It was yet another crossroads match for Leeds United and their increasingly beleaguered manager Neil Warnock. On the face of it, a 3rd round replay against Birmingham City at St Andrews presented the likelihood of a fate worse than an early F.A. Cup exit; in the context of a dismal recent run of form away from Elland Road, and a coldly mutinous mood among ever more disillusioned supporters, you didn’t need to listen too hard to hear the ominous sound of knives being sharpened.
Indeed, such has been the depth of Leeds’ ineptitude over the last few games, especially at Barnsley and Hull, that fan's forums were openly airing the hope that defeat in the Cup might bring about the change in management so many now see as the best chance of salvaging something from this torturous season. A farcically protracted takeover saga, lasting from early summer to the last shopping days before Christmas, has seemingly failed in its completion to invigorate the ailing Yorkshire giants. The briefest of honeymoon periods has been followed by a creeping pessimism and apathy. Mr Bates is still around; the purse strings seem to be as tightly-drawn as ever, and whispers of the imminent departure of top scorer Luciano Becchio, not to mention bright spark Sam Byram, will not go away.
Indeed, the absence of Becchio from the match-day squad at Birmingham was being spun in two poles-apart ways, depending on the point of view of the spin doctor. Cynics put it about that the Argentinean hit man was watching future employers Wigan triumph in their replay at Bournemouth. Warnock though waxed bullish, dismissing such rumours. Becchio, he said, was ill at home; and anyway, his absence and the consequent need to push Ross McCormack further forward had reaped benefits in the kind of football Leeds had been able to produce in their second-half recovery from a one goal defecit.
It was certainly beyond dispute that the level of performance in coming from behind to beat the Blues was in stark contrast to the abysmal showing at Oakwell only three days earlier. Warnock had observed after that game that Becchio “has had his head turned” by transfer talk and he was scathing in his appraisal of the performances up front. After the Cup triumph though, the ebullient manager was quick to highlight the sweetness of results like this, when “everyone is writing you off”.
McCormack’s smartly-taken 70th minute finish from an El Hadji Diouf cut-back was his first senior goal since September 1st, cancelling out Wade Elliot’s first-half opener for the home side. Leeds had injected some pace and purpose in the second period, and further tested the Blues’ goalkeeper before Diouf’s impudent penalty kick settled the affair with a quarter of an hour to go. A home tie against Tottenham awaits in the 4th round, and Leeds’ habit of performing well at Elland Road against higher-ranked teams in cup competitions might promise another bouncing night in LS11, and the promise of more relief from the drudgery of the league.
Warnock though, despite his tenaciously upbeat approach to post-match interviews, must be well aware that the remaining days of the transfer window will provide a far sterner test of his own mettle, and that of the new owners GFHC, than anything Spurs might offer before a live TV audience at the end of the month. A defeat to Tottenham would be excusable, to say the least – particularly one of the plucky, battling sort seen over the last few years, exits with honour against the likes of Spurs themselves, Liverpool and Arsenal.
A couple more hapless league capitulations, though, against a background of bargain-bin scratching about in the transfer market, and no marquee signings – and the picture will be as gloomy as ever. The current malaise is rather too deep to be dissipated by one Cup replay win, and a lot of uncertainty remains over the direction of the club post-takeover. Things may well be clearer in a fortnight’s time, but whether they will really be any better remains – in spite of Warnock’s commendable fight and defiance - a matter of grave doubt for the devoted but largely demoralised fans.