Tonight’s new experience as brought to me by Carabao was parking down a Brown Lane side street I’d never ventured to before. Find the ominously named Exodus Plastics, then go round another corner, to the deadest of dead ends, dense with small factories.
There’s one vacant office and warehouse unit combined available to rent on the corner; the warehouse part is a tangle of exposed girders with a tin sheet roof, the office part looks like it’s made from pure asbestos. The shabby units felt about as far away from Beijing and the Carabao Cup draw as it’s possible to feel. Although I suppose it depends what part of Beijing you go to; probably not the bits Shaun Harvey will see.
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The most pressing matter for Leeds United before the game was how to play without a striker when you’re not Barcelona circa 2009. The solution tonight was to give Eoghan Stokes his debut, but not all the way upfront. He played just behind Kemar Roofe, who was presumably being given the chance to earn that spot ahead of going to Nottingham Forest on Saturday, or at least to get some practice in given we probably won’t have any other option.
As a target man Roofe is certainly not — I have to say his name again — Chris Wood. He darts around outside the box, wanting the ball to his feet, so he can lay it off with his back to goal and let midfielders run beyond him.
Unfortunately Roofe was easily dispossessed and easily disheartened, and in the first half I wondered how he scored so many goals for Oxford United in League Two, playing against defences like Newport’s every week. Apparently one of Newport’s defenders did time for smashing someone over the head with a wine bottle. A paper cup would have done for Roofe.
To be fair to Roofe, many of his touches looked worse than they deserved because the players around him weren’t reading the same book. Roofe kept dropping deep in search of one-twos so everybody had a chance at letting him down. Cameron Borthwick-Jackson was frequently guilty of bad passes and bad control, and he and Madger Gomes seemed confused rather than touched by each other’s presence, dear, down the left. Mateusz Klich is tall and decisive, but that’s not useful when he didn’t make many good decisions. He still looks some way from ready for the pace; in the second half he took a touch before shooting on the edge of the box when the ball was begging to be struck first time, and the shot was inevitably charged down; then he was booked for pulling back a player by the shirt when he’d already seen Gomes and Vieira booked for the same thing. Not a great night.
With not much help coming his way, Roofe turned provider, or at least tried to, and this way he looked more threatening, charging to the byline from a throw-in and pulling the ball back; Gomes tried to backheel it in, but that didn’t work.
Early on Klich was forced off the ball while upfield, and Newport countered, waving at Conor Shaughnessy as they passed him and forcing Robert Green to make a better and more necessary save than Felix Wiedwald has had to all season. It was a theme: Leeds looking hesitant in attack, Newport looking hungry to make an impression. Green was busy, and I kind of wished Wiedwald had been playing, because I want to see that lad make saves, and Green didn’t look like he wanted to play patty-cake with Luke Ayling, at least not with the ball.
Leeds were insipid unless Ronaldo Vieira had the ball, who asserted himself in spells and made Leeds look good by dictating short passes until Newport retreated to their penalty area. That gave Leeds room to play, and Ayling room to advance from centre-back and try a Berardi from twenty-five yards that didn’t miss by much.
Newport’s efforts were closer, though. After some frankly rubbish defending gave Newport a needless corner, Vurnon Anita had to head off the line with Green beaten. Then Joss Labadie aimed a daisy cutter at Green’s near post, and I swear down that the damned ball was going wide until Green ‘saved’ it. He got a firm hand on it, and the ball span up off his hand and into the goal. I honestly don’t know what to say other than Newport deserved their lead, and maybe Green just has to do something like this in his first game of every season.
Newport’s impressively numerous travelling fans started sarcastically cheering Green whenever he caught the ball after that, and I thank them for their interest, but our goalkeepers are our own problem and if anyone’s going to sarcastically cheer them it’ll be us, okay?
The only hope as the first half dwindled away was thinking about Samuel Saiz and Ezgjan Alioski on the bench; it was like waiting at the circus for the mindreader to finish and the trapeze artists to start. We’d already seen the clown.
But then Leeds scored a goal, which certainly helped. Shaughnessy was unmarked from a corner and headed powerfully at goal; that was saved, as was Ayling’s determined follow up header that kept the chance alive, but Roofe showed the value of sharpness in the six yard box — when he’s in there — and pounced to equalise.
