They can call it The Championship all they want, but this is definitely the second division.
As Shaun Harvey’s toe turned the taps to refresh his deep bath of warm, bubbling Carabao, I assume that after news of the pre-match fireworks display and disco, the real doings of this game were being kept from him, allowing him to plot his ways towards overseas markets in peace. Perhaps he thought of ringing for a bellboy, to ask when Leeds United were going to unveil that clever new crest they all predicted would do so well on energy drinks cans in Thailand? And also why the newspapers hadn’t been delivered for the last week?
In the East Riding, Hull City presented Leeds United with a pitch full of liquid and rugby league, and a plan; they would watch, as Leeds played like drunks on a stag do trying to pass a balloon on a trampoline, and wait for the errors. Of which there would be many. They would then take the ball and charge towards the Leeds goal, not pausing to be delicate on the surface, and score lots of goals.
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It was a perfect plot, bound to foil whatever Leeds had been working on at their training camp in Murcia, a very different culture to Hull. United’s plans were scuppered further when Matthew Pennington, a surprising and shining light of the Millwall game, was unsurprisingly dimmed by fate and injury before kick-off, meaning Conor Shaughnessy took his place. Okay, like for like, until five minutes were played and now Gaetano Berardi was centre-back with Stuart Dallas at right-back, with Shaughnessy in the medical room on a stretcher. Just like we planned it all week.
That Leeds were able to withstand the energy of Frazer Campbell and Nouha Dicko, fed by Jackson Irvine’s headers in Hull’s attack, is something to do with Berardi’s commitment to whatever cause he’s asked to defend, and new left back Laurens De Bock’s strength. But it was more to do with Felix Wiedwald. There was a disallowed goal, when Dicko left a boot hanging high around Wiedwald’s shins while knocking the ball from his grip; and one crazy back header from Pontus Jansson, that left Wiedwald outside his box doing a mad dance with the ball on his thigh. But those were exceptions, outnumbered by five good saves — at least two very good, saving certain goals, and another a faint touch that fortunately put the ball on top of Dicko’s head and from there over the bar. It was possible to think, as it has been in recent matches, that Leeds have a goalkeeper between the sticks now, when it didn’t feel exactly like that earlier in the season.
Ahead of Wiedwald, Leeds created very little, from the maximum — shots at goal — to the minimum — passes. Kemar Roofe was playing behind and around Pierre-Michel Lasogga in attack, making Leeds quite 4-4-2 ish, but no matter how many headers Lasogga won, and he won a lot, neither Roofe nor nobody could put themselves where the ball was going. Lasogga put his frustration into creating United’s best effort; good work from a very respectable Ezgjan Alioski gave Lasogga the ball twenty-five yards from goal and central and determined to make an opening and shoot, which eventually he did, just wide.
But the failure was in midfield, where at least we can also find the optimism. Adam Forshaw, wearing four, playing his first match since early December, passed like a metronome and tackled like a pickaxe through a grand piano, winning everything he went for and keeping the ball when he wanted to. Ten tackles and 84% pass success tells its own story of a player maintaining an excellent standard, whatever the conditions, and Leeds look to have a player in Forshaw that they need: a tackler, who when he gets the ball, keeps it for Leeds and does good things with it.
Unfortunately, while Forshaw could pass the ball, he couldn’t get it back. Four tackles and 60% pass success tells the story of Ronaldo Vieira’s night alongside him, when he dipped as he did in the first half against Millwall, far below what he’s capable of, and far away from what Forshaw needed alongside him to create some cohesion in midfield. His night was summed up in the final moments, when De Bock was dealing with a dangerous run into the penalty area, until he was blocked off by Vieira running interference for Hull, and only a brilliant save from Wiedwald prevented Campbell scoring a stoppage time winner.
I mean. Can you imagine. Two points from fifteen are hard enough to take, and those from two dreadful nil-nil draws, but it could have been worse, and that doesn’t bear thinking about. The need for improvement is chronic, as was this game. But then, that’s what Laurens De Bock and Adam Forshaw have been bought to do, and are doing, now: it’s early to call, but right now, they look like improvements. £2.5m is about to be put down for Tyler Roberts, a player who has apparently been interesting half the clubs in Europe, who can play ‘as a striker, or wide’; and perhaps can do the things Kemar Roofe doesn’t, the way Forshaw, with one game, eclipsed Eunan O’Kane. If he can just use the balls Lasogga’s knocking down, that will be a start.
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Perhaps defeat would have been better, so everything could give way to anger? Instead of still hanging onto an aching optimism that no nil-nil draw, no matter how dreadful, can properly dissipate. Here was second division football, and until Leeds are no longer a second division team playing other second division teams, we’re going to endure more second division matches like this. You could say this was exactly what it says on the tin, except the tin is full of Carabao and bluster, making a virtue of the thousands of people who pay to watch this dross.
But is it insane to still think positively about our life in this division ending sooner rather than later, knowing we’re in the top half of the table, we have injured and suspended players to return to the first team — among them Samu Saiz — seeing two new signings play that are obviously better players than we had, and feeling optimistic about a third?
Well. Well. Cardiff City trundle into town on Saturday. Neil Warnock, Kevin Blackwell, Lee Peltier and Sol Bamba, all in the same clown car. If that doesn’t knock the optimism out of me, well, I’ll be fucking delighted. ◉
(feature image by Paul Kent)