Leeds United faced Nottingham Forest at Elland Road towards the
end of the 2011/12 campaign determined to secure three points
to boost their Play Off chances; the odds were on them achieving
Four months earlier at the City Ground, Leeds
had romped to an emotional 4-0 triumph against Forest. Days
earlier former United midfielder Gary Speed had taken his own
life, and the victory served as an emotional tribute to a great
footballer by his first club.
United's form slumped badly following that comprehensive victory,
thanks in the main to the brittleness of their rearguard, but
new manager Neil Warnock had steadied the ship, with just two
goals conceded in five games.
Back in September, the Yorkshire Evening Post's Leon Wobschall
highlighted the defensive shortcomings which the previous manager
had been unable to resolve: "The switching around of Leeds United's
centre-halves has resembled a game of musical chairs since the
start of last season - with Simon Grayson's search for a harmonious
and long lasting combination a wholly taxing one.
"A total of seven different partnerships were paraded in the
heart of the back four in all competitions last term and with
the 2011/12 season not yet two months old, the number count is
already up to five as the United boss wrestles with a conundrum
which is every bit as problematic as a Rubik's cube.
"For the record, the separate central defensive axes that have
started for United since August 2010 are as follows: Collins/Naylor,
Bruce/Collins, Bruce/O'Brien, Collins/O'Brien, Collins/Bromby,
Bromby/O'Brien, Naylor/O'Brien, Kisnorbo/O'Brien, Kisnorbo/Bromby,
Kisnorbo/O'Dea, O'Brien/O'Dea and Bromby/O'Dea. The pairing together
of the latter two players, in United's roller coaster 3-3 draw
at Brighton last Friday, was United's fourth already in the Championship
this term. (By March, the list had been extended by the pairing
of Tom Lees with first Kisnorbo and then O'Dea.)
"But instead of finding answers, Grayson - who fielded three
separate combos in the first three League matches of 2011/12 against
Southampton, Middlesbrough and Hull City - has received only more
questions as the back four defensive charge sheet grows more damning.
As it stands, porous United have shipped 15 goals in eight League
matches, with only Ipswich Town (16) having got out the welcome
mat more times in the Championship.
"A first clean sheet of the campaign in all competitions has
proved elusive for United, who have played 11 matches so far this
term and you have to go back the same amount of away League matches
to February 12 for their last shut out on the road, in the polished
2-0 victory at Bristol City.
"It's enough to keep a manager awake at night and it will have
occupied the minds of many supporters travelling back from the
south coast to West Yorkshire in the wee hours after Friday's
game with no obvious solutions in sight.
"Mean, streetwise and in some cases nasty is not something you
can level at United's defence in
recent years, with their inability to box clever at the back summed
up in a nutshell in their past three League matches.
back to top
"Having totally dominated the hosts and deservedly gone in two
goals to the good following a wholly disciplined first half at
The Amex Stadium, it's not rocket science to deduce that Grayson
will have been cajoling his charges to keep it tight for the opening
10 to 20 minutes of the second period to take the sting out of
the jaded hosts and effectively break their spirits. Job done.
"Just as he would have been stressing the need to avoid early
concessions in the previous home games with Crystal Palace and
"What he got instead was his defence criminally yielding straight
after the restart at Brighton, which followed leakages against
the Eagles and Robins four and eight minutes respectively after
the hosts had taken the lead."
By the time United hosted Forest, Lees and O'Dea had settled
down to be the regular pairing. They had played together in every
game since Neil Warnock's arrival and on nineteen occasions altogether,
with eight of United's nine clean sheets achieved with the two
men in harness.
Warnock's first game in charge of United brought a goalless draw
at Portsmouth on 25 February; they lost by a single goal to table-topping
Southampton a week later, but then drew 0-0 at Hull and won 2-0
in fine style at Middlesbrough. The Whites were unfortunate on
7 March, when a late header by West Ham's Danny Collins denied
them all three points. The 1-1 draw left Leeds tenth, five points
shy of the Play Off positions.
