It might be a stretch to insist that Kemar Roofe’s equalising goal for Leeds United against QPR, ten seconds before the end of time added to the first half, rescued the game of football from the abyss. But it probably saved this one.
Leeds could have been 4-0 up before they went 1-0 down in the 26th minute, and the opening half hour was a serious lecture aimed at Roofe. He could have scored three of United’s ghost goals by adding composure and luck to his quick zips across the six-yard box, where Pablo Hernandez and Barry Douglas aimed crosses, and a deflection sent Mateusz Klich’s shot. Patrick Bamford, with a half of Under-23s football to his name, was back on the bench; and Nakhi Wells was on the pitch and in the pink of QPR, scoring a much harder chance than any of Roofe’s.
That chance was gifted to him when United’s odd couple at centre-half, Kalvin Phillips and Pontus Jansson, failed between them to clear a long ball, giving Wells a clear shot into Bailey Peacock-Farrell’s bottom corner. Roofe was having to work hard for his chances, dropping deep and giving Hernandez the ball before sliding to meet his cross, and that’s to his credit; but his failure to score felt disastrous once Wells had. It was the worst thing that could have happened, for Roofe, and for the game.
QPR’s goalkeeper, Joe Lumley, was already time-wasting at 0-0, and once they had the lead memories of the debacle that befell Elland Road when Birmingham City came to visit were ushered back to mind by the returning referee, Peter Bankes. Although Bankes added plenty of time that day, he didn’t take any action to prevent Birmingham’s constant delays, causing one of the direst games of football I’ve ever ground my teeth against. Garry Monk and Steve McClaren are supposed to be progressive coaches, but rather than test themselves against Marcelo Bielsa, they have both relied on lax timekeeping and all out defence. “In games before, we were getting 1-0s,” said McClaren before the game. “Recently it’s been 3-2s and 2-3s so we need to get the balance right.” As far as he was concerned, after scoring, the rest of the game was just something to get through.
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As QPR repositioned themselves deep in their own half, they frustrated United’s frolics. Samu Saiz was back in the starting lineup, and although he wasn’t at his dictatorial best — and was repeatedly kicked whenever he did have the ball — his constant movement gave Roofe, Klich, Hernandez and Ezgjan Alioski spaces to move into. That meant quick passing around QPR’s box and those early chances for Roofe, plus one for Hernandez, familiar stuff from the start of the season. Even Alioski was playing well again; moved to his preferred right-wing to give energetic protection to Jamie Shackleton at right-back, he looked reinvigorated by having his feet the right way round and having a specific job to do. Shackleton helped him too; an attacking-midfielder being Bielsa’d into a full-back, his surging forward runs distracted defenders, giving Alioski space to either pass into Shackleton’s overlap, or run into the space himself.
The prospect of such a bright start being darkened by Bankes and McClaren was too miserable to contemplate, but United’s fortitude was their saviour. The build-up to the equaliser could end up unheralded because so many people were in the bars when it happened, but it deserved an audience. Leeds controlled the ball for a full minute, trying to find an opportunity to cross down the left, then switching the ball to Shackleton and letting him have a go from the right byline instead. The patient football ended when the ball left Shackleton’s foot as Leeds scrambled into the penalty area; Saiz’s shot was blocked, but when the ball bounced to Hernandez, patience resumed. He cut this way and that, trying to come up with something that would combine precision but also the mixer; his solution was stubbing the ball into a gap between defenders, using deliberate ugliness as the best path through the brutes. The ball bounced to Roofe, inside the six-yard box again, who flicked it past Lumley. The game was saved. Perhaps even the sport.
Even Peter Bankes seemed swept up by the justice of it all. Only Toni Leistner knows for sure if he slapped the ball away from Roofe in the penalty area a few minutes into the second half, but Bankes was generous enough to give Leeds United a penalty after 58 games without. Roofe wasn’t generous enough to let Hernandez take it, smacking the ball into the bottom corner and jazzing his celebrating hands in front of Lumley, but hopefully Kemar’s apology was accepted some time around 3am on the team’s Christmas night out, when he explained to Pablo that with Pat on the bench he needs all the goals he can get, any way he can get them.
It wasn’t only the penalty; Bankes spent the second half kindly whistling for frequent fouls on Klich and Saiz, and against Mathieu Smith, when he came on for the last fifteen minutes. Leeds had tried and failed to get a third goal that would have made the genial giant’s introduction irrelevant, while wary of giving away an equaliser themselves. The manner of Wells’ goal exposed the fragility we’re pretending isn’t there in front of Peacock-Farrell, and in one nervous second half moment he and Phillips acted out a tribute to Marco Silvestri and Giuseppe Bellusci, colliding on the edge of the penalty area. Meanwhile, more responsibility was placed on Shackleton’s shoulders, as he was ordered to follow Luke Freeman wherever he roamed, while still providing overlapping options with Hernandez back on his wing. Perhaps the best tribute to Shackleton’s performance is that his team-mates seemed to forget he’s just a kid that needs help, because he was coping superbly.
The main worry about Shackleton in the closing stages was that Smith might step on him, but as soon as Elland Road’s favourite French striker stepped onto the field Bielsa invoked his rule of playing three centre-backs against two centre-forwards by sending Aapo Halme on in place of Saiz for a high altitude battle. Steve McClaren’s new Bielsa-beating tactic was lumping the ball at his massive striker, but outjumping forwards of any height might be Halme’s favourite thing. He won most of their duels in the air, although the fighting was more hectic whenever the ball hit the ground. Bielsa said that Leeds, “didn’t have any other option than to adapt to the kind of game the opponent proposed,” but finishing the match with their backs to the wall, with Jansson and Halme jumping on Smith and Peacock-Farrell tipping a dipping volley over the bar, was almost as satisfying as the quick attacking football of the opening half an hour. To get promoted, as they say, you need a team that can do both.
Perhaps that was behind Adam Forshaw’s unusually enthusiastic celebrations in front of the Kop at full-time, or Jansson going from Kop to Scratching Shed, affording himself the excess of the fist pumping trademark he said he was maturing out of at the start of the season. This game wasn’t a classic; it was cold and wet, disjointed at times and frustrating, almost disastrous. And it’s the way of football that sometimes we forget the wins, while we remember the pain of defeats. But I’ve almost forgotten what losing to West Bromwich Albion felt like. This match was a reminder that winning isn’t easy, but at the moment Leeds United are very good at it. ◉
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(photo by Lee Brown)
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