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preston north end 1-4 leeds united: who can’t wait?

preston north end 1-4 leeds united: who can’t wait?

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Characteristic of Leeds United’s charge to the top of the Championship has been the ability to cope without the first eleven’s favourite stars.

We’ve got where we’ve got with Kalvin Phillips, Ronaldo Vieira, Souleymane Doukara; while missing Liam Bridcutt, Pablo Hernandez, Jermaine Beckford.

The absences haven’t all come together, which has helped, but there have always been enough of them to make selection difficult, which ought not to have helped, but which Garry Monk and his players have managed with aplomb. At Preston Liam Bridcutt was back in the starting eleven, an experienced, calming presence — and club captain — whose class was obvious when he appeared as substitute against Brentford. But while the lord giveth, the lord taketh away, as Charlie Taylor failed to recover from an achilles injury and the less than calming presence of Gaetano Berardi filled in at left-back.

That enforced changed might have encouraged Monk to push recuperating forwards Chris Wood and Pablo Hernandez into the first eleven, to be as strong as possible, but he went with a more cautious approach. Wood’s injury was only recent, and only light, but United can’t afford to lose him; Hernandez has been out longer, and unnecessary risks with either might have been counter productive.

Leeds United have got used to performing without their first rank stars so, when the playmaking skills of Hernandez aren’t available, momentum and team spirit drag something out of the likes of Kemar Roofe that, while not identical, is a good enough facsimile for United to continue to play well. Or, as at Preston, to play better than anyone expected, and get a result that boosted the morale that already is boosting the league position.

At Deepdale United also had to perform without their first or second or third choice kit. I’m not sure blue shirts with white shorts would even be fourth choice; that would go to the white shirts blue shorts combinations that used to illuminate wintry clashes at Old Trafford. I’ll need to check the files, but the nearest correlation I can find for what Leeds were wearing against Preston is a trip to White Hart Lane in the John Pemberton years, when the blue and yellow striped away shirt was worn with white shorts against Spurs. How Leeds ended up in Lancashire with none of the yellow strip but enough of the white and blue’s to run out like this is a mystery to me, and it means that we’ll look back on footage of this game for years to come as a curio of kit quizzes, as well as a top team performance.

Preston didn’t give it up easily. Simon Grayson has had them on a run of one defeat in seven, and while their mid-table position might not look like much, it’s built on what you could reasonably call overachievement since promotion from League One; without masses of money to spend, he’s established Preston above the danger of returning, and while he’s a massive Leeds fan, he’s also blunt enough to want to beat Leeds if he can.

Preston’s first half was worthy of some of Grayson’s Leeds United’s halves back in his Elland Road heyday. Roofe opened the scoring for Leeds after a deep freekick was headed across goal by Pontus Jansson; the ball might have snuck inside the post, but after his goal against Aston Villa Roofe isn’t letting any chances get away from him, and he sprinted in to nod the ball into the net. Watching from the ground where he’d fallen, Jansson rolled over and covered his face, either hurt by the defender’s challenge or calming his instinct to dismantle Kemar for stealing his goal.

Roofe was key to the second goal. Luke Ayling gave the ball to Hadi Sacko near the halfway line; Sacko is direct, and his run to goal took him away from one defender before a precise pass to Roofe split two more. Sacko ran between them next, past Roofe and Roofe’s marker, and when Roofe turned and played the ball into Sacko’s path, he had five Preston players in his wake. In his way was the goalkeeper, and a season of wayward finishing; Sacko shrugged all that off and found not the side netting or the stands but the roof of the net, firing the ball confidently past the diving Maxwell.

Two first half goals felt too good to be true, and in a Graysonesque gesture Leeds let Preston back into the game. Their height in attack was a known threat, and when Leeds allowed them space, Browne and Makienok played some head tennis that ended with a knock down and a strike into goal from Vermijl.

The Grayson template allowed for one more first half goal, however, and Doukara scored it for Leeds; receiving the ball on the left from Roofe’s lofted pass, it was never clear exactly what he was intending as he cut into the box and went from this foot to that as he tried to turn the defender. That may have confused Maxwell in the Preston goal, as when Doukara did shoot, left footed, at him, he dived on it but not fast enough to do anything but help it over the line.

Preston were the home team and a 3-1 deficit demanded a better performance in the second half, which they gave, pressing the ‘world class’ button on Robert Green and ensuring Leeds’ concentration was on keeping North End out of the game, rather than pulling further ahead.

The contribution of Jermaine Beckford proved final. On as part of a double substitution with twenty-five minutes to go, his mission in his first appearance since being sent off for fighting his own team mates was to do something he’d never done before, or looked like he’d wanted to do: score against Leeds United. Instead, within three minutes, he was sent off. The unwitting battered meat in a sandwich of Leeds United’s most bromantic couple, Luke Ayling and Kyle Bartley, Beckford found himself flat on his back, in pain, not sure who had hurt him, and unsure what retribution to take. He settled for firing a boot out at Bartley, who was nearest, and hit his head, which was regrettable.

The weird lack of malice with which Beckford kicked his opponent in the head was reflected in the relative lack of kicking off that went on after the deed was done; Grayson and Monk stood on the touchline, yards from the incident, pointing at different players; other players came and got involved, but without rushing in for a scrap; it was a general amble to the scene of the crime. Then Beckford ambled away, and Preston’s chances with him.

United struggled against ten men against Rotherham not so long ago, but Monk had two key cards in his deck this time. He’d already played one; Hernandez had come on for Sacko, a player who can only go forward exchanged for a player who can influence every direction of a game, and with Hernandez and Bridcutt on the pitch together, it began to feel like a first team routine. Chris Wood was added to that in the last ten minutes, replacing Doukara, and United arguably ended with a stronger side than they’d started with, and scored three goals with.

It was still vital that Preston weren’t allowed any hope after the red card; but as the shut out continued, a Leeds goal looked more and more like it would be a flourish of sugar. They saved it until the very end, and it was simple and lovely; Wood ran with the ball from wide, shoved it like a ha’penny into the path of Hernandez, and as ball, Pablo and goalkeeper triangulated, Hernandez stuck a foot in the maths and nudged the ball seamlessly into the net.

Garry Monk reckoned Leeds could have got more, but how much more do we need? Kyle Bartley played to the end of the game then collapsed, concussed, needing oxygen; the kind of heroism that makes a mockery of health and safety safeguarding. Pontus Jansson celebrated with the away end wearing a bowler hat embellished with a brick, another demonstration of something that shouldn’t be tried at home, kids. Leeds were briefly up to third as the Boxing Day games were played, but settled in fifth at full-time, five crucial points inside the play-off positions ahead of Fulham. And they scored four good goals and even partook in a pantomime with old favourite Jermaine, who continues to find new ways to entertain Leeds fans five years after he left.

All this in blue shirts and white shorts. Who knows what this team will be like with all its best players wearing the best kit and playing its best football. Who can’t wait to see it happen?

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