Forest had endured a trying campaign. When former England manager
Steve McClaren took charge at the City Ground in June it was hoped
he could lead a promotion challenge. But in October, after 111
days at the helm, he resigned with Forest 21st in the table. Steve
Cotterill replaced McClaren and won four of his first six games,
but the revival was short lived: Forest were in the bottom three
at the turn of the year after an alarming seven-game run which
produced six defeats and no goals. By the end of January, Forest
were six points from safety after returning seven blank sheets
in a row at the City Ground.
They were still struggling as they travelled to West Yorkshire
at the end of March, just four points outside the relegation zone
with four wins in 19 games.
Such contrasting form pointed to Warnock's momentum being maintained,
though the manager freely admitted that United would require "fantastic
form" to break into the Play Offs.
Warnock: "I think we have to win seven now. Not many teams in
our League win four or five on the trot, let alone seven out of
nine. So we've got to have pretty fantastic form and you've got
to say we've got to start winning our home games. Of our ones
left, we've got to go for maximum points because all the away
games we've got left are tough, for one reason or another.
"You always look at that sixth position, don't you? And I think
until that's gone beyond us, (we'll aim for that). Five points
at this stage is quite a big gap, but when you look at the positions
we've been in and the games we've had, there's no reason
why we can't get the right results if we get things going the
right way. Two or three results and you are right back in it.
"I can sit here and look at the games we should have won and
that's frustrating. On Saturday we threw away two points. I can
understand if it's a great goal, but it wasn't.
"There was Saturday we should have won, Southampton we should
have won, and Portsmouth we should have won. Put in those six
or seven points that we've missed and we all know where we would
be. It's frustrating because I want everything done yesterday
not tomorrow, and it's frustrating that we're not closer to sixth
"The games are running out, and you have to say that it's becoming
almost impossible if we don't put a run together."
Warnock described the Elland Road atmosphere for the West Ham
clash as a "raucous amphitheatre". While the crowd for the Forest
game was significantly less than the season's-best 33,366 which
watched the Hammers, Warnock was confident it would be as lively
He commented: "I asked for a 30,000-plus (crowd) on Saturday,
which is easier said than done, and the fans responded in a magnificent
way. I also think Elland Road under floodlights is a very special
place as well. We won't get the same amount of people, but there's
no reason why the atmosphere isn't the same. It was rocking against
Warnock spoke with sympathy of Forest's tragic season, which
had seen the unexpected death of chairman Nigel Doughty.
"They have been a club in turmoil," he said. "It's been a very,
very traumatic year for them. What happened with Nigel was tragic.
I got to know him well over the past few years, and he was a man
who put a lot of money into the club.
back to top
"Nottingham Forest are a massive club. I know that from my time
managing Notts County when the great Brian Clough was over there.
They'll come back because big clubs do. They've just got to stay
in this League - which I think they'll do - and they'll come back
stronger next season."
Warnock stuck with the starting eleven that did so well against
Middlesbrough and West Ham, with tough tackling Bolton loanee
Paul Robinson continuing at left-back.
There was a heartfelt minute's applause before kick off in tribute
to Robinson's Reebok colleague, Fabrice
Muamba, who three days earlier had collapsed after suffering a
heart attack during the FA Cup-tie with Spurs.
Warnock: "I was in my office disappointed with life after throwing
two points away then a flash came up on TV while the results were
coming in. Suddenly the game and your own disappointments pale
into insignificance when you hear something like that. Here was
a lad fighting for his life.
"It brings it home that it's just a game of football. Your family
comes first. I think what's happened has shocked everyone around
the world, not just in this country."
United's tribute followed the lead of several Premier League
clubs on Sunday and was in line with a number of other Football
League clubs that evening.
The night's opening goal might have come in the first 45 seconds.
Chris Gunter attacked the open space down Forest's right flank
and Dexter Blackstock met his low cross with a sidefooted effort
which clipped the outside of a post. United were fortunate to
escape unscathed but there was much worse to come.
Neil Warnock had stressed the importance of seizing the initiative
and his players duly took the lead after six minutes. Ross McCormack,
partnering Luciano Becchio up front, had one early opportunity
and then he earned a penalty for United. As he wriggled his way
into space in the box, the Scot was cynically bundled to the turf
by Adlene Guedioura and the penalty award was a formality. Captain
Rob Snodgrass accepted the responsibility and confidently fired
high into the top corner, sending goalkeeper Lee Camp the wrong
That should have been the catalyst for a decent night for the
home side, but within two minutes the score was level. Guedioura,
an Algerian midfielder on loan from Wolves, emerged with the ball
after a clash with Michael Brown at half way. He was allowed space
to unleash a speculative drive from 35 yards that soared past
Andy Lonergan and into the net off the underside of the bar. It
was the ideal way of making amends for his earlier indiscretion.
