Commentary: Leeds' new reality starts to bite

Sheffield United 2 - Leeds United 0
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The Independent Online

Megson's Law, which was previously known as Curbishley's theorem, states that clubs relegated from the Premiership are odds-on favourites to return, funded by parachute payments and stronger for the experience, at the first attempt. These are early days in the Championship, but already its credibility is starting to look as tarnished as Wayne Rooney's reputation for romance.

Megson's Law, which was previously known as Curbishley's theorem, states that clubs relegated from the Premiership are odds-on favourites to return, funded by parachute payments and stronger for the experience, at the first attempt. These are early days in the Championship, but already its credibility is starting to look as tarnished as Wayne Rooney's reputation for romance.

Leeds United's latest calamity - their 23rd defeat since they became the last club to beat Arsenal in the Premiership 44 games ago - means that they and the other two demoted sides, Leicester City and Wolverhampton Wanderers, have won just two out of 15 matches between them. Leeds lie close to the last third of the embryonic table, and the postponement of tomorrow's fixture with Watford means they could well hit the bottom three this week.

Their new manager, Kevin Blackwell, is convinced opponents are raising their game against Leeds. "That was Sheffield United's best performance this season," he said. "And the Nottingham Forest I saw lose 4-1 to Coventry on Saturday wasn't the one that drew at our place. But I'm five-and-a-half weeks into this job; Neil [Warnock] is five-and-a-half years into his time at Bramall Lane."

Blackwell, who first served Warnock as a goalkeeper with Scarborough 17 years ago and was his coach before decamping to Elland Road before the start of last season, added portentously that the Leeds board now had "a decision to make" with regard to raising money to strengthen his squad.

"I've got a lot of youngsters and free-transfer players with no funding, but there's no one available now that will come for nothing," Blackwell said. "Anyone we sign must have that edge, because this is a magnificent club. That wasn't good enough for Leeds United." His priority is an experienced midfielder, though he is also painfully aware that in six League and cup games, no Leeds striker has scored.

The master confirmed the apprentice's judgement, agreeing that "everybody wants to beat the relegated clubs" and admitting his team had played better than for 15 months. "You look at this division and there's no easy games," Warnock said. "Leeds, Wolves and Leicester have all lost good players. People thought Leicester would fly out and win everything, but they've lost Muzzy Izzet, who was a massive player for them."

In a surprisingly subdued derby, Sheffield United were embarrassingly comfortable winners. They played with greater cohesion, created the better openings and looked the hungrier team long before Ashley Ward and Jon Harley beat the busy Neil Sullivan in the space of 14 minutes after half-time.

Michael Tonge's through-pass enabled Ward to race through a square back-line and score the 110th goal of a 15-year career and his first this season. Harley doubled the advantage with a superbly flighted free-kick from 25 yards after Michael Duberry brought down the outstanding Andy Gray, a former Leeds player and self-confessed fan. Only Frazer Richardson tested United's Paddy Kenny before Duberry twanged the woodwork late on.

For Leeds, the best that can be said is that they were competitive. When they lost here in the FA Cup 18 months ago, it was not so much the result that cost Terry Venables his job as the bloodless display by a side still sprinkled with stellar names.

That was scant consolation to Leeds' followers, who 12 years ago celebrated League championship success at Bramall Lane. This time they slunk away to the taunting refrain of "Are you Wednesday in disguise?" and "We're Yorkshire's No1" from the home crowd.

Warnock, who has heard calls for his head from those same fans lately, conceded that last season was "a grind" after the excitement of two semi-finals and the play-offs the previous year. Now he talked of "playing with a smile on our face", which he attributed in part to his having invoked the Olympic feats of Kelly Holmes and Britain's relay sprinters in his pre-match talk.

Worryingly for Leeds, their challenge was more reminiscent of Paula Radcliffe. In terms of quality and cash, they are running on empty.

Goals: Ward (50) 1-0; Harley (64) 2-0.

Sheffield United (4-4-2): Kenny; Bromby, Morgan, Jagielka, A Wright; Quinn, Thirlwell, Tonge, Harley (Montgomery, 90); Gray (Lester, 90), Ward. Substitutes not used: Francis, Hayles, Forte.

Leeds United (4-3-2-1): Sullivan; Kelly, Duberry, Butler, Crainey; Richardson, J Wright, Pugh; Ricketts (McMaster, 66), Joachim (Lennon, 60); Deane. Substitutes not used: Carson (gk), Carlisle, Walton.

Referee: P Dowd (Staffordshire).

Booked: Leeds: Duberry, Richardson, Ricketts, Kelly.

Man of the match: Gray.

Attendance: 22,959.

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