LEEDS UNITED’S half-term report would, in common with much of the Championship, be perhaps best described as being something of a curate’s egg.
With 35 points from 23 games, United are handily placed in eighth place even after yesterday’s defeat to Derby County.
However, in a division where no side is yet to truly rise above average in the mould of QPR last term or Newcastle United the year before, Leeds’s season remains something of a mixture.
The excellent, as was again evident at Pride Park, is personified by Robert Snodgrass, undoubtedly one of the Championship’s potent attacking forces during the first half of the season.
Top scorer Ross McCormack, too, looked lively against the Rams, while there was an intent and purpose about the Yorkshire club’s play that had been missing nine days earlier when losing so lamely at home to Reading.
The downside, however, was that Simon Grayson’s side still displayed some of the unedifying parts of their game.
Namely, a tendency to lose concentration at vital times – as was the case when Jamie Ward netted what turned out to be the winning goal midway through the second half – and an inability to punish teams when on top.
Against a Derby side without a clean sheet since September, Leeds had more than enough chances to claim at least a point even before Frank Fielding rediscovered the form that once made the Rams goalkeeper the first-choice for England Under-21s.
During a late onslaught from the visitors, Fielding produced world-class saves to keep out McCormack and Adam Clayton in quick succession before Paddy Kisnorbo was denied by a combination of the Rams goalkeeper and John Brayford on the line.
It meant a disappointing start to the festive period for Grayson, who said: “I am still trying to work out how we lost.
“We didn’t deserve to lose. Their ‘keeper was in inspired form and the man of the match. But that is how football can be, sometimes.
“No-one who knows anything about football can say we didn’t deserve to at least draw the game.”
On the balance of play across 90 minutes, Leeds did warrant some reward from the trip to Pride Park. But that was of scant consolation to the 4,172 fans as they made their way back north up the M1 in dejected mood wondering just where it had all gone so wrong.
Any post-match inquest into how the Yorkshire side left the East Midlands empty-handed had to start with Luciano Becchio, now such a pale imitation of the striker who netted 20 goals last season that it is surely only a matter of time before he is dropped.
The Argentinian was guilty of wasting United’s best chance of the game on 34 minutes, when despite being picked out unmarked by Snodgrass just six yards from goal he managed to head over the crossbar.
It was a dreadful miss and one that United were left to rue at the end of a hard-fought and entertaining tussle.
Becchio was, by no means, the only visiting player to fail to convert an inviting opportunity. But the others could at least point to Fielding’s role in keeping the ball out of the net.
McCormack was the first to bemoan the Rams goalkeeper’s agility after seeing his thunderous shot beaten away, a fate that also befell Snodgrass as his free-kick seemingly arrowed towards the net only to be tipped over.
Leeds continued to threaten after the break as Danny Pugh saw a shot beaten away by Fielding, who saved his best for the closing stages with a fantastic double save to deny McCormack and Clayton.
At the other end, Andy Lonergan may not have had chance to display his own credentials in as spectacular a style as Fielding.
But the Leeds goalkeeper, rightly preferred to loanee Alex McCarthy by manager Grayson in the starting line-up, was also a busy man.
First, he was in the right place to hold a firmly-struck shot from Nathan Tayson on 14 minutes.
Then, just before the half-hour mark, Lonergan again got his angles right to keep out another Tyson effort, the Derby striker having been released by James Bailey.
The Rams midfielder was also heavily involved in the attack that saw Derby come closest to breaking the deadlock in the first half with another sweeping ball, this time aimed at Ward.
The former Sheffield United striker controlled the ball before turning inside Tom Lees and hitting a low shot that beat Lonergan but not the post. Paul Green tried to convert the rebound but the ball came to him too quickly, meaning all the former Doncaster Rovers man could do was squirm a shot wide. As with Leeds, Derby also continued to press after the break as Callum Ball dragged a shot wide and Lonergan had to race from his line to clear ahead of the same player.
Lonergan also denied Ward on 67 minutes after Paul Connolly had failed to track the striker.
Unfortunately for the Leeds goalkeeper, however, the ball rebounded to Ward who finished in admirable style from a tight angle to ensure Derby extended their winning run against Leeds to five games.
Derby County: Fielding; Brayford, Barker, Shackell, Roberts; Green, Bryson, Bailey, Ward; Tyson (Robinson 65), Ball (O’Brien 89). Unused substitutes: Davies, Legzdins, Priskin.
Leeds United: Lonergan; Lees (Connolly 42), O’Dea, Kisnorbo, Pugh; Snodgrass, Clayton, Brown, White (Nunez 74); Becchio (Keogh 68), McCormack. Unused substitutes: Vayrynen, McCarthy.
Referee: A Bates (Staffordshire).