Phil Hay in the Yorkshire Evening Post: "A surprised Warnock
stood motionless with his hands in his pockets, wondering where
the goal had come from. Forest deserved it and were the more fluent
of the teams throughout the first half.
"The odour of uncertainty wafted from United's defence, something
Warnock believed he was well on the way to eradicating, and the
force of Gunter's forays forward kept Lonergan on edge. Camp's
only job for 45 minutes was to retrieve the ball from his net.
"Lonergan produced his first save of the night in the 24th minute,
claiming an effort from Andy Reid
after Garath McCleary passed the ball unopposed along the length
of United's box, and Paul Robinson received the first booking
of the evening after a trademark tackle on Blackstock. Nothing
in the meantime promised another Leeds goal.
"The odd chance continued to fall for Forest, with a second Reid
shot deflecting wide from an identical position and McCleary volleying
an ambitious attempt high into the south stand. McCleary's wayward
shot three minutes before half time, invited after Lonergan spilled
a corner, was a far better opportunity to give Forest the lead."
The visitors continued to press their case and took the lead
moments before the break. When Forest broke quickly, the ball
fell to McCleary who danced into the box. Brown sought to block
his shot but his intervention sent the ball looping over the advancing
Lonergan and into the net.
back to top
Aidy White was sacrificed at half time, making way for Danny
Webber as Warnock sought to restore order.
The visitors started the second half on the front foot, pinning
United back, and in the 52nd minute, the ball fell to Andy Reid
out in space on the left. The stocky midfielder turned adroitly
to wrongfoot Adam Clayton before lofting a cross to the far post
where Dexter Blackstock beat his marker to nod in Forest's third
The 3-1 advantage was emphatic and there would have been little
surprise if United had surrendered
meekly at that moment, but seconds later they were back in the
game. Forest defenders were found wanting when Snodgrass sent
the ball over from the right, and Luciano Becchio calmly clipped
home at the back post.
And it was 3-3 after 55 minutes when Michael Brown smashed home
his first goal in a Leeds shirt. When a Paul Connolly throw in
was half cleared, Brown chested it down a yard outside the D.
The midfielder lashed a curling strike into the corner of the
net with the diving Camp left clutching at thin air.
At that stage, Warnock was convinced his side would emerge victorious,
but the farcical pantomime continued as Forest regained the lead
within a minute. A ball over the top of the United defence by
Blackstock sat up nicely for McCleary who allowed it to drop before
volleying over Lonergan from an oblique angle.
That was four goals in the space of five minutes, and the mayhem
continued as Forest moved into a 5-3 lead on the hour. Reid sent
the ball skimming low across the area and McCleary sidefooted
accurately home to complete his hat trick.
After 66 minutes, Neil Warnock brought on Danny Pugh for Paul
Robinson, concerned that the defender might receive a second yellow
card for any ill-judged intervention.
The game was still remarkably open, and Lee Camp made a terrific
save in the 69th minute to deny Snodgrass' superbly struck effort.
But it was Forest who scored again after 71 minutes when McCleary
once more displayed great confidence on the right, turning away
from Danny Pugh before cutting inside and firing across Lonergan
into the net.
With ten minutes remaining, Becchio was replaced by Billy Paynter,
but there was to be no United revival.
Within a minute, Forest made it 7-3. The ball was played through
a square United rearguard and as O'Dea appealed vainly for offside,
Blackstock coolly collected. He came inside the wrongfooted Tom
Lees before sliding the ball low into the corner of the net.
It was the first time Elland Road had witnessed United conceding
seven times in the League. "I'm quite embarrassed by the result,"
said Neil Warnock, "but you learn more about your players at moments
like this, rather than when you're winning. It tells you who is
prepared to stand up and be counted, who you want alongside you
in the trenches.
"We fought back really well, regrouped and got to 3-3 but their
fourth goal's terrible. It's a Sunday League goal.
