Leeds United Fall At The Second To Last

I’m not going to mention it.

There have been something fundamentally herculean about this season’s Championship play-offs. Last night, West Bromwich Albion took Aston Villa all the way to a penalty shoot-out after a taut second leg which ended in a one-nil win on the night and a two-all draw on aggregate. Villa probably merited the win, just about, but there wasn’t much between the two sides in an absorbingly tense match. Even in the penalty shootout, West Bromwich Albion kicked themselves in the foot before almost somehow finding a way to take it to sudden death.

In the end, though, both West Bromwich Albion and Aston Villa looked like teams that could be competitive in the Premier League, but will need a little work if they are to not be looking over their shoulder towards the bottom of the table. A little light on creative spark but pulsating with intensity, the match West Bromwich Albion and Aston Villa was a superb advertisement for the Championship, taut to the very last penalty kick. West Bromwich Albion are understood to already be in talks with serial Championship promotion winner Chris Hughton. It’s difficult to see a promotion race next season without them.

But if that match was like a tightly coiled spring, the second semi-final between Leeds United and Aston Villa was like an explosion at the Claire’s Accessories factory. Leeds United are, of course, a football club of scale. And the appointment of Marcelo Bielsa as their coach made a perfectly plausible – if close to perverted – sense. And whilst Leeds will be obviously be hugely disappointed at having missed out, it should be remembered that, since returning to the Championship in 2010, they’d only finished above thirteenth place in the table twice in the previous eight years. Third place in the Championship is their best finish since relegation from the Premier League, in 2004.

Bielsa brought an effervescence to Leeds United that felt as though it had been missing for years. After the pallid stylings of Thomas Christiansen and then Paul Heckingbottom left the 2017/18 season feeling like a version of Groundhog Day in which the protagonists don’t learn from their mistakes, he brought a feeling of entertainment back to Elland Road. Leeds sprang out of the traps at the start of the season, winning four of their first five matches and then a further seven in a row between November and December. They spent longer than any other club at the top of the table over the course of the season, but it’s only after forty-six matches when being top really counts for everything.

Three defeats and a draw from their final four matches ultimately did for a Leeds team that started to run out of steam over the closing weeks of the slog, with Sheffield United passing them at the final turn. Perhaps tellingly, they also lost home against Norwich City. In a three-horse race for two automatic promotion place, this wasn’t a particularly strong look. Once in the play-offs, though, it looked briefly as though Bielsa might have struck upon a winning formula.

They won the first leg at Pride Park by a goal to nil, the inevitable controversy coming with the non-award of a penalty for Derby on the advice of an assistant after the referee had blown for it. Twenty-four minutes into the second leg, played in front of a baying crowd of over 36,000 at Elland Road, Stuart Dallas doubled their aggregate advantage and surely put the tie beyond, well, doubt… didn’t it? Well, of course it didn’t. This is Leeds United. Nothing is ever simple. Scripts are for losers.

A minute from half-time, an enforced substitution saw Duane Holmes replaced by Jack Marriott. It almost felt as though they might have been better off keeping Holmes on until half-time. They might need that substitution later. Wrong. They needed it there and then. The Leeds goalkeeper, Kiko Casilla, and centre-back Liam Cooper both swung at thin air, allowing Marriott to roll the ball into the open goal with his first touch. Things got worse for Leeds in the first minute of the second half, when Mason Mount put Derby ahead on the night and level on aggregate. Harry Wilson’s penalty kick then gave Derby the lead, before Dallas – again – struck back to bring Leeds level on aggregate, albeit three-two down on the night.

There were two sendings off, numerous rattlings of the ball against woodwork and, with five minutes left to play, Marriott was put through on the left hand side and lifted the ball over Casilla to give Derby a four-two lead on the night and a four-three lead on aggregate. Just as Leeds had led the table for longer than any other team, so Derby only led this tie for ten minutes. It just so happened they were the ones that matter. It had been an exhilarating, chaotic evening of football, and neither really deserved to lose the match, on energy exerted, at least. But one of them had to, and Leeds fell to pieces over the course of about a quarter of an hour. It’s to their considerable credit that they managed to haul their way back into the match at all, even if they did lose it again. at the end

None of this is to take anything from Derby County, of course. Their achievement in this match is unprecedented. It’s the first time that any club has won a Championship play-off on aggregate after having lost at home in the first leg. They had a curious season, with a difficult spell throughout the winter ending in three successive defeats in February. They have, however, rumbled back to life since a four-nil defeat against Aston Villa at the start of March. They lost only one match in the league after that, and won four of their last six matches in the league. They may have considered themselves a little unfortunate to lose the first leg of the match.

This is certainly the highlight of Frank Lampard’s short managerial career, so far. Lampard’s appointment as the manager of Derby was greeted with scepticism on account of his lack of prior experience and the assumption that he was hired on the basis of his name alone (as though high profile former international players with little hands-on managerial experience have never been hired by football clubs before), but he’s done okay over the course of this season, having negotiated his way through the absurdity of “Spygate”, a position not of his own creation which provided at torrent of distraction at the end of last year. Everybody knows how competitive this division is and it would have been on the owners had the appointment been a failure.

The margins between success and failure in modern football are very narrow, and Derby County walked a tightrope more than once last night. Their opening goal was primarily of Leeds’ creation rather than their own, their third a needlessly conceded penalty kick, awarded after Cooper yanked at Bennett’s shirt. Even Gaetano Berardi’s second yellow card for Leeds was completely self-inflicted, a rush of blood to the head which resulted in two foul in the space of approximately four seconds, either of which might have been worthy of a red card themselves when he was already on a yellow card to begin with. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that this was a match that Leeds lost, just as much as Derby won. They now move on to Wembley, for a match already being excitedly described as “The £170m Match” without anybody apparently asking whether it’s particularly healthy, that one football match should be worth so much money. 

But no, I’m not going to mention it.