The alarm bells were quite literally ringing for Leeds after they relinquished their hold on the Championship’s second automatic promotion place with a high-stakes Yorkshire derby defeat.
Although Marcelo Bielsa and his Sheffield United counterpart Chris Wilder both insisted that the classic heist pulled off by the visitors by virtue of Chris Basham’s breakaway goal would not prove decisive in the jostle for a top-two finish, it does mean that Leeds’ destiny is no longer in their own hands.
‘Nobody can say this is a crucial result because there are still 24 points at stake,’ said Bielsa, in his customary, under-stated manner, while a din from an Elland Road fire alarm raged in the background.
Chris Basham celebrates scoring the opening goal of the game for Sheffield United 19 minutes from time at Elland Road
Basham almost lost his footing when he shot after receiving a pass from Billy Sharp but still managed to find the net
Basham celebrates in front of the travelling supporters from Sheffield after scoring the opening goal against Leeds
Basham is mobbed by his Sheffield United team-mates after scoring a potentially crucial goal in the Championship title race
Leeds United (4-1-4-1): Casilla; Ayling (Dallas 77), Jansson, Cooper (c), Alioski; Phillips; Hernandez, Roberts, Klich (Clarke 77), Harrison (Douglas 57); Bamford
Substitutes not used: Peacock-Farrell (GK); Berardi, Shackleton, Gotts
Sent off: Casilla 90+1
Sheffield United (3-5-2): Henderson; Cranie, Egan, O’Connell; Baldock, Basham (Lundstram 90+2), Norwood, Fleck, Stevens; McGoldrick (Dowell 88), Sharp (c)
Substitutes not used: Moore (GK); Hogan, Coutts, Stearman, Duffy
Scorer: Basham 71
Booked: Baldock, Sharp
Referee: David Coote (Nottinghamshire)
‘I don’t want to under-estimate their victory, but if you analyse the game we can’t be unsatisfied, even if we can be disappointed with the result. We created a lot of chances against a very good side.’
Optimism abounded in the Broad Acres ahead of a season’s best crowd in excess of 37,000 that this will finally be the year Leeds United end a Premier League exile which began back in 2004. Yet at the final whistle, there was a sense of deflation as the other United pooped their party to leapfrog them into second.
As Bielsa said, the mood need not be bleak, as Leeds — who had salt added to their battle scars via the dismissal of goalkeeper Kiko Casilla late on for up-ending Billy Sharp 25 yards out — did not play badly.
Indeed, they had 17 efforts on goal. Unfortunately, all 17 were off target.
Wilder had spoken pre-match of the magic dust the Argentinian has sprinkled over Leeds this season. But a combination of his own side’s indefatigable spirit and inhospitable conditions — incessant rain left the surface unpredictable —doused it.
For weeks, Leeds’ energetic displays had been deconstructing the theory that Bielsa’s teams run out of legs on the home straight of a season and they had won five of their previous six to keep on Norwich’s coat-tails. But profligacy in the final third is not a quality to boast against opponents who have now kept seven successive clean sheets.
In the reverse fixture in early December, Wilder’s team claimed another stand-out statistic in becoming the only side in a Championship game against Leeds this season to enjoy the lion’s share of possession.
Leeds goalkeeper Kiko Casilla brings down Sheffield United striker Billy Sharp and is sent off in stoppage time
Jack Harrison fires an early chance over the crossbar as Leeds United opened up the Sheffield United defence at Elland Road
Harrison rues the missed opportunity as Sheffield United’s John Egan remonstrates with one of his fellow defenders
Blades goalkeeper Dean Henderson comes off his line to claim an aerial ball ahead of Leeds United’s Tyler Roberts
However, goalkeeper Dean Henderson’s late error meant they coughed up all three points that day.
This time, it was Leeds who dominated the ball with a 70-30 ratio, only to make a decisive mistake in a game of the finest margins.
On the heavy turf, the ball got stuck under Leeds captain Liam Cooper’s feet, Sharp nicked it off him and fed the onrushing Basham, who kept his composure and steered past the advancing Casilla from the edge of the area. It was the one moment of real quality in a fractious, rain-drenched affair, from a player who has twice played in the Premier League with Bolton and Blackpool.
Wilder said: ‘It was not a great performance but I’m not going to be embarrassed about coming here and winning, against the run of play a little bit, because over the last 18 months we have smashed some sides and not got what we deserved.
‘Half a dozen times I have sat in my office and wondered not only how have we not drawn but how have we not won.
Roberts gets in between Sheffield United defenders Enda Stevens and John Egan to head narrowly wide of the target
Tyler Roberts of Leeds is challenged by Sheffield United defender John Egan as he tries to set the home side on the attack
Roberts wins a header against Sheffield United’s John Fleck during what was an engrossing contest in West Yorkshire
Chris Basham of Sheffield United and Kalvin Phillips compete for the ball during the opening period at Elland Road
‘I said this wouldn’t be season defining but the attitude of the players I don’t see changing. They weren’t over-hyped but they weren’t horizontal. That maybe seals our play-off place but I think the players and supporters might want more.’
Aside from a 10-minute flurry of corners at the end of a first half that ended with Basham rounding Casilla but failing to apply a finish, a Leeds team unchanged for the sixth consecutive match created all the openings.
They just could not provide clinical conclusions as a mass of fluorescent shirts swarmed around them like over-zealous security guards.
The tone was set early on when Pablo Hernandez’s elusive running down the right presented Patrick Bamford with a sight of goal in the eighth minute. Basham, deployed as a makeshift midfield spoiler, blocked.
The two sets of players lined up for a minute’s applause for former Leeds chairman Bill Fotherby who died this week
Leeds United supporters at a sold-out Elland Road show their colours ahead of Saturday lunchtime’s decisive clash
Then Jack Harrison volleyed too high, Bamford fired over on the run and Tyler Roberts was off target with a header. Crucially, though, they did not test Henderson.
Roberts turned Mateusz Klich’s cut-back against the post on the hour and then, between going a goal behind and Casilla seeing red, Pontus Jansson stabbed wide from inside the six-yard box.
A minute’s applause preceded the match following the death this week of Bill Fotherby, Leeds’ former managing director and the man instrumental in the appointment of Howard Wilkinson during the late Eighties. That heralded a golden era for the club — Wilkinson guiding them to the title in 1992.
Whether there is to be another one under guru Bielsa will be determined by how they respond to this set-back during the run-in.