It is a footballing cliché that the sign of a good team is one that can win games when they are not playing well. Leeds United are certainly proving that is indeed true, as somehow they managed to smuggle three points from a disappointing display against Barnsley.
The Leeds fans will not care a jot though about the performance as Luciano Becchio’s penalty three minutes before half time earned the Whites a first league victory over their South Yorkshire neighbours in 15 years.
It was a dismal game, with Barnsley by far the better side, but they could not turn their greater possession into sustained pressure on the Leeds goal, with Paddy Kenny barely tested. Leeds lacked composure in attacking areas, bar Becchio’s moment of genius from the spot.
Leeds made one change from the side that drew at Bolton on Tuesday night as Adam Drury dropped to the subs bench, replaced by Aidy White. Skipper Lee Peltier moved to left back, with Sam Byram dropping into the right full back position with White just ahead of him. Leeds also had Paul Green back in the squad for the first time since the opening day of the campaign.
Right from the off Barnsley looked the better side. Keith Hill’s side had a stunning 5-0 victory at Birmingham in their last away game, and started out in confident manner. They had a great chance on five minutes but Jacob Mellis sidefooted well wide from 12 yards out.
Leeds were finding it difficult to get any forward momentum, and were grateful for another rock like display from the central defensive pairing of Jason Pearce and Tom Lees. Pearce produced a typical blood and thunder display, whilst Lees was calmness personified alongside him, reading the game well, and tidying up.
With Barnsley dominating the middle of the field, Neil Warnock made a small tactical tweak, pushing Byram forward and moving to three across the back. This allowed Leeds to push forwards and put the Tykes midfield under pressure and allowed them to start to make attacking inroads.
United’s first real opportunity came on 27 minutes, El-Hadji Diouf produced some great skill on the right to create the space for a cross before picking out Becchio 12 yards out, the strikers diving header going over the bar.
Rodolph Austin was now able to bomb forward and twice in quick succession burst down the left hand side. On the first occasion his low cross was well held by Ben Alnwick in the Barnsley goal, before firing over the bar from a narrow angle moments later.
With Leeds gaining the upper hand, they were rewarded with the opening goal. Peltier made an attacking run towards the area which was halted right on the edge of the box by Stephen Foster. Despite it being a clear foul, Barnsley were furious that referee Darren Deadman awarded United a penalty, deciding the foul took place just inside the area.
With a delay for treatment to Peltier before the penalty could be taken, Alnwick took the opportunity to try to psych out Becchio with a bit of chat. Becchio was relaxed though, bouncing the ball off the keepers head before placing the ball on the spot. With two penalties already under his belt this season, Becchio on this occasion coolly chipped the ball straight down the middle as Alnwick dived to his right, to give United the lead at the interval.
The second half saw Barnsley make a change, Bobby Hassell replacing Foster. It was a subdued opening to the second period, with neither side showing any real desire to get going again after the break.
Leeds were forced into a change in the 54th minute when Michael Tonge fell over and damaged his shoulder, with David Norris coming off the bench for his return to action after a spell on the sidelines with an injury. He immediately sparked Leeds into life and Austin had the first real effort of the half from 25 yards out which was comfortably taken by Alnwick.
Norris himself was next to try his luck on the hour mark, finding himself in plenty of space on the edge of the box from a quick throw in, but he couldn’t keep his volley down and the shot whistled harmlessly over the bar.
Barnsley should have been level two minutes later as United once again showed a vulnerability from a set-piece. Mellis swung in the corner which found its way to Marlon Harewood six yards from goal but his sidefoot effort was brilliantly parried away by Paddy Kenny.
That was the signal for a period of Barnsley pressure and Keith Hill made a couple of changes to try to find a way through the Leeds defence, Chris Dagnall coming on to replace Harewood and Kelvin Etuhu coming on for Tomasz Cywka.
Andy Gray replaced Becchio with 20 minutes left, the Argentinean having run himself into the ground over recent weeks. Leeds were already thinking of going into shutdown mode, and seemed just as happy to keep the ball in the Barnsley half than they were to go for a second goal.
With four minutes stoppage time signalled, Barnsley continued to throw bodies forward, but Leeds held firm, with Kenny forced into one final save to deny John Stones who got his head to a Mellis free kick, the keeper going down to hold the ball on the line.
The final whistle was greeted with sighs of relief rather than cheers of joy, with three more precious points bagged and a hoodoo buried. The international break will allow time for tired legs to recover, and who knows maybe even see some new faces come in. With no action on the pitch, the spotlight in the next two weeks will once again fall on the boardroom, hopefully with a conclusion one way or the other.