"I don't think anyone could look in the mirror after the goals
we've conceded. Going back to my Sunday League days I'd have been
disappointed then to concede two or three of those goals.
"I didn't feel it was appropriate to make changes on Tuesday
because they were super on Saturday. On reflection I should have
done. It was obviously a problem for one or two lads to do two
games in four days. I didn't think it would be. To be fair, some
of them were shattered. It wasn't a night for rollocking anyone.
"I don't think any of the lads could have given more physically
but they were drained.
"We're a bit thin on the ground, but I don't think the centre-backs
played poorly, I just thought every shot
was going to go in.
"You've got to be stronger mentally in certain areas to avoid
results like that.
"You can always experience something new in football, even after
a lifetime in the game, and this week I conceded seven goals for
the first time. At least, I think it's the first time. I've been
racking my brains to think of another occasion, but if it happened
I've blocked it out. No doubt someone out there will enlighten
me if I'm wrong.
back to top
"Conceding that many goals at home is as big a test of a manager's
relationship with fans as can be, but if I had any doubts about
how Leeds supporters would react to having a Sheffield lad as
manager they were answered this week. On Thursday I had to sing
for my supper at a dinner and Q&A at the club with more than 300
supporters. Not the ideal event after such a defeat.
"The fans were marvellous. The job is so much easier if the fans
are behind you and I came away with a fresh realisation of how
desperate they are for success, and how they trust me to deliver
it. I said to them a few times, 'you do know we lost 7-3 the other
night?' One guy stood up and said he was a QPR season ticket holder,
last year had been the best of his life as a fan, and his club's
loss was Leeds' gain. By the time I left I was much happier than
48 hours earlier.
"It was a strange game. It can't be often a team loses seven
goals and you're left thinking, 'we could have won that'. When
we got back to 3-3 I thought we would go on and win but some of
our defending took me back to Sunday League. The frustration is
that, because of the other results, even now the gap doesn't look
insurmountable, but I don't think any top team gets beaten seven
- apart from Arsenal, of course. It is fantastic the way they
have recovered from losing 8-2 at Old Trafford.
"We're still aiming for the Play Offs, but I'm also looking to
next season - though as I said to Ronnie Jepson, my coach, when
the seventh goal went in: 'I wonder what odds you can get on us
now for promotion next season?'
"In a way, Tuesday was useful; painful, but useful. I'm still
assessing players with next year's squad in mind and you learn
more about them in a match like that, you find out who is resilient.
You do need to be a certain character to play at a club like Leeds,
who get big crowds. You need to be strong, to want the ball in
adversity. How we react today at Millwall will answer a lot more
questions about my players. It'll be a good test, mentally and
physically, at a difficult venue.
"You might think I went into the dressing room and gave them
all a bollocking, but it wasn't a night for that. It was one game
too many after the weekend's West Ham game. They put a lot of
work into that game while Forest had a blank weekend. They were
so much fresher than us. However, while the Championship is a
tough league I do believe it is possible to play with intensity
all season if you look after yourselves so I did say to them:
'Obviously some of you couldn't run, you have to look at yourself
fitness wise, have you done enough?'
"What you want to do after a match like that is sneak off to
a darkened room, unfortunately I had to face the press, some of
whom probably quite enjoyed the idea of me losing seven. There
was some levity. At half time, when we were losing 2-1, I went
into an office with Mick Jones and Ronnie to gather my thoughts
before talking to the players and we saw on TV that Notts County,
managed by my former coach Keith Curle, were 4-0 down. We looked
at each other and thought: 'That makes us feel better.' At the
final whistle I got a text from Curly, who'd lost 5-2 in the end:
'Just seen your score, gaffer, makes me feel a lot better.'
"I spoke to the chairman, Ken Bates, the next day. It may surprise
you to hear he was in a jovial mood. The good thing about having
a chairman with so much experience is he's been round long enough
to know you don't get too carried away when things go great, likewise
you don't get downhearted when things go against you."
Months later, Warnock recalled: "The one thing about the fans
since I've been here is that they have been magnificent. I'll
never forget the Forest game at home in the last ten minutes of
that game when I was talking to Ronnie Jepson and saying: 'Let's
put something on this pitch next season for this lot to get excited
about.' And that's what I'm trying to do."
back to top