Fernandes goal sums up Venables' season of anguish

Leeds United 1 Southampton 1
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The Independent Football

Even when you are pushing 60, as Terry Venables is, some years just have to be packed away and returned to sender – by express mail and with no regrets.

Any doubt that 2002 was locked irretrievably into this category surely dissolved when the Leeds manager saw his defence, which had lived perilously for much of the afternoon, react to a late free-kick with about as much sang-froid as a panicky herd of wildebeest.

Paul Robinson, who had confirmed his status as the likeliest lad in the queue behind the time-expired England goalkeeper, David Seaman with several world-class saves, was bewildered and unsighted as the dead ball struck by Fabrice Fernandes sailed into the back of the net. How it left Venables, who was travelling to London on the first available train for a family re-union, had to be a matter of bleak speculation. His assistant, Eddie Gray, did confirm that the manager was "disappointed" – perhaps to the point where he would not be the heart and soul of a knees-up,

However, if the 89th-minute denial of a first home victory since the defeat of Manchester United in 14 September was in perfect sync with an eviscerating trend, Venables could reflect reasonably enough that the week which might have brought a devastating end to the most draining ordeal of his career had in fact delivered something quite different: a stirring of life and, just perhaps, a first sense that a section of the Elland Road crowd was threatening an outbreak of tolerance. There were no boos on this occasion, just a stunned re-acquaintance with a savage fate and, who knows, perhaps even a dawning sense that Venables did not, as some reports have suggested, inherit the football world when he took over the club two weeks before the start of the season.

There was certainly no shortage of evidence pointing in that direction as Southampton announced a clear edge in the vital area of midfield. Fernandes compounded Venables' discomfort with his tormenting of Ian Harte and Teddy Lucic. On the other flank, Danny Mills too often found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and Gary Kelly's speed was rarely accompanied by a proper amount of guile in his makeshift midfield role.

Still, Leeds did find a spark and it was the one that was supposed to ignite belief in a title run rather than a fight against relegation. Harry Kewell provided it with his cleanly drilled goal. An earlier touch of brilliance was denied when Southampton's Matt Oakley stuck out a foot and sent Kewell's shot against a post. Kewell's surge of relevance was inspired by, of all things, the appearance of Mark Viduka early in the second half in place of a listless Robbie Fowler.

Kewell and Viduka are notoriously non-communicative off the field, but on it they performed on this occasion with an impressive empathy. Viduka held up the ball with strength and a fine touch and at one point the Aussie combination threatened to overrun the Saints.

However, under Gordon Strachan, who in the final stages of his thankless stint at Coventry received the kind of ritual thrashing which is currently the fate of Venables, Southampton have developed an impressive resilience – and balance. "I believe in these lads," the former Elland Road hero said. "There's a glow about them. We respect teams – but we also know we can beat them."

It may be some time before Venables can make such a declaration, assuming he survives his annus sick-as-a-parrotus, but at least his team is showing evidence of a pulse. Said Gray: "It was a sickener to let the points slip like that... the defence lost concentration, were too deep for the free-kick which made it difficult for Paul. But if this week's results had come in reverse, if we'd won a point at Bolton and three here we would be saying it wasn't too bad a week."

The new imperative is some year-end profit from games at Sunderland and at home to Claudio Ranieri's upwardly mobile Chelsea. The re-discovered snap of Kewell and Viduka's hugely influential cameo give a little basis for hope. So does the impressive resolution of Jonathan Woodgate, the young player whose misadventure in the streets of the city was such a catalyst for decline.

Woodgate is working for redemption with some resolve. It is something on which Venables may just be able to build. Three new defenders and a midfielder of substance would also be a huge help.

Goals: Kewell (74) 1-0; Fernandes (89) 1-1.

Leeds United (4-4-2) : Robinson 6; Mills 3, Woodgate 6, Lucic 3, Harte 3; Kelly 4, Smith 5, Okon 4, Wilcox 4; Fowler 4 (Viduka 7, 52), Kewell 8. Substitutes not used: Martyn (gk), Johnson, Duberry, Milner.

Southampton (4-4-2): Niemi 6; Telfer 5, Lundekvam 6, M Svensson 5, Bridge 6; Fernandes 7, Delap 5, Oakley 6, Marsen 5 (A Svensson, 83); Beattie 6, Ormerod 5 (Tessem 5, 62). Substitutes not used: Jones (gk), Williams, Davies.

Referee: C Foy (St Helens) 5.

Man of the match: Kewell.

Attendance: 36,687.