WITH Leeds United occupying their highest league position in a little under three years and a trip to Liverpool fast approaching that will stir memories of epic battles from the club’s glorious past, head coach Garry Monk really should have been a happy man on Saturday night.
His face at the final whistle, however, suggested anything but an air of contentment. Anger may not be quite the right word to sum up Monk’s mood, but he was far from happy at how Rotherham United had gone so close to claiming a draw against his side despite playing for more than an hour with 10 men following the dismissal of Peter Odemwingie.
But for a fine double-save from Robert Green on the line and a horrific miss by Dominic Ball during a frantic stoppage-time goalmouth scramble, Leeds would have returned north up the M1 knowing they had only themselves to blame for throwing away a precious two points with a second-half display that smacked of complacency.
“We brought it on ourselves,” said Monk. “We were worthy winners, no one can really doubt that. But I warned the players at half-time about how the only thing that could hurt us was us taking our foot off the gas and that is exactly what we did.
“Rotherham were down to 10 men, we were 2-0 in front, but in the second half we went away from what had given us that dominant display in the first 45 minutes. I told the players at the end that we are not good enough to play at anything less than 100 per cent.
“You give teams a sniff of getting back into the game in the Championship and the opposition will take it. Mentality was a problem. I have been in that situation myself as a player, where you are dominant and the opposition go down to 10 men, but then you come out and be a little bit selfish.
“We thought we could win it more comfortably, maybe by not going 100 per cent but 75 per cent instead. You can’t do that in this league. I spoke very openly about that with the players at the end.
“I can’t forget we have a very young group. This was probably a new experience for a lot of them. We are happy with the three points, but it is a lesson learned for us.”
Monk’s frustration was understandable. From the opening exchanges that saw Rotherham concede both possession and territory almost willingly, this was a derby that begged Leeds to seize the initiative.
Initially, they did just that. Greg Halford’s unfortunate early exit with an ankle injury meant the Millers lacked sufficient bite in the centre of the field and the visitors duly took advantage.
The ball was moved around with both pace and accuracy that meant the hosts struggled to cope and it was no surprise when the opening goal arrived after 14 minutes.
A darting run down the left flank by Charlie Taylor left Stephen Kelly horribly exposed and when the full-back drilled a low cross for Chris Wood, Leeds’s Kiwi striker made no mistake to notch his 12th goal of the season.
Rotherham’s woes continued when Lee Camp was left writhing in agony by a heavy challenge from Hadi Sacko that eventually led to the goalkeeper having to be replaced due to a knee injury and then Odemwingie was guilty of elbowing Liam Cooper in the face as the Leeds man headed clear.
Referee Stuart Attwell, who had been very lenient in allowing Kalvin Phillips and Sacko to escape punishment for the fouls that led to Halford and Camp limping out of the action, rightly reached for his red card.
With 61 minutes remaining on the clock, the only question seemed how many Leeds would score in achieving their first league win in Rotherham since 1982.
However, despite Souleymane Doukara doubling the visitors’ advantage in first-half stoppage time with an accomplished finish, the rest of the afternoon saw Monk’s side display a casual attitude that did them little credit.
Where a simple and swift short pass was required, too many in Leeds colours decided only a raking ‘Hollywood’-style 40-yard crossfield ball would suffice.
Invariably, these would then go astray to offer much-needed respite to a Rotherham side who were having to try to make up for the deficiency in numbers with sheer effort.
It allowed the Millers to stay in the game long enough that when Richard Wood halved the arrears four minutes from time there was a very real chance that Leeds might leave the New York rueing the loss of two points.
That this did not prove the case owed everything to Green pushing away Will Vaulks’s shot before pulling off two further blocks on the line during the scramble that ended with Ball firing high and wide when manager Kenny Jackett admitted afterwards he had been expecting to see the net bulge.
No wonder Monk, despite his side rising to fifth, a league position last achieved by Brian McDermott’s Leeds at Christmas 2013, was far from happy at the final whistle.
“It was important to bounce back and we are happy with the three points but it is hard for me not to keep coming back to (Rotherham’s onslaught),” he said.
“When teams go down to 10 men they become a bit more dogged and compact, but that is when you need to keep doing what we had done in the first 20 minutes.
“That is where good teams sense blood. You don’t let the rope around the neck go loose. You go after it. In the second half, we played into their hands and I can’t accept that. We put it on a plate and I am not happy.
“This (result) could easily have been worse than it was. I expect the best from the players and when they don’t match that, we have to be critical. We are very clear that we are moving in the right direction, but the only way to get better is to hold ourselves to account.”