Queen's Park Rangers 1, Leeds United 2
Leeds United boss Simon Grayson faces a busy summer as he plans to build on a season that ended just one place short of the npower Championship play-offs.
Victories over Burnley and champions QPR rounded off the campaign on the right note but a run of just two points from 15 between April 9 and April 25 cost them dear.
It was always a big ask to turn round Nottingham Forest’s six-goal advantage, and Leeds were left to rue the defensive limitations and late-season slump that cost them dear.
In the cold light of day, Grayson’s men deserve credit for going so close in their first season back in the Championship, but after being in the top six for much of the campaign, the overriding feeling is inevitably one of disappointment.
Rangers’ celebrations got underway an hour before kick-off when the champions heard there would be no points deduction over the Alejandro Faurlin affair, and any lingering hopes Leeds had of denying Forest the last remaining play-off place evaporated in the opening 30 seconds.
Kasper Schmeichel should have held on to Tommy Smith’s low shot but the ball squirmed from his grasp, presenting a gift-wrapped goal to Heildar Helguson amid more jubilation from Rangers’ fans.
And when Forest scored in the first half at Crystal Palace, the writing on the wall was huge.
Forest went on to win 3-0 at Selhurst Park, making Leeds’ result redundant, but Grayson wanted his players to be party-poopers in the champions’ back yard.
Some big decisions went Rangers’ way, but Leeds became the first team to win in the league at Loftus Road since December and they completed a notable double over Neil Warnock’s side.
Max Gradel’s shot appeared to be handled but there was no penalty award and when Billy Paynter was brought down by Matt Connolly just outside the box there was no free-kick or card.
On the other hand, Leeds captain Richard Naylor was lucky to escape punishment in the 64th minute for elbowing Helguson.
Gradel, United’s player of the season, was rewarded for another impressive display with a 38th-minute equaliser when Naylor launched a pass through the middle from his own half and Gradel flicked the ball over the advancing Radek Cerny for his 18th goal of the season.
It was the first time Leeds had clocked up 80 league goals in a season for 41 years but that was scant consolation for missing out on the play-offs.
And they snatched a fortuitous 68th-minute winner when Ross McCormack’s shot from outside the box took a wicked deflection off Kaspars Gorkss to wrong-foot Cerny and find the corner of the net.
McCormack later smacked a long distance shot against a post.
Schmeichel atoned for his earlier error by making a superb blocking save to foil Smith two minutes from the end.
Naylor, Bradley Johnson and Neil Kilkenny were the three players in Leeds’ starting line-up whose contracts are due to expire on June 30, while substitutes Patrick Kisnorbo and Shane Higgs will also have their futures sorted out in the next few weeks.
Johnson has already rejected Leeds’ final offer of a new contract, and Kisnorbo, who came on in the 79th minute for his first appearance since rupturing his Achilles 14 months ago, will be offered a short-team deal, pending proof of his long-term fitness.
George McCartney, who has been on loan from Sunderland since September, was left out on Saturday after his comments about players’ fatigue prompted an angry response from chairman Ken Bates.
Robert Snodgrass was out with a back injury, and missing once more was top scorer Luciano Becchio, who will now have a minor operation on his hamstring.
Grayson said: “We have beaten the champions twice, and you can’t ask for more from the players.
"We have proved we can compete with some big teams and we wanted to finish the season on a high so we could carry the momentum into the next Championship campaign.
“We have been working hard over the last few weeks on pin-pointing the players we would like to recruit, so there will be players coming in and leaving this summer because we have to keep improving every year. We probably need a few more players to take us to the next level.
“I know in my own mind what I will be doing but it is only right that I speak to the players first.
"We will sit down with individuals and talk to them about their future, either with or away from the club.
"We don’t have to sell, and some players will realise they can fulfil their ambitions here.”