Leeds United’s first day above the third tier of English football in three seasons was ruined by a former player.
Rob Hulse’s early strike and a Kris Commons penalty were enough for Derby County to defeat the newly promoted side 2-1.
Argentinian striker Luciano Becchio had equalised for the Whites soon after Hulse’s goal in a game that was a showcase for nervous defending.
Leeds manager Simon Grayson faced problems with the selection of strikers for the game at Elland Road. After last season’s hero Jermaine Beckford departed for Everton in the summer, Billy Paynter was expected to fill the shoes of the man that scored 85 goals in 152 appearances. The former Swindon man, though, was ruled out of this game with a shin injury, while fellow forward Robert Snodgrass has been sidelined for a month with a knee injury. Max Gradel was also forced to miss the match through suspension but Sanchez Watt, who joined from Arsenal on a season-long loan on Tuesday, was available. Leeds started six debutants in total, with Peter Schmeichel’s son Kasper making his first competitive start after joining from Notts County.
Derby were missing three players with Miles Addison, Stephen Pearson and Steve Davies all out, but summer signings James Bailey, John Brayford and Tomasz Cywka all started for County.
The game was a thrilling start to the Championship season for the both sides, with mistakes at the back and in the middle of the park resulting in end-to-end football throughout the match. The game was full of hype and expectation as many were touting both sides to do well this season. Elland Road was full of optimism and, throughout the whole game, the Leeds and Derby fans were making sure that they were heard. The Leeds coaching staff showed their supporting nature towards the club by donning Leeds away shirts; manager Grayson has been a Leeds fan since he was a young boy and looked as animated and stressed as any fan in the stadium. The game also had a special sub-plot in that Derby manager Nigel Clough is the son of ex-Leeds and Derby manager Brian Clough.
Both sides started brightly with Derby midfielder Kris Commons easing past two Leeds defenders before firing over the bar from just outside the area. The game was littered with mistakes from both sides and, after Watt had won the ball back for Leeds, a Neil Kilkenny pass found Bradley Johnson who fired just wide from inside the area. Kilkenny was proving to be source of creativity for Leeds as the central midfielder whipped in a cross before Neill Collins headed wide. It was County, though, who broke the deadlock.
Leeds dithered on the ball in the centre circle and Johnny Howson, Leeds born-and-bred, eventually lost the ball to Paul Green who was given too much time on the ball without a challenge. The midfielder calmly played a ball to Hulse who had made a great run into the box, escaping the attentions of United captain Richard Naylor. The former Leeds striker, who scored 19 in 56 games whilst at the Elland Road club, fired home from ten yards. The striker then refused to celebrate in front of the fans that once hailed him.
One player who certainly was not appreciated by the Leeds faithful, or by any other fan base for that matter, was Robbie Savage. The former Blackburn midfielder is captain of Derby and put in a strong and traditional Savage performance; getting in player’s faces and generally annoying everyone. The Welshman, though, was at fault for the Leeds equaliser.
After a mistake from Savage Howson collected the ball and stormed forward to send defenders backtracking. As the English midfielder looked set to shoot from the edge of the area he brilliantly squared the ball to striker Becchio, who calmly finished sending Elland Road into raptures. Leeds were back in the game and they very nearly went ahead after Naylor expertly turned and shot after a Johnson header. The shot, though, struck the underside of the bar and bounced to safety.
Derby then went straight on the attack and, after a good run from Cywka, new Leeds recruit Lloyd Sam slid in, with the referee awarding a penalty. The former Charlton midfielder was in disbelief, but even television replays were inconclusive. Nevertheless Commons, who was beginning to get a foothold in the game now, side-footed the ball into the bottom corner.
