cardiff city 3 – 1 leeds united: optimism that lastsBack
And so here’s Act Four, the same as Act Two; and it’s either going to all come good or all blow up in our faces. Or, if it ends up somewhere in between, it’ll be the optimism that runs out, while the club runs aimless.
It’s hard to stay optimistic about a winless run of seven games, but remarkably that’s what there still is at Leeds – optimism. We have a new Head Coach, again, but this time he can be counted as one of our own, promoted from within; and Neil Redfearn adds a feelgood factor that neither Hockaday or Milanic brought to the club. That makes the result in Cardiff feel less like the latest in a long winless streak, and more like the tough opening game of a new dawn. Maybe it can be both.
Calling it a new dawn is kidding ourselves, but that’s okay: football fans are expert at that. It’s becoming more and more difficult to stay in that happy land of constant beginnings, though, especially when this weekend’s routine was barely distinguishable from any other this season.
The ‘candid’ interview in The Sun in which Massimo Cellino gifts his favourite journalist a bundle of gold-plated quotes: check. The counter-story in The Mail that says he’s about to flog the club to Red Bull: check. The pre-match quotes about that counter-story in which Cellino uses colourful language: check. The long journey to a far off place: check. The announcement of a new coach: check. The slightly disappointing team news – no Tavares? Morison starts? Berardi instead of Byram? – check. The first half in which you wish you’d brought a crossword: check. The second half in which Leeds have been worked out and go behind to the better team: check. The feeling that, after nearly an hour, our first shot on target is too little too late: check. The brief flurry of excitement and perhaps a goal on the way to defeat: check.
At least Bellusci and Silvestri added some variety for Cardiff’s third: that was something new. But even then, what you could call a ‘chaotic mix-up’ just followed a different, pre-written script; as soon as Silvestri set off from his line, as soon as the ball bounced, it was nailed on that Kenwyne Jones would score. It was just a matter of Bellusci and Silvestri working out the finer details between them, which they did superbly, if you like that sort of thing.
Breaking this cycle has to be Neil Redfearn’s first task. I don’t expect there’s much he can do about the stories in the press; although a good team on the pitch would help distract from that, it’s really down to the president to ward off the ‘crisis club’ vultures by not having so many sacked coaches to apologise for and by making good on his promise to buy Elland Road this month, without help from Dietrich Mateschitz and co.
But there must be something Redders can do about the team’s slow rotation around the plughole of defeat in every game, before the already shallow bath of our optimism drains away entirely. In some quarters, it’s already run out: Gaetano Berardi, that’s enough now please, you’re just a mad David Kerslake and we’d like our Byram back; Steve Morison, you can take the mask off, you’re still Steve Morison.
Others are walking the line. Silvestri has enough credit in the bank to get away with things like the third goal every now and then, but Giuseppe Bellusci certainly does not. With a weak free kick stroked tamely into David Marshall’s arms at Cardiff Bellusci finally knocked over his one last defence, and now he needs to step his defending up; not of his increasingly bare reputation, but of our increasingly vulnerable goal.
His scattergun approach to defensive work seems to be dragging Jason Pearce down with him too; or at least that’s one explanation for how many people’s runner up for the Ross McCormack of the Year award last season can look so frequently feeble this. Stephen Warnock has actually put a quiet bid in for this year’s accolade, simply by sweeping up after Bellusci and Pearce’s mistakes.
Communication, familiarity and trust are vital to a successful central defensive pairing, and Jason Pearce has pretty much said that they’re finding it difficult to build those things so far. That story is repeated all over the pitch, and that story is perhaps inevitable given the coaching changes. It’s hard to build anything when every six weeks you’re told to forget it all because you’re starting again.
It’s unlikely to be a coincidence that the two most effective performers at Cardiff were the two who have played together most often, Alex Mowatt and Lewis Cook; joined for the last half an hour by Chris Dawson, they gave the midfield a pattern that, while not enough to overcome Cardiff, was enough to earn us a shot, a goal, and a spell on the front foot, before the third goal killed it.
In cahoots with Redfearn and Byram, they’re the real keepers of the optimistic flame at Leeds. Mowatt in particular seems to be making a conscious effort to step on this season, with two excellent goals already, plus zip, enthusiasm, pep, whatever you want to call it: we haven’t seen much of it this season.
But Mowatt, like Silvestri, and Tavares when he has played, is largely impressing on his own, by playing his own game. Silvestri hasn’t needed Hockaday or Milanic to tell him how to stop a shot from going in the top corner with his fingertips; Tavares won’t dedicate his World Cup winners’ medal to the training methods of Novica Nikcevic. But others in the side aren’t that lucky, and they need several steady weeks of coaching to mould them into a cohesive and hopefully not so pedestrian team; while as Silvestri showed for the third goal, he could use some advice about what to do when he comes into close contact with his teammates.
We can be optimism about that, because Neil Redfearn has a twelve month rolling contract to do that job, and a track record at the academy that suggests that, given time, he can deliver. What we can’t be optimistic about, though, is our league position, or our form. For all the green shoots and glimmers of dawn so far this season; for every time someone has said ‘these players are better than last year’s, the team’ll come good’; for all the good of at least seeing Tavares or Dawson or Cook on the pitch; for all that, if Leeds United carry on like this, we’ll be relegated.
And all the optimism in the world will be no good to us then; and none of the optimism in the world will belong to us then. Even if Neil Redfearn can’t take the team anywhere more significant than mid-table this season, if can keep us optimistic, he’ll be doing a good job. But as the old joke goes about asking for directions, wherever it is we’re going, I wouldn’t want to start from here.