Leeds United 2, Derby County 0
There had been a definite feeling of optimism – the kind of optimism where you’re not really sure what it’s based on – ahead of this clash between Leeds United and league leaders Derby County. Whether it was a sort of pre-Yuletide glass-half-full ebullience, or merely good old Yorkshire blinkered pig-headedness, the vibe in the ether had been remarkably positive. There were a lot of “funny feelings” that Leeds could – would – win. And sure enough, by the final whistle, the joke was very much on the Rams, our one-time rabbits but more recently an irritating nemesis. Leeds had won decisively, 2-0, with current pin-up boy Mirco Antenucci scoring either side of half time to give us our first success over the sheep since 2005.
The game started with the visitors as the more measured side, as befitting their lofty status. Derby had that ever so slightly arrogant air about them, redolent of aristocrats pitched against peasants in a village cricket match. Their early play suggested a blithe expectation of victory – but they failed to capitalise on this brief superiority and, when the young midfield guns of Leeds started to blaze in and around “Schteve” McClaren’s bewildered officer class, the writing was very much on the wall. In the end, for all their occasionally threatening encroachment into the United defensive third, Derby were sunk without a trace and subsided with barely a whimper, never mind any truly threatening signs of defiance. No shots on target over the whole piece is a damning indictment of supposed promotion favourites and ultimately the White tide simply swept poor County away.
Antenucci’s two goals were deft finishes of contrasting types, one tucked neatly away from a quality low cross from Mowatt, the other a precise finish after the luxury of a touch on the ball to set up the strike, following more good work, firstly from Mowatt. He prepared the way for a fine pass from Warnock to the Bearded Wonder, who languidly scored the clincher. Two goals and a clean sheet might appear to have been ample reward for Redders’ improving unit but, in truth, United could and should have had more. Still, after a nine year famine against these opponents, enough was as good as a feast, with subsequent near-misses providing the lightest of desserts for discerning Leeds palates.
We’re often told that we’re “not famous any more”; we’ve even been known to throatily echo that sentiment as the Elland Road Kop indulges in a little post-modern irony. But defeat at the hands of Leeds really does hurt Derby; in a rivalry going back even before the feuding of Hunter and Lee, we’ve always been a desperately desirable scalp for the ovine followers of the Rams – right up there with Forest in that respect. So a long overdue victory against them is all the sweeter for the pain etched so deeply across County faces, souls, and indeed the entire #DCFC Twitter feed. Schadenfreude has a flavour all of its own and, like revenge, is a dish best served cold. It’s been cooling away nicely for nine years and it tasted just right yesterday.
So what now for Leeds? As the Redfearn touch continues to mould the youth, talent, Latin flair, vigour and experience of this squad into an ever more cohesive unit, there are grounds for guarded optimism. We’re not there yet, not by a long chalk. There are still worrying deficiencies, vulnerabilities that might have been exploited by a team with more stomach for battle than this somewhat effete Derby side. But the Leeds work in progress is starting to show signs that progress is indeed being made. Those signs were there also in rather unlucky defeat at Blackburn last week; seven days on, they were stronger and still more promising. One pundit in the Leeds blogosphere dared to speak the word relegation yesterday morning; he may now conclude that he was being needlessly, almost treacherously, pessimistic. Defeats are hard enough to swallow, surely there’s no call for defeatist talk.
Make no mistake, Leeds beat a fine side yesterday and beat them well. Derby will play worse and win in the face of less gutsily determined opposition. Leeds for their part will have to strive to maintain at least the standards they set on Saturday afternoon; in fact, they will need to raise the bar still further if any real upward momentum is to be generated. If a young side of such rich potential can do this, then they will expect to win more than they’ll lose – a verdict that the defeated Mr McClaren might well now be prepared to endorse.