leeds united 1-0 preston north end: good form & gigglesBack
There was a script for Leeds United to follow as they beat Preston North End on Sunday, but typically, they didn’t follow it.
Which is a shame. Three points are three points and we’re stacking up the numbers three by three with something almost approaching regularity now, but fun is harder to have, and when we spy an opportunity for giggles, by golly we should grab it.
The game was poised perfectly once Simon Grayson was forced to replace his goalkeeper with a child. Scott Wootton’s shuddering hoof frightened Jordan Pickford out of his penalty area, where he handled it, although not necessarily with his hands. Chris Wood milled around in the aftermath, pointing at the goal as if he was trying to claim he’d been denied one; he was fooling nobody. The referee wasn’t buying what Pickford was selling either, his hand firmly clamped to his shoulder, where he claimed the ball had hit him.
Matt Hudson was his replacement, a young slip of a thing, and the Leeds fans smelt blood. Elland Road has always been a fortress of cruelty, even if it’s been mostly self-inflicted in recent years, and South and North Stands were ready to do what they could to make Hudson cry like Rachubka.
The fans stuck to the script and even the Preston players chipped in. You could imagine Grayson having a quiet word with the lad before he went and stood in front of the Kop: ‘Don’t clap them, it’s a trap… don’t listen to anything they say about your dad… just get some early touches and keep your confidence.’
Then Alan Browne fired a bullet header past him in the first minute of the second half and the Kop began a rousing rendition of ‘1–0 and it’s your keeper’s fault’ and Grayson tried to think of how he would explain young Matt’s tears to his worried family and friends. ‘He’ll be fine eventually. We only play at Elland Road once a season. I can get Alex Smithies to have a chat with him.’
Leeds United, however, didn’t play their part. In fact Leeds United hardly played at all; the stats show one shot on target, and that might even have been the own goal. With Preston down to ten you would expect space to open up, and indeed it did; but it opened up for Preston, and substitute Neil Kilkenny was allowed to look like Iniesta, getting and giving, dictating play, shooting from distance and even forcing Silvestri to save a good close range header.
Silvestri is playing with what seems to be an unusually clear mind these days, pulling off showboat — and often vital — saves all over the place, and if he wasn’t in such good form, there might have been a different result. Naturally he feigned injury at least twice and chose the worst moment of Preston’s second half dominance to deliver a clearance into the front rows of the East Stand, but people are more minded to put up with those things while he’s on hot reflex and catlike.
The rest of the team looked ponderous and confused. Perhaps they were just tired, which was Steve Evans’ complaint; a late return from Wolves and a lack of recovery time had taken its toll. It’s within Evans’ power to do something about that, though. Could Mowatt have started in place of Cook? Might Antenucci have been a fresher starter than Wood? And why no Botaka on the bench, again? As Leeds ran out of ideas and Preston ran the game, Botaka would have been just the player to offer a new approach, put some different pressure on the Preston defence, terrify the boy in goal.
As it was Leeds’ midfielders and forwards played as if they were trying to remember what they did at Wolverhampton that had worked, like an elderly couple going to a ballroom dance class after fifty years. The Kop’s attempts to get on the keepers’ fizzled out as he had nothing to do, and instead the crowds watched the progress of an injured magpie, hopping down the goal line and into the net. That was cheered like a goal, by the way; we really were looking for fun.
By the end we were just grumbling. Leeds players were running the ball into the corners to run the clock down; not unreasonable in itself, but the boos it got were more to do with the stomping 6–0 win we’d expected with the man advantage, and been denied.
“It’s great to grind it out and let the supporters sit down for Christmas Day thinking their team are still alive in the Championship,” said Steve Evans. Yeah, great, I love grinding and thinking I’m still alive, I do.
It’d be good if, on top of the points we’re picking up, we could add some fun, so we could enjoy picking them up; and that’s more than just wanting a cake and eating it. The absence of fun hints at an absence of security, a feeling that Leeds won’t continue this good form because it doesn’t even feel like we’re in this good form.