AN 86TH-MINUTE leveller from Luke Murphy saved the day for Leeds United as they rescued point against form-side Birmingham City at Elland Road in a 1-1 draw.
It looked like being another desperate afternoon and extension of the bleak midwinter for Leeds, who trailed for the majority of the game after Paul Caddis put Blues ahead from the spot after captain Liam Cooper was penalised for tripping Yorkshireman Clayton Donaldson.
Leeds, without a win bonus in the league since beating Derby County on November 29, looked increasingly forlorn heading into the final stages and seemingly destined for another barren episode, only for Murphy, arguably Leeds’ best performer, to grab a leveller.
A cross from Sam Byram wasn’t cleared and Murphy arrived right on cue to sidefoot the ball high into the net in front of the Kop, his first goal in Leeds colours since netting a brace in the 2-0 victory over Blackpool in mid-April.
Neil Redfearn made two changes to his starting line-up with Mirco Antenucci replacing Casper Sloth and Scott Wootton - recently returned from a loan spell at Rotherham United - coming in at right-back for the injured Gaetano Berardi.
It was Wootton’s first appearance since starting in the 1-0 victory over Bolton at Elland Road at the end of August for Leeds, who headed into the game seeking their first win in eight matches in all competitions and first goal in open play since December 6.
Brian Montenegro made way on the bench, with Sloth taking his place, with Billy Sharp, interesting Ipswich Town, also among the replacements.
The recent fortunes of both sides could not have been different, with Blues, troubled in previous seasons, on the crest of a comparative wave, having won seven games out of 11 under the command of Gary Rowett.
Like Rowett, Redfearn took charge of his first game in permanent charge on November 1, but whereas he has presided over a haul of just nine points from a possible 33, incorporating two wins, the Blues’ manager’s tally of 23 points is far more eye-catching.
An open first-half saw Blues take in an interval lead, courtesy of Caddis’ well-struck penalty after Cooper was penalised for an injudicious foul on Bradford-born Clayton Donaldson and while Leeds had their moments, the visitors maintained menace on the break.
For Leeds, several players looked far less vibrant than in the game at Bolton seven days ago and despite the protests surrounding the penalty award for Blues, at the behest of a linesman, it looked the correct call.
It was Blues who fired the first salvo with ex-Doncaster Rovers man David Cotterill off target before Rudy Austin dragged a shot off target at the other end, with Leeds attacking the South Stand.
Steve Morison, without a competitive goal for United since March 9, 2013, then carved out an excellent chance to break his barren run after chesting the ball down and evading a Blues defender in the box following Luke Murphy’s tidy cross, but he skied his effort when well placed from ten yards out.
A more definitive moment arrived eight minutes in when Blues were presented with a penalty following Cooper’s indiscretion, with Caddis needing no second invitations to blast the ball low past Marco Silvestri, who guessed correctly, but had little chance with the well-struck penalty.
It represented the nightmare opening for Leeds, with Rowett’s side interchanging well in the final third and showing their confidence by unleashing shots at goal from distance whenever the chance afforded.
Cotterill and Andrew Shinnie fired efforts off target before Wootton almost marked his comeback game with a leveller, connecting well with a firm header following Murphy’s free-kick on the right, but his effort flew just wide.
Morison then headed at Randolph following Wootton’s deep centre before Shinnie saw his long-ranger held by Silvestri.
Antenucci then got involved in the action, bundling an effort wide after Morison headed the ball into his path following a deep cross on the left from Charlie Taylor as Leeds attempted to build up a head of steam.
At the other end, Leeds survived a scare on 26 minutes when a rising strike from Sean Gleeson was tipped over in splendid fashion by Silvestri before play switched to the other end, with Randolph blocking Antenucci’s snapshot at the near post after another assist from Morison.
Shinnie then saw a rasping low shot whistle just wide before Randolph showed his prowess to make a fine reaction save to deny Giuseppe Bellusci from point-blank range after he was left unchallenged to make a telling connection to Murphy’s free-kick.
The half ended with David Davis seeing his shot from distance turned away by Silvestri before Shinnie’s effort was deflected for a corner.
On the resumption, the first chance fell Leeds’ way, with Cotterill fouling Murphy, but the resulting free-kick, in a dangerous position, was wasted by Austin, whose tame header hit the wall.
Morrison was then within a whisker on putting United on terms, with his flicked header from Lewis Cook’s cross seemingly destined for the net, but it unluckily hit the inside of the post before a relieved Randolph gathered.
Cotterill fired a free-kick off target at the other end before Morison was again so close to a leveller, managing to find half a yard in the box before his shot with the outside of his foot sailed agonisingly just wide.
It was beginning to look like one of those days for Leeds, with Sharp thrown into the fray to replace Antenucci on 63 minutes.
Blues then made their first change, with David Edgar replacing Shinnie, booked minutes earlier for a late challenge on Taylor.
It was a defensive move, with the visitors happy to protect their gains and rely on the pace of Gray and Donaldson on the break and it was that avenue which almost saw Blues claim a decisive second.
Gray outstripped the United defence before seeing his shot parried by Silvestri before Donaldson was left to bemoan his fortune after his header from Gleeson’s cross hit the post.
Souleymane Doukara came on for Cook, with the decision greeted with a fair few boos, 12 minutes from time with Leeds showing discernable signs of fading.
Controversy arrived seven minutes from time, when referee Dean Whitestone avoided appeals for a penalty after ex-United loanee Paul Robinson appeared to trip Byram.
But relief was at hand, when Murphy fired home after Byram’s cross was not cleared, with the pent-up frustration of a tough season unleashed in his passionate celebrations.
With United’s tails up, backed by superb support again, Murphy soon saw a volley held by Randolph while right at the death, further appeals for a penalty were rebuffed as Leeds protested in vain for a handball offence in the box.
“We played well, we deserved to win and got in front of goal enough times to win a couple of games. We looked tentative but the performance, the grit and determination... If we’d have scored 10 minutes earlier we’d have won,” Redfearn said.
“It’s not the three points we wanted but the performance, the get and the determination. If you’re fighting, you’ve got a chance.”