MATCH VERDICT: Wanderers 0 Leeds United 1
FOR a 10-minute spell in the second half, Wanderers’ players passed around the captain’s armband like it was a hot potato – and if that doesn’t exemplify the problems Dougie Freedman has on his hands right now, then nothing does.
A purely symbolic item it may be, but at a time when the Whites were a goal down to Leeds and desperate for someone to lead a path back into the game, the message being sent out was loud and clear.
This is a team lacking in direction and leadership on the pitch and absolutely failing the supporters who continue to stand behind the club week-in, week-out.
On paper there is no shortage of talent, and that’s the frustrating thing. As woeful as the club’s winless start to the season has been, it could easily all click into place against Derby tomorrow night and leave grandiose statements like the one above looking rather flimsy.
But what if it doesn’t?
Are there enough players in Freedman’s ranks with the bottle to salvage a point from a game like this?
The manager, like his predecessor Owen Coyle, is finding out the hard way that there might not be. And some believe he is now fast approaching a tipping point where it will be his neck on the line and not those who are consistently underperforming on the pitch.
One thing counting in the manager’s favour is that the Wanderers fans, while gutted by the team’s start, are still largely behind the Scot, appreciating the financial constraints he is working under and the stage at which his rebuilding job is at.
The prospect of new arrivals looks slim, judging by the pragmatic shrug given by the Whites boss when quizzed on the subject after the final whistle. And with that in mind, it is difficult to see what he can change within the squad at his disposal.
Many fingers have pointed at club captain Zat Knight, who kept his place amidst much pre-match speculation. The big defender does look short on confidence but axing him from the team altogether would be an emphatic statement to make from the manager.
Knight was taken off in what looked like a tactical substitution on the hour mark, sparking the great armband exchange, but both the player’s reaction and the manager’s after-match comments suggest we should not read too much into the decision.
It seems the former Aston Villa man, like a few others, will have to knuckle down and find some form in the public eye.
In fairness, had it not been for some slack marking six minutes into the game, then Wanderers may have been able to cling on fairly comfortably to a point and the clamour for change might not be so severe.
It appeared to be Alex Baptiste’s job to pick up Luke Varney from an early corner, gifted by some nervous defending by both Knight and keeper Adam Bogdan. But when Luke Murphy swung in the set piece, a chasm opened up in the penalty box for Varney to head home unchallenged from 10 yards out.
Wanderers’ response was passable, but when they needed someone to take the game by the scruff of the neck, to do something special, to drag others off their haunches, a candidate just did not step forward.
Tim Ream, playing in front of the back four, did a manful job, slipping through some superb passes to jangle Leeds’ nerves.
Likewise foot soldiers such as Matt Mills – back in the team for a league game for the first time since December 2012 – Marc Tierney, Jay Spearing and Darren Pratley kept plugging away.
It was when Wanderers needed a bit of ruthlessness that they really fell short. For a few spells in the game they looked capable of breaking through, only for the constant profligacy to sap confidence and set them back.
David Ngog was particularly guilty in the first half, doing everything but getting a shot on goal. Chris Eagles and Chung-Yong Lee flattered with their approach play but for all the neat football in the final third Paddy Kenny in the Leeds goal remained a bystander.
The visitors, in contrast, picked their moments and hit on the break with purpose. Varney and Ross McCormack swarmed around target man Noel Hunt and with some better finishing may have extended their lead.
They also defended their penalty box with a ferocity that really was not mirrored at the other end.
And that theme continued into the second half, leading Freedman to try to change things from the bench with the introduction of ex-Elland Road favourite Jermaine Beckford and Rob Hall. The youngster injected a bit of life into proceedings and had a shout for a penalty turned down when Scott Wootton went to ground in the box.
Beckford had a near-post flick blocked by the same defender a few moments later, which proved his only real contribution of the afternoon.
Composure remained an issue and Ngog, Chung-Yong and Spearing all sent rushed efforts wide of the goal, and by 92 minutes Kenny had still not had a save to make.
Pratley changed that with a first shot on target, pushed away with smart reflexes by the veteran stopper.
That proved the last action before Andy D’Urso called time. Those Wanderers fans who remained made their feelings known but were largely drowned out by the legion of Leeds supporters celebrating joyously behind Bogdan’s goal.
It seems a long time since Whites fans have been able to celebrate in the same way.