Leeds link poor form to surfeit of games


A NEW YEAR at Elland Road brought only old failings and a familiar chestnut about too much football. Leeds United, cheered to the echo after beating Manchester United a week earlier were jeered off yesterday after failing to inflict similar damage on Blackburn Rovers, who themselves seldom looked capable, of recording a first away win in their defence of the Premiership title.

The fog which swirled around the stadium gave the game an eerie atmosphere to which neither side were able to respond positively. Howard Wilkinson, the Leeds manager, also pleaded mitigation for both sets of players, particularly his own, whom he claimed betrayed the effects of a fixture schedule even more congested than is customary over the Christmas "break".

"Most of my lot have just played four games in eight days, and there were times when players got into good, wide positions but couldn't get crosses in," Wilkinson said. "If we'd not played for a week, I'd admit the match was eminently forgettable. Maybe it was, anyway, but we looked like a team who've had too much football. The last three have been played in fewer than six days.

"One of our four games was against Manchester United which is always highly charged and two were played in sub-zero temperatures. I took Tomas Brolin off today because although he'd told me the night before how well he was bearing up to the strain, he played without zip or spark." Wilkinson's view found support from Ray Harford. "It's just not fair to the paying public when players are so fatigued," the Blackburn manager said, going on to cite the "wear and tear" of the holiday programme for David Batty's withdrawal with a groin injury.

"At top level, the pressure and tension are extreme, and it's not fair to ask people to play four games in nine days as we have," added Harford.

Leeds is where Blackburn's barren away sequence began back in April, when Brian Deane's last gasp equaliser set nerve-ends jangling for the championship run-in. This game was not only devoid of comparable drama, but also of incident once two teams evenly matched in their mundanity tired after half-time.

Alan Shearer had two opportunities to start a second century of Premiership goals, being, thwarted by Mark Beeney and then firing over in the first lo minutes. Thereafter, he was marked into anonymity by Carlton Palmer, whose return Wilkinson had facilitated by dropping David Wetherall.

Leeds, for whom Mark Ford out shone more illustrious colleagues amid the gloom, had their best spell just before the interval. A below-par Gary McAllister sent an inviting low pass across the six-yard box; Tim Flowers scooped a shot by Richard Jobson off the line, and Deane glanced wide from Gary Kelly's centre. To the exasperation of the crowd, that was as good as it got.