leeds united 1 – 0 bolton wanderers: responsibility & resultsBack
Do we try to understand why that was so much better, or do we just be thankful that it was and enjoy it while we can?
Because this was better, better by miles. During the Hockaday era each game felt like an era of its own; a long, drawn out and miserable era; nothing was happening and it felt like it was never ending.
That wasn’t the case against Bolton. This might sound daft, but it felt like the players were just kicking the ball harder to each other, kicking the ball with intent and purpose, instead of just going through the motions without any conviction. Instead of Tonge rolling the ball meekly to Norris, we had Cook pinging the ball deliberately to Mowatt. After six games of playing like Junior Lewis looked, the dithering confusion was gone.
A lot of this had to do with a new look midfield, and a lot also had to do with Hockaday’s departure. Dave might have claimed that his middle name was ‘pressure’, and that he could handle whatever came his way, but it wasn’t his place to put the same pressure on youngsters like Mowatt and Cook.
Lewis Cook’s memories of his debut will always be tempered by remembering his slack pass and the penalty he gave away, but then he had been given the job, aged 17, of attempting to save a point for a poor Leeds team away at Millwall.
Against Bolton, with Hockaday gone and the pressure he brought with him lifted, Cook was able to thrive. Everyone was able to thrive, in fact, and it’s remarkable how much of the dark mood that has threatened to overwhelm Elland Road departed with Hockaday. It’s almost as if employing an under-qualified coach that nobody believed in created an atmosphere of despondency and a fear, quickly confirmed, that the team would be dragged down to the coach’s level. Funny that.
It’s not that Neil Redfearn is as inspirational as a Mourinho, but nobody would have held a defeat against Redders the way defeats have been held against the Hock; whatever he did today, and whatever the result, it was guaranteed that Redfearn’s efforts would be appreciated. A positive atmosphere like that is the ideal place for a young player like Cook.
Even before he went slaloming and hip-swaying through three or four Bolton players on his way towards goal, Cook already looked the part. I don’t have any particular quarrel with Michael Tonge, but the two are almost polar opposites: where Tonge is slow, Cook is fast; where Tonge takes a touch, Cook passes first time; where Tonge plays it square, Cook plays it forward; where Tonge plays the way he’s facing, Cook turns.
The diamond still looks like an uncomfortable formation for us, but having a fast, first-touch forward-passing player who turns in there was almost enough to make it make sense. It wasn’t only Cook; Mowatt doesn’t dominate the was Cook does, and he isn’t as accurate with his passing, but like Cook he was always trying to be positive; Casper Sloth looked like what he was, a debutante on these shores, but a decent performance from Sloth gives me more hope for the future than a good performance from Norris.
All this perhaps makes United sound better than they were, but hey, the sun was out and the Hock was gone. The shots on target count was still low, and the goal was, like Billy Sharp’s against Watford, a cross that somehow ended up in the net; another for Stephen Warnock’s Novelty Goals DVD. Bolton were pretty poor, but still gave our defence problems. Wootton isn’t good enough at right-back; and today highlighted a problem with a Bellusci-Pearce partnership: if Bellusci is going to be the one attacking the ball – and he looked ready to attack anything that came near him – Pearce is going to be caught for pace if the ball does reach a striker.
Fortunately Marco Silvestri is behind them. Before the season started I tipped Silvestri to a) have a lot to do and b) do it well enough to be our player of the season, and so far that’s looking like a good bet. It’s not only the saves – and he saved at least three definite goals that I could see – but it’s the personality; his liking for catching an easy ball in his midriff and then dropping to the floor to slow the game down is already getting appreciative cheers, and it’s not only showboating: we needed to slow the game down, and he took that responsibility.
Maybe that’s the key component that was missing in the first half a dozen games, the thing that explains why this was such an improved performance. People took responsibility. It wasn’t perfect, but the safety-first attitude of Hockaday’s sides were gone. This team wasn’t set up to “frustrate” Watford, or give Bradford problems; this team was set up to take the game by the scruff of the neck and play like it meant it.
We’re not fixed. Neil Redfearn isn’t necessarily the answer, Lewis Cook still has a lot of learning to do, and we can’t rely on Marco Silvestri being so inspired in every game. But this game at least showed what Leeds can do: that we can compete, that we can pass with purpose, that we can defend under pressure and that we can win. Even counting Middlesbrough, it was the first time this season that Leeds have ticked all those boxes. Even as recently as Wednesday night, it didn’t look possible; but things can change, after all.