For the second half Leeds played as if they’d just been reminded in the changing rooms that they were supposed to be playing to impress, and Gomes and Dallas switched wings, and Dallas impressed first. Perhaps he’d been switched so Thomas Christiansen could keep on yelling at him; in any case, he dashed down the wing and away from the dugout as if there was a rocket after him and sent the right-back sprawling; his cross was too close to the keeper but when he palmed it out — take note Rob Green, away from his goal — Roofe was well placed to volley the loose ball into a very empty net. Perhaps Green was right all along.
Taking the lead removed some of the anxiety from the game, but also reduced the chances of the acrobats appearing — boooo. Roofe had a go at entertaining though, spinning on the edge of the box after a good passing move, ignoring all the common sense options around him, and chipping the ball over the goalie and onto the crossbar. Then he got his hat-trick: Ayling, moved to right-back, after a poor and possibly injured Anita was taken off, stuck a low cross into the box and Roofe flashed an overhead kick at it, that sent the ball slowish into the corner of the goal.
In one game Roofe doubled his goal tally for Leeds, contributed some spectacular moments, worked hard, but still didn’t look like the answer to our striker problems. He’s also victim of the ‘It’s only Newport’ card, but there’s not a lot he can do about that. But he did show, yet again, that he’s got something, something worth persisting with, just something that I don’t know what we’ll ever do with, or how good it’ll ever be.
With Roofe’s night complete, and because young Stokes had looked lost all night as he chased the ball in the number ten position, and because Thomas Christiansen loves to party, Christiansen brought on Samuel Saiz anyway, just for the taste of it.
Ah, he’s gorgeous. If you take your eyes off him for a moment you’ll miss a trick, and only hear the crowd’s oohs and aahs. How many tricks did he perform? Well, how many touches did he have? There’s your answer. Within moments of coming on he played two champagne one-twos with Roofe and Dallas, everyone following his lead and playing up to his soft touch flicks, his last putting Dallas through to shoot, a chance he put just wide. I feel like I can’t write these euphoric paeans to Saiz every time he plays, but I also feel like I’m going to, at least until we play Cardiff and Neil Warnock has some big-arsed centre-half break his legs. Please don’t let it be you, Sol Bamba.
To add to the party atmosphere Alioski replaced Roofe for the last fifteen minutes, swapping striking duties with Gomes and Vieira, and nearly scoring after another Saiz inspired move ended with a low cross that was deflected away from Alioski as he homed in on the keeper; that wasn’t the end, because the ball ran to Saiz at the edge of the box, who shot and scored, the simplest thing he did all night.
Leeds didn’t quite reach Port Vale levels of party, because Newport didn’t like it and Leeds were still soft at the back. Borthwick-Jackson was weak in mind and body when he let Frank Nouble bully him off the ball and run through on goal; he shot wide. Then Ayling collapsed on the other side to let Newport have another go, and from a softly given up corner Ayling had to block the ball on the line since no other Leeds defender was bothering. Newport wanted to end the night with a second goal, and Leeds were maddeningly willing to let them have it.
Not Saiz though, who with time and space to shoot from twenty-five yards instead dragged a pass into Dallas near the penalty area, who nearly made it five; or Alioski, who after dancing through some stepovers on the wing got whacked off the ball for his troubles, and from the free-kick nearly broke the keeper’s wrists. Alioski then set up another chance for Dallas, a powerful curving shot blocked by a Newport head.
The final flourish belonged to Saiz: his cross to Liam Cooper at the back post swooped up far too high above the six yard box but dipped like a constellation onto Cooper’s head, from where the ball made a short journey to Vieira, who scored off the far post. It was only a cross, but because it was Saiz, it was extra, and I still don’t know how he did exactly that, exactly like that, or how he thought of it.
We didn’t find out anything good that we didn’t know already from this game, which is a bit of a disappointment, given it was a chance for several to impress. Roofe did, and a hat-trick helped his goalscorer credentials. The rest of them were either moderate let-downs, or good in ways we knew about already — brilliant, in one particular case.
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Back to the car, via Brown Lane West, and the curious little park above the A643 that links the industrial sheds to the vacant site of the old Matthew Murray School on Brown Lane East. Apparently that’s where Andrea Radrizzani would like to build a new training ground for Leeds United. If he does, and Samuel Saiz is still with us, I suggest he builds a grandstand and plenty of parking, and charges whatever the hell admission prices he wants. ◉
(feature image by Jim Ogden)
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