DESCRIBING anything as a “new low” for Leeds United is difficult right now.
Not with the chaos that has been engulfing Elland Road for nigh on a fortnight showing no signs of abating.
However, even on a day when the remaining 50 per cent of the players’ wages that had been deferred the previous Friday failed to materialise as promised, this defeat to relegation-threatened Charlton Athletic still felt like another on-field nadir had been reached.
Not even the usually reliable right boot of Ross McCormack could save hapless Leeds, the Scot having a 93rd-minute penalty saved by Ben Hamer to underline that nothing is going right for Brian McDermott’s men.
United have now lost six of their last seven games and conceded 19 goals in the process. Much more of this and the club will be dragged into relegation trouble, even without the 10-point penalty that fans fear is heading Leeds’s way via a stint in administration if, as expected, Massimo Cellino loses his appeal against the Football League’s blocking of his takeover.
Certainly, on the evidence of how United laboured to defeat against a distinctly average Charlton side, it is hard to see where the next point is coming from, never mind the victory that would take the club to the 50-point tally that usually guarantees safety.
It might have taken a wonder goal from Reza Ghoochannejhad that settled matters, and in the process deal Barnsley’s own survival hopes a blow.
But, in truth, Elland Road’s smallest league crowd of the season – who booed the players from the field once again at the end – were surely not fooled into believing that their side deserved anything from another shockingly inept display on home soil.
McDermott’s response to his side’s collapse in form over the previous few weeks had been to pack his team with defenders.
No less than three centre-halves could be found in his starting XI along with three full-backs. The intention was two-fold, make United more solid and, by utilising Aidy White and Sam Byram as the wide-men in a four man midfield, provide pace on each flank.
On the first count, the ploy worked well for 45 minutes with Charlton, for all their neat passing play, rarely troubling Jack Butland in the home goal. But, in terms of offering any attacking threat at the other end, McDermott’s selection stalled.
The upshot was a dreary first half with few, if any, highlights for the 17,343 crowd. Ghoochannejhad did have one 25-yard shot that was touched behind, while Matt Smith volleyed tamely into the hands of Hamer for Leeds. Michael Tonge then wasted the home side’s only other opportunity of note when he blazed high and wide.
Considering the dross that had come before it, the goal that proved to be the winner was a thing of beauty as Ghoochannejhad took advantage in devastating fashion of some sloppy United play with a stunning left foot shot from the edge of the area that gave Butland no chance.
Moments earlier, McCormack had hit a very similar effort at the other end. But, where the Iranian got his angles exactly right to beat Butland, the Leeds captain was denied by a wonderful finger-tip save from Hamer that pushed the ball on to the underside of the bar and to safety.
Four minutes after Ghoochannejhad’s strike, McCormack again went close with a snapshot that fizzed just wide.
With half an hour still remaining, going close twice in quick succession should have been the prelude to a Leeds onslaught on the visitors’ goal.
The days, however, when United were capable of such a thing are long gone and, instead, it was Charlton who seized the initiative. First, Jonathan Obika had a strong shout for a penalty turned down when the substitute appeared to be scythed to the ground just inside the area.
Then, after United had given a free-kick 25 yards from goal, Dorian Dervite brought a stunning full-length save from Butland.
As the game entered the first of five minutes of stoppage time, there seemed no way back for the hosts. Then, though, a chance of salvation appeared in the unlikeliest of fashions as Diego Poyet, watched by dad – and former United assistant manager – Gus, bundled White to the floor.
Referee Scott Duncan immediately pointed to the spot. McCormack hit the resulting penalty well but Hamer pulled off a fantastic save to inflict yet more misery on Leeds, who are today hoping to hear the result of Cellino’s appeal against his takeover being barred.
Leeds United: Butland; Wootton (Poleon 70), Lees, Pearce, Warnock; Byram, Mowatt, Tonge, White; McCormack, Smith (Hunt 46). Unused substitutes: Cairns, Murphy, Pugh, Brown, Stewart.
Charlton Athletic: Hamer; Wilson, Wiggins, Morrison, Dervite; Jackson, Poyet, Cousins, Ghoochannejhad (Pettruci 84); Pigott (Obika 53), Ajdarevic (Harriott 78). Unused substitutes: Phillips, Sordell, Wood, Nego.
Referee: S Duncan (Northumberland).