Leeds United 3 Newcastle United 2
Alan Smith was missing and so was Ken Bates, giving football its hour-and-a-half in the sun. Free from mass discord and the grinding of axes, Leeds United found themselves breathing the air of optimism for the first time in weeks. More than 20,000 people paid to attend yesterday’s friendly at Elland Road, only to discover at late notice that the main attraction would not be in town. Without Smith to abuse, Bates became the target of what little grumbling there was, though his seat was also empty. Neither United’s owner nor their maligned ex-player could obscure the club’s stellar performance of the summer. Pre-season schedules are constructed with the express intention of peaking at their conclusion and, as they did against Wolverhampton Wanderers last year, Leeds gave Newcastle the runaround. A single game against a disjointed Premier League side will scarcely cure United’s weaknesses or reassure those who doubt them but it gave credence to Simon Grayson’s claim that a quiet summer does not alter the basic strength of a team who finished seventh in the Championship last season. The criticism of him and his board is coming from the supporters who have taken the long view this summer, analysing Leeds over six games and three months of sporadic transfer activity. In isolation, yesterday’s performance countered despondency and spoke of United’s capacity to be competitive once again. A more telling judgement will be reached during the month of league matches ahead. Newcastle invited their defeat with a limp display, and half an hour of the game elapsed before they took an interest in it. Leeds welcomed the chance to cut loose and seemed to appreciate the freedom afforded to them. Grayson’s teams traditionally thrive in that sort of environment. As recently as Friday afternoon, Smith was a confirmed member of Newcastle’s travelling squad but the club descended on Leeds without him. Newcastle blamed a groin strain and convenient though it sounded, the press corps from the north east were adamant that Smith had been willing to square up to a hostile crowd. Without him, Newcastle’s team was suitably strong. Joey Barton started on the right wing and the players around him had the makings of a Premier League line-up. There is a bond between the supporters of Leeds and Newcastle in so far as neither group are enamoured by the activity of their respective clubs in the transfer market, but the complaints last night were louder on Tyneside. Grayson was able to field Andy O’Brien for the first time this summer and Robert Snodgrass proved his fitness on Saturday after a fortnight of treatment on a twisted ankle. Their involvement gave United’s manager the luxury of watching a full-strength line-up, Luciano Becchio aside. In five previous games, his team had been punctured with holes. O’Brien’s selection paired him with Patrick Kisnorbo for 45 minutes, in front of goalkeeper and most recent signing Andy Lonergan. Only additional signings in the coming five days will persuade Grayson to deviate drastically from the same line-up at Southampton, and the 11 players who started against Newcastle gave him no reason to think otherwise, apparently ready for the onset of competitive fixtures. Snodgrass’ presence was enough in itself to find urgency in a team whose intensity flagged badly in Norway last week. Grayson berated United’s performance against Sandefjord but had cause to employ more flattering adjectives last night, helped from the outset by Newcastle goalkeeper Fraser Forster. The youngster was vaguely linked with Leeds in the aftermath of Kasper Schmeichel’s sale to Leicester City but his first meaningful touch in the fifth minute was no advert for his reputation. Forster fumbled a Snodgrass free-kick which was dropping down his throat – not the first time he has been embarrassed at Elland Road – and knocked it back towards his own net. Kisnorbo spared him the indignity of an own goal by prodding a shot over the line. Newcastle seemed surprised by then to be waylaid by a team with their tails up. Ross McCormack made his play for a start at Southampton with a mischievous performance, attacking Alan Pardew’s defence through the middle and down the right wing where Newcastle left-back James Tavernier toiled. Yohan Cabaye’s boot was all that prevented Jonathan Howson from tucking away a McCormack cross. Pressure from Newcastle was fleeting and dealt with by Kisnorbo, who dispossessed Dan Gosling with a sliding tackle and Demba Ba with a diving header, both within yards of Lonergan’s net. Soon enough, Forster was dependent on an offside flag to disallow Max Gradel’s header, buried at the end of Snodgrass’ free-kick. Forster redeemed himself to an extent by pushing a Gradel shot wide after Parker and Howson – significantly carrying the captain’s armband, despite the presence of Kisnorbo and Michael Brown in Grayson’s team – led a counter-attack from one end of the field to the other, and Newcastle’s equaliser with 10 minutes of the first half remaining arose from very little. Brown was dragged to the ground by Mike Williamson as Cabaye drilled a corner to the far post, and Steven Taylor’s side-footed finish lashed the ball into the net with a striker’s expertise. Brown protested against Williamson’s challenge but referee Andy Haines paid no heed. The official was more inclined to act when Snodgrass’ cross in injury-time hit Taylor’s arm but Haines reversed his award of a penalty on the advice of his linesman, Paul Davison. It scarcely mattered but Grayson could not hold back from complaining intensely about a risible decision. Newcastle avoided a second concession until the 67th minute, as much through luck as judgement. Howson curled a shot around Forster’s right-hand post and saw another hit Mike Williamson’s heel before it could role into the net. Leigh Bromby had no excuse for glancing a free header wide, but when Williamson misjudged a bouncing ball and left Lloyd Sam with Forster to beat, Sam took care in forcing an effort under the keeper’s body. Lonergan defended that goal with his first save, a two-handed parry from the head of Barton, but he was helpless when Haris Vuckic arrived unmarked to convert Ba’s cut-back in the 76th minute. There was time, however, for Sam to force a winner which Billy Paynter claimed. The afternoon said little about Newcastle; what it said of Leeds was more encouraging by half. Leeds United: Lonergan, Connolly, Kisnorbo (Bodor 59), O’Brien (Bromby 46), Parker (Lees 59), Snodgrass (Sam 60), Clayton (Paynter 65), Brown, Gradel (Mendy 65), Howson, McCormack (Nunez 65). Subs not used: Rachubka, White. Newcastle United: Forster, Simpson (Dummet 79), S Taylor, Williamson, Tavernier (R Taylor 57), Barton, Gosling (Best 66), Cabaye, Gutierrez (Vuckic 66), Ba, Shola Ameobi (Sammy Ameobi 65). Subs not used: Krul. Referee: Andy Haines (Tyne and Wear). Attendance: 20,457.
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