After an enthralling first twenty-five minutes the rest of the half was a bit of a disappointment. The players seemed to lose the appetite to run with the ball, with Leeds wingers Sam and Watt, who were initially raring to go and eager to have the ball, looking nervous on the ball and, at times, out-of-sorts. Commons and Green, however, seemed to grow as the game went on. A shot from Commons on the edge of the area, after linking up well with Green, went straight at the ‘keeper and, when Savage lashed a free kick into the area, Commons found himself two yards out in front of goal, with ball coming straight towards him. Schmeichel, though, threw himself in the way of the shot and managed to divert the ball away for a corner. It was the Danish goalkeeper who started the next move for Leeds straight after that corner; a big throw up field to Sam was well held up by the midfielder, who was joined by Watt on the edge of the area. Watt then teed up Howson, who played it back to Sam, who fired wide to end a pulsating first half, on the whole.
In the second half Grayson will have been looking for his side to have some belief in themselves and run at players with the ball; instead though, they began to get nervous with the Leeds fans behind them and the expectation that has been placed on them this season. A free kick was wasted by Johnson after five minutes of the second half after Savage was judged to have fouled Watt on the edge of the area. Johnson fired the ball over the bar to be met from groans from the Leeds fans.
Exciting midfielder Aidan White was brought on for the last twenty minutes which is a real sign of Grayson’s plans for the club. The English winger played a part in Leeds promotion push last season and he looked good against Derby; the player had some good touches and definitely has some pace in his locker, as well as not being afraid to run with ball. White may well look forward to some first team action this season.
The game seemed to die down towards the end of the match with a Naylor header over from a Kilkenny cross the only notable action. With fifteen minutes to go, though, Derby suddenly sprung into life. After Hulse had been denied by a brilliant save from Schmeichel Shaun Barker, who had come on for the injured Russell Anderson at half-time, looked certain to score from a yard, but the goalkeeper scrambled across to block the shot and give the opposition a corner after another superb save.
Adam Clayton, who only joined Leeds on loan from Manchester City a few days ago, was brought on with just over ten minutes to go. The English midfielder didn’t really get much of a chance to show his quality after coming on for a player who was, arguably, one of Leeds’ best players on the pitch in Kilkenny.
The last ten minutes of the game were a pulsating period of football with a Johnson free kick being headed off the line by Shaun Barker. In a desperate attempt to find a goal Grayson threw striker Mike Grella on for Howson, who was another player that created a lot for Leeds. In what was the last attack of the match, Becchio found himself in the area but the striker was unable to find anyone to pass to. The chance was gone and so was the game for Leeds.
Newly promoted Leeds seem to have been backed by many as a possible promoted team this season. If the Elland Road club did go up this season they could come straight back down again. The club could really do with a couple of solid seasons in the Championship so that the players can settle down and the manager can assemble a good mix of experience and youth which would enable him to go to the top-flight and be relatively secure. Leeds could push for the play-offs this season but it is more likely that they will be more mid-table than that.
Derby looked really good and Commons is certainly an asset to them. With his creativity and Hulse’s goal scoring prowess County could definitely make a dive towards the play-offs. The attacking three of Commons, Hulse and Green will be imperative to Derby this season. Clough looks to be settled in at the club and, in Robbie Savage, they have an experienced captain who, love him or hate him, does a brilliant job in the middle of the park.
Kasper Schmeichel – 9
The former Manchester City ‘keeper, and son of Peter, put in a superb performance on his first competitive match for Leeds. Four brilliant saves came to Leeds’ rescue in the end. His long-range distribution could be a massive asset to Leeds this season as Derby were caught out on the counter-attack on various occasions.
Paul Connolly – 7
The right-back got forward when needed and looked relatively solid at the back although, like the rest of the defenders on the pitch, had a nervous start and was, at times, too slow to close players down.
Neill Collins – 7
He looked good at centre-back and could form a good partnership with Naylor. He struggled to handle the trio of Commons, Green and Hulse at times.
Richard Naylor – 7
Leeds’ captain Naylor looked strong at the back but was caught out by the runs of Hulse too many times.
Federico Bessone – 8
He got forward to support the attacks really well and the Argentinean looked quite strong at the back. Again, though, he was too slow to close players down on occasions.
