leeds united 0 – 1 brentford: the pleasure principleBack
Try to please everyone and you’ll end up pleasing no one. Don’t try to please anyone, like Graham Salisbury, and you’ll end up only pleasuring yourself. Pleasing yourself. Whichever.
There’s no doubt that Billy Sharp pleased a lot of people in Huddersfield last weekend, and it would be underplaying his hard-working contribution in recent games to attribute that just to one back post header. There’s been a growing clamour for Sharp to be in the starting eleven, but it has mostly been tempered by the realistic thought that while Leeds have found a system that works, it’s a system that by and large doesn’t involve him from the beginning. The lone striker’s job is Steve Morison’s, and it’s up to Edgar Cani to take that job away from him, not Billy Sharp.
The one place where the clamour for Sharp to start will not have been tempered is around Billy himself: he’s clearly itching to play, desperate to make his time at Leeds a success, and after winning the match on Saturday, he couldn’t be blamed if he spent the week sending Neil Redfearn relentless Vines of that moment and asking, See? See? Do you see, boss? See?
Where the clamour ought to have been blunted by realism was right there, in Redders’ office, as he shuffled the counters around on his magnetic whiteboard. Yes, Billy has been insistent. And yes, he has played well. And yes, his late goal did the business against Huddersfield. And sure, he’d be upset not to start the next game. But is not upsetting Billy Sharp more important than not upsetting our midfield against a team that, when we played them at their place, made our midfield look like park players?
‘Not upsetting’ Billy might be overstating it a bit – perhaps it was more ‘not rewarding him with a chance.’ But just because Sharp deserved a reward for his recent performances, doesn’t mean he had to get his reward in this game. Yes, he will have wanted to play; and yes, a lot of fans want him to get a chance too – Redfearn will have heard the chants of ‘Come on Billy!’ every time he warms up as clearly as anyone. The ideal scenario would have been for Sharp to start, and Sharp to score, and Leeds to beat a team going for promotion, a week after beating a local rival, two weeks after beating the first placed side, and make it three wins in a row, and five games unbeaten – but that’s a lot to ask for.
It’s also a lot to ask for when you’ve compromised so much. Alex Mowatt hasn’t been in the same Player of the Month form in recent weeks since he moved wide left, but without him neither Murphy or Cook looked in the same form as recent weeks either. The transition from 4–3–2–1 to 4–4–2 left Murphy and Cook exposed, Austin confused, and Byram wider than has been useful and nobody entirely sure what to do with Sharp, while everyone stuck with the same rush to get the ball to Morison as if Sharp wasn’t even there.
Brentford’s fast counter attackers found little resistance from Leeds’ midfield two, and the only way Bamba or Cooper were ever going to catch them once the high offside trap was sprung was if they brought them down. Cooper did that on one occasion, and got away with a booking; the rest of the time we had to be thankful that Marco Silvestri, for all his faults with the finer points of goalkeeping, is a master when it comes to the basics. He stood, one-on-one, between Leeds and 4 or 5–0 defeat.
United didn’t actually play badly. Cook now looks too good for this division too regularly for him not to stand out the way Byram did in his first season; Charlie Taylor looks more comfortable at this level with each game; Austin, trying to convert himself into a left-winger, was all effort and all action, even if he was just as laughably frustrating as ever. I have to do that with Rudy sometimes; when he charged with the ball to the byline, shaped himself for a cross, and fired the ball across goal so hard that it would have killed Morison had it somehow been anywhere near him, all I could do was laugh. Strip him of the context of Leeds needing goals and points as a matter of urgency and he’s very entertaining.
It was Austin who sparked the Great War of Salisbury, as the referee waved away his first penalty appeal, and his second, and kept on waving all afternoon. Rudy looked to have a good case for the first; the subsequent ones looked like he was trying too hard to make a case, while Graham Salisbury looked like he was trying to make an example of Leeds. It wasn’t even that he was particularly biased against Leeds, although the handball in the build up to Brentford’s winner would be a decent argument. It was more that he was determined to give Leeds absolutely nothing; whether as a lesson to the players or to the fans, I’m not sure.
The more Austin and Sharp – also hacked at in the penalty area – and co protested, and the more the crowd booed and called cats upon him, the more stubborn Graham Salibsury became. The displeasure of the players and of the crowd was his pleasure, and swelled his head, his chest, his loins; Rudy must have longed to squeeze him like a big pimple. Pity his family when Mr Salisbury finally got home and let the puss out.
The torrential injustice at least gave the game a focus, but if you looked away from the ref and at the game you wouldn’t have found a Leeds plan B, and that was a bigger problem. Perhaps the worst part of starting with Sharp was that it meant he wasn’t on the bench to come on and save us again; perhaps Billy gives something more important to the team when he’s out of it than when he’s in: hope.
Instead of hope we had Edgar Cani, on for the last five minutes, a great tree of a man who naturally got most of the ball when he was out wide left, trying to teach himself how to cross fast enough to be able to get the ball on to little Billy Sharp’s head. Cani did have a chance to settle it, but two close range Sharp shots were blocked first, and by the time the ball broke to Edgar, the whole thing had become a scramble and his shot was blocked too.
The stars weren’t aligning for Leeds to score, and maybe we needed too many stars to line up for Leeds to have pulled off a third win against the odds in a row, no matter what Redders did. In that sense, we shouldn’t look at this as points lost, but be glad for the surprise six-points we took from Bournemouth and Sharp’s late goal that made it six points taken out of Huddersfield’s hands too.
But to take it on the chin like that means Redfearn has to take this game and learn from it, and realise that compromise is one of the first steps towards failure. It’s tough on him; a lot of us have lambasted our three coaches this season (and their presumptive manager) for tactical inflexibility, for persisting with the same thing week after week. Redfearn has been the first to be brave enough (or allowed enough) to change it, and has been successful; but now he’s changed it a little bit more, and gets criticised for it.
But managing change is as important as change for its own sake, and nothing about facing Brentford made it seem like a good time to change, apart from maybe giving some fans and an exuberant striker what they wanted. And it didn’t work; Leeds weren’t bad, but 1–0 flattered us. It just might work, though, against Reading or Millwall; neither side are as good as Brentford, and 4–4–2 and Sharp might be just the ticket. I’ll leave that up to Neil Redfearn; I’m sure, if he follows Graham Salisbury’s example and sets his own mind on it, he’ll know what to do.