Neil Warnock finally got to taste victory at Elland Road as the Leeds United manager on Saturday as the Whites brushed aside Darren Ferguson’s Peterborough United.
While the victory was welcome, it was against a very poor side that are not yet mathematically safe from relegation back to League One. Whilst it would take a minor miracle for the Posh to return to the third tier, Darren Ferguson will be worried at how easily his side collapsed against a Leeds side that were there for the taking.
Warnock though will be delighted just to see his team back to winning ways after probably one of the most harrowing periods of his managerial career. His decision not only to change some personnel but also to vary the way Leeds played was vindicated by an attacking display which saw United overrun their opponents in the second half.
It could have been all so different had Leeds not gone in level at the break. The Whites who had recalled forgotten man Billy Paynter up front in place of Luciano Becchio, also introduced 18 year left back Charlie Taylor and veteran Leigh Bromby into a remodelled back four. US international Robbie Rodgers was given a start in an advanced central midfield role, and the changes seemed to lift the Leeds team who started very brightly. Unfortunately, Rogers lasted only 12 minutes as he was forced off with an ankle injury and his departure saw Peterborough gain the upper hand. Leeds defensive frailties re-emerged and a horrific blunder by Taylor on the edge of his own box gifted possession to Joe Newell who waltzed through to fire past Lonergen eight minutes before the break.
Had Posh hung on to that lead until the break, the demons in the heads of the Leeds players at home may have returned. As it was not only did they gift Leeds an equaliser, they also possibly reignited the career of Billy Paynter. The 27 year old striker has endured a torrid time since his arrival from Swindon Town in the summer of 2010. Injured in his first pre-season, Paynter found it difficult to regain his place in the side, and then missed chances when he did finally make the team. Prior to Saturday he had one competitive goal, at Preston last season, to his name and had only ever scored for Leeds at Elland Road in the pre-season victory over Newcastle United.
With the first half entering stoppage time at on Saturday, Leeds floated a free kick in from the right, which should have been held by Paul Taylor in the Peterborough goal. However the keeper let the ball slip out of his hands, and via the backside of a defender it fell at the feet of Paynter who gleefully tucked the ball into the net, a just reward for a first half performance as good as anything he had produced in the previous two years.
The sides were level heading into the dressing rooms, but Leeds were out of sight three minutes after the teams re-emerged for the second half. With United on the front foot right from the off, Ross McCormack bundled United in front from close range, before he finished off a sweeping move down the left hand side two minutes later to put Leeds 3-1 up.
The Whites looked a different side from that which had produced such a pitiful performance five days earlier against Derby County. Gone was the desperate hoof ball tactics which had blighted United’s displays of late, and back was some neat passing football from back to front, even drawing some Ole’s from the crowd midway through the half. The improved football was rewarded with a fourth goal, and on a day where Andy Carroll had redeemed himself in the eyes of Liverpool’s fans with a semi-final winning goal, Paynter earned himself a modicum of redemption with a second goal, doubling his tally of last season. It was a fine strike, one borne of confidence, as he drove home from 12 yards to settle the match.
He left the field to a standing ovation, the previously ironic chants of “Come on Billy” replaced by a genuine outpouring of gratitude. Whilst it’s just one game, Paynter has at least signalled his capabilities to Warnock as the manager takes stock of his squad before what promises to be a turbulent summer at Elland Road.
It is to be hoped that the confidence gained by finally winning a game will be carried forward to United’s last three matches, all against sides with a lot to play for. Whilst the team’s aspirations for the season may have gone, there are still players who need to impress over the closing weeks, if they are to remain at Elland Road next season.