IN the not-so-distant past, Leeds United sold 6,700 tickets for a Tuesday-night game at Barnsley. That particular allocation was under siege from the outset. As of Tuesday morning their allocation for Saturday’s derby at Oakwell was undersold by 1,500. Tickets this season are not so golden.
That could be a reflection on the fact that Leeds are limping towards a mid-table finish and have nowhere else to go. It could also be a response to the punishment meted out by Barnsley during each of United’s last three visits to Oakwell. This game has become a standing joke in Leeds, missing only a funny punchline.
Two managers before Brian McDermott lost their grip of Leeds completely at Barnsley – Neil Warnock in 2013 and Simon Grayson 12 months earlier. Grayson’s side were brutally beaten, losing 4-1 on New Year’s Eve in 2012, and Warnock’s players caved in against a Barnsley team who were managerless and bottom of the Championship. Warnock walked down the tunnel with chants of “time to go” bouncing off him.
Barnsley named David Flitcroft as their new manager on the strength of last season’s 2-0 win. Prior to the game, the club’s board let it be known that Flitcroft was not even a candidate but home derbies against Leeds have allowed many at Oakwell to thrive and make hay. Their odd hold over Leeds goes back to a 5-2 rout in September 2010, a night when United’s supporters filled a third of Barnsley’s ground.
“I was at Oakwell last season and it felt like one team wanted it more,” said John Hendrie, the ex-Leeds and Barnsley striker. “Leeds are perceived as the biggest club in Yorkshire and you can’t really argue with that. So in Barnsley’s back yard, Barnsley will contest the derby like they would a cup final.
“You’re going to see more of the same this weekend. If truth be told, the game should matter more to Barnsley. They’re in deep trouble and if they don’t win on Saturday then it’s hard to see a way out for them. That might be them relegated. It’s going to be a tear up again and the question you have to ask is how will Leeds cope with that?
“The last few times Leeds have gone to Oakwell their intensity hasn’t been right. Barnsley have played at a higher level. It looks as if that Leeds have nothing at stake and individually a few people at the club will be desperate for the season to be over. But others in the camp will see it differently.”
The Championship table gives Leeds nothing to feed on this weekend, but aside from the issue of redeeming themselves at Oakwell there is tangible motivation among their squad and staff. Ross McCormack is three goals short of 30 for the term and has four games to get there, and few players know what the recent change of ownership at Elland Road means for them.
The same doubt applies to McDermott who is fighting on under Massimo Cellino’s watch and against the backdrop of choice comments from the Italian. Last weekend, McDermott said his decision to wear a tracksuit in a 2-0 win over Blackpool – replacing his usual shirt and tie – had been encouraged by his daughter. In an interview with an Italian newspaper on Tuesday, Cellino claimed the suggestion was his.
“I told him to go on the bench dressed that way,” Cellino said. “He is the coach, I am the manager.” United’s owner also took credit for the tactical use of Luke Murphy against Blackpool, a game in which Murphy scored twice.
Speaking yesterday, McDermott said: “My daughter’s been on at me for the last year to wear a tracksuit. She’s always saying ‘get rid of the suit, get rid of the suit.’
“I made my mind up last week to make the change – before I spoke with Massimo on Thursday – but when we talked, he told me I should wear a tracksuit too. I said ‘actually, I’ve already decided I will.’
“So there’s no conspiracy and nothing untoward. Frankly, what I wear on the touchline doesn’t matter anyway. The results matter – to all of us.”
It is barely possible for McDermott to know where he stands with Cellino or whether he has any chance of seeing out more of his three-year contract. Cellino gave some insight about his vision on Tuesday, saying: “Italian coaches are the best in the world but I don’t want to immediately introduce an Italian structure to (Leeds).”
Hendrie said: “The whole situation is out of Brian’s hands. The decision on the manager is down to Cellino alone and perhaps he’s made it already. You can never be sure.
“The best thing Brian can say at the moment is that the experience he’s had at Leeds he’ll never have again. If he’s a strong guy then he’ll be better for it. And he is strong. He hasn’t cracked and he hasn’t thrown the towel in. A lesser man would have given up.
“All he can do now is get it right in the last four games. Put it this way, if Leeds go into the summer unbeaten in five then he’s got a little spell of form to point at. If they wind up with two wins from 17 matches then we’ll be talking about a dreadful record.
“Some players will be desperate for the summer to come but others will be thinking about their futures and worried about what the club plan to do with them. They probably wish they had another 10 games to go. Attitudes differ from one person to another but I don’t think Leeds have nothing to play for. You always have something to play for.”
Once again, Barnsley are threatening the great escape, and their win at Charlton Athletic on Tuesday – a huge victory on an night when the chips were stacked high – gave them a sudden view of safety.
“Perhaps in the past Leeds have gone to Oakwell wondering if Barnsley were up to much,” Hendrie said. “But I’d be amazed if Leeds were caught by surprise on Saturday.
“It’s do-or-die for Barnsley so it goes without saying that they’ll be fighting to the death. Leeds have had some hard times at Oakwell and this won’t be much simpler.”