Sanchez Watt – 7
Watt started really well, eager to get the ball and promising when he got it. But the winger on loan from Arsenal seemed to disappear from a game that could have done with a speedy winger.
Johnny Howson – 8
The transition from League One to the Championship should be no problem for the centre midfielder who looked composed and of very good quality. He made the mistake for the first goal but a lot can be expected from the English midfielder.
Neil Kilkenny – 8
He was probably one of Leeds’ most creative player in the game, whipping in top quality crosses whilst also holding the team together in the centre of midfield. The Australian midfielder will be very important to Grayson’s side this season.
Bradley Johnson – 8
He got up to support Becchio whenever he could and produced some good long-range shots. His pace and movement off the ball is a great talent to have.
Lloyd Sam – 7
Sam joined from Charlton in the summer and seems to have settled into his new side very well as his pace and strength will give Leeds a new sense of width this season.
Luciano Becchio – 8
He scored a good goal for Leeds and battled well up front on his own. Becchio, though, struggled to create a lot and so could use a partner this season, with Billy Paynter or Robert Snodgrass the most likely options.
Aidan White – 7
He looked really promising and it will be exciting to see his progress, not only this season but in the next few terms as well.
Adam Clayton – 6
The loanee didn’t get much of a chance but is certainly a talent and is another player to watch this season.
Mike Grella – 6
Grella only got five minutes on the pitch and very little came his way. The American striker, though, has looked good in pre-season and scored some vital goals for Leeds last season, making him another exciting prospect.
Stephen Bywater – 7
He had a relatively quiet match compared to his counterpart on the other side of the pitch. Bywater had a comfortable game in goal and his experience will be valuable to Derby this season.
John Brayford – 7
He had a relatively solid game at right-back although Lloyd Sam gave him a torrid time with his pace in the first half.
Dean Leacock – 7
He was pretty solid at centre-back although played for most of the game with an injury picked up in the first half. He battled on though and his experience at this level will also be an asset to the side.
Russell Anderson – 6
He was forced off at half-time through injury and didn’t look particularly assured against the strength and aerial presence of Luciano Becchio.
Gareth Roberts – 7
Roberts looks like a decent left-back but was much too slow in closing down Watt in the first half. In the second session, though, he had Watt firmly in his back pocket.
Tomasz Cywka – 7
The winger looks to have good pace and is confident at running forward, although he came up against a strong left-back in the shape of Bessone for Leeds.
James Bailey – 7
The central midfielder looks to get on well with fellow midfielder Robbie Savage and the two took it in turns when going forward. Bailey bridged the gap between defence and attack really well.
Paul Green – 8
Green was part of the terrorising trio for Derby that got at Leeds at every moment. The midfielder linked up well with Hulse and Commons and got the assist for the first goal after stealing the ball from Howson and sharply turning round to attack at goal.
Robbie Savage – 8
At the tender age of thirty-five the Derby captain was a model for what central midfielders should be like; getting in the faces of everyone that came his way and not letting the Leeds midfield have a moment to think on the ball.
Kris Commons – 9
Commons was brilliant in the attacking midfield role for Derby as Leeds struggled to contain the former-Nottingham Forest star.
Rob Hulse – 9
Hulse was strong and difficult to handle as the striker played the same role as Becchio on the other side. Hulse has been the subject of transfer speculation recently but Derby will be hoping that he stays as he promises goals this season.
Shaun Barker – 6
Barker didn’t really do much in the game other than stop a certain goal on the line when Bradley Johnson fired a free kick in his direction.
Chris Porter – 6
Like Barker Porter didn’t get much of a chance to show his quality; the striker was brought on for Commons with ten minutes to go.
Ben Pringle – 6
Pringle came on for Cywka with fifteen minutes to go and also didn’t get much of a chance to shine.
Leeds United 1 – 2 Derby County
Becchio 15 Hulse 12
Commons (pen) 25