Middlesbrough 0, Leeds United 1 (Mowatt 3′)
This was not exactly the archetypal “classic” away performance by Leeds United. There were too many easily identifiable flaws for that accolade, not quite enough accuracy in the passing, too much profligacy in possession, far too many clear sights for Middlesbrough of the admirable Marco Silvestri‘s goal. It was certainly an effective performance in the end though, and without doubt a hugely significant win, a massively valuable three points and a welcome second successive away clean sheet. But what an uncomfortable lunchtime it made for us poor fans, our nerves raw and shredded, our backsides numb from sluggish circulation after two hours on the very edge of our seats. It was a time of two, maybe three moments of climactic fulfilment (including the final whistle) and many, many more times of bowel-loosening terror. One way or another, watching Leeds United on a day like this is not easy on the underwear.
Leeds started as if they meant to tear the Smoggies’ throats out, fresh from a pre-match repast of raw meat washed down with rocket fuel. They harried and snapped at the hosts, pressed hard, closed down and all those other coaching manual phrases so beloved of Redders and others of his ilk. And, after a mere two minutes or so, United had their reward when Lewis Cook anticipated brilliantly to nip in front of his man and seize an unwise throw-out from the Boro keeper. Cook, looking as if he’d been patrolling Leeds’ midfield for a decade rather than just a few months, surged into the area on the right and cut a smart ball back to the ever-available Alex Mowatt. With a challenge steaming in, it was an act of calculated bravery for the Leeds youngster to get his shot off, and Mowatt was not found wanting for bottle; the slight deflection that took the ball into the corner of Boro’s net was ample and deserved reward.
After that, it must be said, the story of the match was Boro constantly battering away at the Leeds defence, more often than not being thwarted by the very last line as keeper Silvestri earned a full month’s wages in a tad over 100 minutes. Leeds managed to punctuate the hosts’s sustained assault with some lethal-looking breaks out of entrenched defence, but they didn’t win a corner until the very last knockings of the first half. This first flag kick should have sent Leeds in at the interval 2-0 ahead and really far more comfortable than the balance of play would suggest – but new hero and captain Sol Bamba, having made up ground brilliantly to get to the ball as it swung in low, sadly made a poor contact with his head and a golden chance went begging.
The second half was one of those where, the longer it went on, the clearer it became that – try though they might – there was nothing happening today for the side on the wrong end of the scoreline. That much was clear to anyone not suffering in Leeds United colours, tensely watching the siege continue and the last-ditch resistance miraculously holding firm, every second dragging by like five minutes of regular time. The harder Boro tried, the less likely it appeared that anything would drop for them – and, amazingly, there was not one opportunity for even an FL-briefed ref to award a penalty against the dogged United, who retained their shape admirably and did not allow the increasing fury and desperation of the onslaught to rattle them.
Late in the game, as the ninety minutes were slowly running out, Boro went down to ten men, having already made their three substitutions, when Jelle Vossen had to go off with a head injury. This may have done something to settle the visitors’ nerves, if not the anxious United supporters – but it didn’t stop ten-man Boro continuing to push hard for at least an equaliser during over ten minutes of stoppage time. Leeds saw it out, utilising what they’re now calling “sensible game management” – probably a modern-day term for time-wasting. But the whistle went with Leeds still one up, having even carved out the odd late chance to put the match away completely. It was a hard-fought win, a tenacious performance and a deserved result – though anyone with a heart would have to weep for poor Boro. Heartlessly, I merely laughed.
In the end, Leeds had secured a league double over probably the best team in the division, courtesy of two goals in a little over four minutes playing time. Billy Sharp’s late winner at Elland Road in August and Alex Mowatt’s early strike on a sunny Teesside February Saturday, combined with excellent results against other divisional high-flyers, might just give a firmer indication of United’s potential for next season than any brief flirtation with the relegation battle at times in the current campaign.
Looking up, which we now can legitimately do – as opposed to nervously over our shoulders – we can still see a seemingly unbridgeable gap between our mid-table berth and the play-off pack. But stranger things have happened than for such a gulf to be bridged – though not many. After five wins in six games for Redders’ previously hapless troops, and perhaps a few judicial additions in the loan window, who can possibly know or guess what might lie ahead now?