GREAT news for Leeds United yesterday: Not only did they beat leaders QPR to go second in the Championship, their highest position since dropping out of the Premier League in 2004, but top scorer Luciano Becchio signed a three-and-a-half-year contract.
Not such great news for those of us with Sunday newspaper deadlines to meet: Leeds announced it at 6.30pm last night.
Becchio’s future has been the subject of much speculation this season, with a contract which had been due to expire in the summer. Manager Simon Grayson has been asked about that several times this season, but it didn’t come up at all in yesterday’s post-match press conference, which took place around 5.30pm, an hour before the Becchio deal was announced.
The reason for the lack of quizzing? Possibly the fact that Grayson had stated in a Saturday morning newspaper interview that Becchio’s contract was unlikely to be sorted out before the New Year. So what changed in 24 hours? Did Jack Bauer get involved in the contract talks? We may never know.
In a way, I could understand any secrecy on Leeds’ part. Grayson had suggested after their win over Bristol City five weeks ago, in which Becchio scored a hat-trick, that a deal was imminent. It would make sense if, this time, he wanted to keep schtum until everything was absolutely certain.
And on a general level, I understand why clubs want to keep their business secret if possible. Let slip you’re interested in signing a certain player, and you risk getting gazumped by another club. Be entirely up front about all your injury problems, and you risk handing a tactical advantage to the opposition.
All the same, the timing of the Becchio announcement was hardly conducive to getting a big show in today’s papers. Some have mentioned it – including the one I was covering the game for – but not prominently. Given that Becchio’s contract talks have been a significant thread through Leeds’ season, that’s a shame. It does feel like a rare example of an organisation burying good news.
QPR manager Neil Warnock, meanwhile, was happy to share his good news. Two successive defeats have taken the shine off a 19-match unbeaten start to the league season, but Warnock was still feeling pretty chirpy after being presented with a grandson by eldest son James and daughter-in-law Sarah.
“I’ve become a granddad in the last few hours – a little boy, Charlie Warnock,” he said. “So there are more important things than a defeat at Leeds, aren’t there?”
Despite the defeat, Rangers still top the table at Christmas. Astonishing progress, really, given that they were 20th when Warnock took over on March 2. Perhaps the progress has come a little too quickly. “Top of the league, you’re having a laugh,” sang the Leeds fans as they closed in on a deserved victory.
Any team, however good, needs a little bit of luck to go 19 games unbeaten, and QPR have certainly had their share. Two stoppage-time goals salvaged a 2-2 draw at Derby back in August – surely the most remarkable comeback of the season so far – while goalless draws against Norwich and Swansea in October were only secured because the opposition failed to convert penalties, before late equalisers subsequently earned draws at Bristol City and Portsmouth.
Sooner or later, a defeat was coming, and it came in comprehensive fashion, at home to Watford nine days ago. In the build-up to yesterday’s game at Elland Road, Warnock declared his side were underdogs.
If much of what Warnock says seems designed to wind up opponents (of which more in the penultimate paragraph), his words can also help to take the pressure off his own players. His public pronouncements can be as tangential as they are controversial. To prove the point: Last week, after the Watford defeat, he gave an interview in which he described getting lost during a bike ride in Richmond Park, near his home, and ending up trying to make conversation with a deer about QPR’s promotion chances
Maybe there’s method in the madness. If everyone’s focusing on Warnock’s wackiness, it leaves his players free of the spotlight.
Not that Warnock is the only outspoken character involved with Rangers these days. Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone was confirmed as the club’s outright owner this week, having bought out Flavio Briatore, he of the Singapore Grand Prix race-fixing controversy. Between them, Warnock and Ecclestone could have generated enough hot air to ensure yesterday’s match at Leeds went ahead without the need for undersoil heating.
Not that Leeds would have needed any such help. On a weekend when the big freeze left most of the Premier League kicking its heels, Elland Road was playable. Leeds haven’t had a home game fall victim to the weather for almost 17 years, and the groundstaff were determined to ensure that record held.
Leeds got their reward for getting the game on. They started a little shakily, not helped by the need for an early defensive reorganisation. Centre-back Alex Bruce injured his groin in the warm-up, tried to play anyway, very nearly had to come off after six minutes and then did after just 11.
The best form of defence, they decided, was attack. Becchio’s header was tipped over by Paddy Kenny, before the excellent Robert Snodgrass fired wide from a Max Gradel set up.
Gradel, a speedy winger whose undoubted skill is tempered by an indisciplined streak, drove Leeds in front after 25 minutes, when Jonathan Howson headed a Snodgrass cross into his path. He should have had a second shortly afterwards, but sliced wide after a one-two with Howson had opened up the Rangers defence.
Inevitably, there was a Warnock flashpoint. It came four minutes before half-time, when Leeds midfielder Bradley Johnson clattered into Jamie Mackie without incurring punishment, resulting in a free-for-all scrap 20 yards away seconds later, which saw home right-back Paul Connolly and away left-back Clint Hill booked. Warnock hopped up and down on the touchline, furious, and looked as if he might come to blows with Grayson.
As Rangers pressed forward in search of an equaliser after the break, Leeds found the spaces to damage them on the counter-attack. After Becchio had gone close, it was Gradel who added the second with 20 minutes left, running at Fitz Hall unchallenged before firing under Kenny.
Howson and Snodgrass would have added further goals but for Kenny’s agility. Rangers did not look a Premier League side in waiting.
Grayson is not one for shouting the odds from the rooftops, and played down his Leeds side’s promotion chances after the game. And yet Warnock still suggested they were getting carried away with themselves.
“I thought their celebrations in the tunnel afterwards were a bit over the top,” Warnock said. “I don’t think they’ve got promotion just yet. But it’ll be nice to see how that develops later on in the season, because we’re not at Christmas yet, are we?”
Perhaps they were just celebrating Becchio’s new contract, Neil.