimo so far, but we haven’t learned anything concrete about his plans for the club – and neither has Brian McDermott, who seems to be considerably lower down Massimo’s list of importance than ‘rehearse with the Pigeons’ and ‘hit up a Courtyard Party at Fibre.’ That’s slightly frustrating, and I wonder how many more weeks will go by with McDermott reporting that no, he still hasn’t had the promised meeting with Cellino yet, pretending it isn’t bothering him.
But uncertainty can also be exciting. One of the big reasons why I’m happy to see Brown, Pugh, Varney and the rest go is that I know exactly what they give us – familiarity has bred contempt, and we’ve become far too familiar with the modus operandi of far too many of this team – it wasn’t difficult to predict that Brown would play well in his last game when it didn’t matter, or that he would get booked.
But with Cellino, all we know is what he has done in the past with Cagliari; and that what he has done in the past may not be a reliable indicator of what he’s going to do now. It might be that this is as good as it gets, and that this brief optimstic period of not-knowing will be lost, the way the optimism of the opening day was lost, as soon as he starts work properly – and starts letting us down. But we’re not at that point yet. Leeds United have one defeat in five matches, the first bundle of deadwood is being cast to the waters, and our core of good players will be joined by different players next season; the season’s over, the sun is shining, and Massimo Cellino has heard where there’s a party. Maybe he’ll take us along.
More from The City Talking: