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May 6, 2007

Leeds bow out in typical fashion

Derby 2-0 Leeds

Little over a year ago, it was entirely feasible that two divisions could separate Derby County and Leeds United. Derby were dodging relegation from the Championship, Leeds closing in on promotion to the Premiership. Neither could be in the Championship next season and there is a temptation, with Leeds relegated and Derby in the play-offs, to point out what a difference a year makes. At Leeds, however, a day, let alone a week, can be dramatic enough.

Two days after entering and exiting administration, Leeds departed the Championship. 'We're going down in three minutes,' chorused their indomitable supporters as extra-time beckoned. They had already pinpointed the reason why. 'We sh*t and we know we are,' came their analysis, and it met with little dissent.

Yet, Leeds being Leeds, they managed to make another defeat, their 26th of the league campaign, notable. Partly for conceding in the 57th minute of the first half, and partly for seeing their teenage midfielder Robert Bayly, making his full debut, dismissed for aiming a headbutt at Craig Fagan.

The chant of 'you're not fit to referee', when it came from the away fans, had appeared witty. They were unaware that referee Phil Crossley, in colliding with Seth Johnson, had lost consciousness and sustained a back injury that forced him to be taken to hospital.

That accounted for 10 of the 12 added minutes. During that time, Darren Currie entered proceedings and then scored, drilling in after the former Leeds midfielder Johnson had volleyed a cross to him. After Bayly's red card, Tyrone Mears became the second Derby player to open his account, accelerating on to Jon Macken's pass and, despite Michael Gray's efforts to haul him down, squeezing a low shot under Casper Ankergren.

The side that ended the game was barely recognisable. Before Bayly saw red, it contained four teenagers with Fabian Delph, despite sounding like the lost member of Kraftwerk, becoming the 44th player they have fielded this season. Alan Thompson, almost a one-man midfield at times, was the eighth captain while Richard Cresswell, much the best of the six forwards selected, spent the second half at centre back, faring rather better than Hayden Foxe, who has spent his entire career there.

No wonder, then, that Leeds' assistant manager Gus Poyet said: 'This is the most strange season in my career. It's unique. It's too easy to say, 'yeah, we'll bounce back next year'. It is, especially when it is hard to predict what Leeds' team will be then. There was no David Healy. As Poyet admitted, it is unlikely that the top scorer in the Euro 2008 qualifiers will be in League One next season. Nor will he be the only one to leave.

Poyet added: 'There will be changes. The good ones in every single job is the one who makes the right decisions.' Too often over the last few years, Leeds have not. Hence Friday's events. 'We didn't expect it to happen, now we are learning about administration,' said Poyet.

Derby, whose own financial difficulties were ended by a takeover last summer, are more concerned by the loss of form that cost them automatic promotion. It could be concluded that their bubble burst. Their balloon certainly did, stamped upon by the assistant manager Julian Darby in the dugout, and creating a pop in a quiet moment in the first half.

Billy Davies' tactical excellence - it is not uncommon for Derby to deploy two or even three formations in one match - helped propel them up the table. So, too, did low expectations. Derby had a capacity to startle both themselves and their opponents. When you top the table, the surprise factor is gone.

They remain a work in progress. There have been seven signings since the turn of the year. Some, such as David Jones, Stephen Pearson and Jay McEveley, are youthful enough to play a part in a long-term plan. Others, like Currie, borrowed from Ipswich and Macken, signed from Crystal Palace, appeared motivated by a need for new personnel to nudge Derby over the finishing line. Neither has made the required impact.

It has led to an over-reliance on Steve Howard in attack. The strapping striker collected the club's Player of the Year award, but missed an open goal and without a strike in open play for three months. Yet alternatives are few and far between. Paul Peschisolido was granted a standing ovation, but probably because it represented a loyal servant's final game for Derby.

At the other end of the age spectrum, Arturo Lupoli blends promise and inconsistency and there is a sense he does not enjoy the complete trust of Davies.

It has meant that, while the midfielders Giles Barnes, Jones and Oakley have made valuable contributions in front of goal, there can be a bluntness about Derby in the final third. At least, with the bright Barnes certain to miss the play-offs, Pearson's return from injury eases the burden on Jones to create.

'He was tired in the second half but running from midfield, but getting forward and with his energy he will be a fantastic player for this club.

We'll see the best of him next season,' predicted Davies.

The gnarled defenders Darren Moore and Michael Johnson should also be available for Friday's first leg at Southampton. Their manager added: 'I'm looking at experienced players coming back and injured players coming back at the right time. There have been some very good performances to give us a headache.

'We have to go in with the confidence and belief we can get into the final.'

Davies, like his Southampton counterpart George Burley, is on the verge of establishing a reputation as a serial play-off loser. For Leeds, however, the consequences of defeat are more severe.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Alan Thompson - The legs may be giving way but he still has a wonderful left foot. His Leeds contract expires in the summer and, injury-prone as he has been, there should be an offer for him somewhere.

MOAN OF THE MATCH: Gary Kelly may be the best-paid right-back in the Championship by quite some distance. But he is also the only player since the Revie era to reach 500 appearances for Leeds. After 531 games and with nothing at stake, his omission showed a lack of class. Derby, by picking Seth Johnson and Peschisolido, both likely to leave themselves, taught them a lesson.

DERBY VERDICT: They have lost the form that elevated them to the top of the table, as well as the knack of winning in recent weeks. Pearson's fitness is a boost but, with Howard out of sorts, it is questionable if, despite finishing highest among the play-off teams, they have the firepower to reach the Premiership.

LEEDS VERDICT: This was an 11 that will never be fielded again. The future may lie with the youngsters, as Poyet suggested, but that does not mean they are ready for the physical demands of League One. Of the four teenagers, Delph, with an excellent left foot, appeared the most promising. But the majority of Leeds' starting 11 will surely ply their trade somewhere else next season.


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