ON a day when cyclists negotiated the tough gradients and ascents of stage two of the Tour de Yorkshire, exhausted Leeds United found themselves spent, with their own particular race being sadly run.
Agonisingly short of the finish line in their quest to make the Championship play-offs, the Whites’ players forlornly trudged off the pitch at the final whistle on Saturday, with the heaviest of legs and the most frazzled of minds.
It will have provided a crumb of consolation that they roared defiance and went down fighting in their attempts to take their own battle to a final day in Wigan next weekend – but that is all it was, a crumb.
Games against Norwich have been memorable over the years at Elland Road and Saturday kept to the script but there was to be no happy ending for Leeds.
They will visit DW Stadiumwith just final-day pride at stake as they sign off for the summer mired in that league position which no-one wants –seventh.
The inquests into why Leeds missed out on a play-off place – in a season when they had been in the top six from late November to mid-April – will continue this week and beyond.
It was one of those crazy end-of-season games which transpire from time to time, with wilting Leeds plumbing the depths in the first half in the sort of unpleasant Elland Road occasion that have painfully surfaced in recent years.Leon Wobschall
Worryingly, that same sense of uncertainty that has engulfed Leeds at the end of too many seasons to mention of late has reared its head again, with the future of Garry Monk needing to be resolved, first and foremost.
His opposite number in Alan Irvine said that if Leeds had been offered seventh place in August, they would have taken it.
But given the events of most of 2016-17, the pain of ending in that position will be searing, as it was in the ‘nearly’ season of 2010-11.
Just as then, Leeds fans will point to errors in their January recruitment as being telling.
Yet the simple fact remains that Leeds lost their conviction and mojo at a critical juncture while others, principally Sheffield Wednesday and Fulham, pressed on. Two wins in 10 matches says it all.
Bitterly disappointed head coach Monk rued: “It (Saturday) probably typifies the period we have been in, the last eight games.
“It is difficult to be critical of the group because we have talked about how much they have given the club, how far they have improved and the foundations we have talked about. But the reality is that we are probably, the majority of the group are not quite ready for this situation right now.”
Monk’s sentiments were wise and Leeds will go again, should he remain at the helm. But in the here and now, the deep-seated feeling on Saturday was of an opportunity lost.
It was one of those crazy end-of-season games which transpire from time to time, with wilting Leeds plumbing the depths in the first half in the sort of unpleasant Elland Road occasion that have painfully surfaced in recent years.
Leeds trailed 3-1 at the interval and the deficit could have been more.
A bundled volley from Chris Wood – his 29th goal of an outstanding season – gave United an inkling of hope in first-half stoppage time, but the events before that were brutal and bewildering.
Norwich, who had toiled in Yorkshire with punishing losses at Sheffield Wednesday, Huddersfield, Rotherham and Barnsley, donned their party clothes with the pressure off, inspired by the impish Alex Pritchard and the nous of Graham Dorrans and Whites old boy Jonny Howson.
The breakthrough when it came was eye-catching with Steven Naismith – later to be dismissed in the final few minutes for a robust challenge on Ronaldo Vieira – firing home an unstoppable strike past Rob Green just before the half-hour mark.
Oliveira spurned a chance to make it two, but he did not have long to wait for a more definitive contribution, tapping home from Josh Murphy’s low cross after Leeds were undressed.
A tough afternoon soon assumed nightmare proportions when Oliveira, profiting from some open house defending and afforded far too much time and space, curled home a pinpoint effort past Green following Howson’s assist.
Wood immediately pulled one back from Stuart Dallas’s cross and to their credit, Leeds did not die wondering in the second half.
Kyle Bartley, in possibly his final match at Elland Road, converted from close range after Pontus Jansson’s connection following Pablo Hernandez’s corner and Leeds went for the jugular.
United may have been running out of gas in recent weeks, but the noise levels produced by a magnificent home support provided them with plenty of four-star.
Kemar Roofe went close, and Green did well to deny Oliveira before a sublime 79th-minute free-kick from Hernandez gave Leeds belief that they might just live to fight another day.
But there was to be no late twist.
Leeds United: Green; Ayling (Pedraza 72), Bartley, Jansson, Berardi; Vieira, O’Kane (Phillips 81); Roofe, Hernandez, Dallas (Doukara 62); Wood. Unused substitutes: Peacock-Farrell, Taylor, Coyle, Phillips, Sacko.
Norwich City: Ruddy; Pinto, Bennett, Martin, Dijks; Dorrans, Howson; Naismith, Pritchard, Josh Murphy (Klose 90); Oliveira (Jerome 83). Unused substitutes: Jones, Whittaker, Wildschut, Jacob Murphy, Maddison.
Referee: T Harrington (Cleveland).