bolton wanderers 1 – 1 leeds united: wanting out and outBack
This is better. If this is how Leeds United are going to try to play their way out of trouble this season, then we’re in with a chance.
That we’re talking about having a chance – of not being relegated, that is – shows how closely we’re cutting the possibility. A couple of goals for Millwall on Saturday would have put Leeds in the relegation zone, and that’s a place that’s easy to enter but hard to leave.
Our slide towards it has been too easy. The Championship is a tight division, and Leeds are only six points off thirteenth; you have to go a long way up the table to find a club that doesn’t feel under threat of the drop. But that leads to a false sense of security. Everything seemed fine after we’d got rid of Darko Milanic; Redders was back, the young players were hitting form, and although we weren’t getting results, well, Redders was back and the young players were hitting form. That was enough to be going on with.
Two wins since Redfearn took over permanently aren’t enough to be going on with, though, especially compared to the seven defeats, and our patience, which is also a sincere wish to see him succeed in the job, has been granted despite increasing anxiety as the league table shifts and changes around Leeds United and takes us closer to the drop.
The need for Leeds United to act, change themselves and catch up with the changing landscape around them has been becoming more and more critical as the weeks have gone by, but it took a pressure-off cup game in Sunderland to provide the test-bed for whatever Redfearn could come up with. The results were good, and with tweaks, taken to Bolton. And the results were good.
To see Sam Byram bursting into the penalty area at top speed in the first two minutes of the game was a joy. Byram didn’t play at Sunderland, but Berardi did, and did enough there to show that he can keep his head together long enough at right back for the Byram: New Bale experiment to be given a chance. The feeling that Byram could be an out and out right winger has been there ever since his first season, when he was Leeds United’s most creative playmaker from right-back. Leeds United 2014/15 don’t play with wingers, but are desperate for width, and Byram fits the bill for a not-quite-winger by stealth. ‘He’s the furthest player forward to the right of the main striker,’ you can imagine Redders explaining to the President on his return from Miami. ‘But honestly, he’s not a winger. And look, it’s sort of a diamond…’
Whatever Byram was he had an impact, and Redfearn’s quietly radical changes are putting an end to the limp Leeds accusations that have been, for much of the season, fair. A lot of those changes are counter-intuitive: Murphy, Austin and Sloth? Taylor and Berardi? Morison instead of Antenucci? No Pearce, Tavares or Mowatt? None of those changes feel like improvements – Berardi is not a better right-back than Byram; Sloth does not wear the unicorn’s horn the way Tavares does. But they’ve put Leeds on the front foot again and given us a big say in games at Sunderland and Bolton that, not so long ago, may have been quiet losses, instead of one noisy loss and one hard-fought away draw.
The changes haven’t yet brought a goal from open play, though, and we’ve one more game to go before the seven-game damage done by whoever broke that mirror at Elland Road comes to an end. Unless it’s going to last for seven years, like our run of not scoring from a corner. The changes have put Leeds United players into the opposition’s box, however; most often Byram and Murphy, but occasionally Morison too, and by putting the football in there as well the chances of scoring goals have increased exponentially since the days when Doukara and Antenucci were having to take potshots from no nearer than twenty-five yards.
That raises the question, then, of why our promised new striker has not yet materialised. Leonardo Pavoletti’s name has been linked the longest – since the last deadline day, in fact – but if he’s going to be the 6ft2in striker to finish the chances the new look Leeds are creating, he needs to be brought here so he can start doing it sooner rather than later. We’re nine days into a transfer window that we were told had been scrupulously prepared for to get around the restrictions of our transfer embargo, but there’s still no sign of those plans being carried out, and still Pavoletti isn’t here.
It’s not only a case of getting him here, but it’s a case of making him work; and from that point of view, I can only hope that the delay is due to Redfearn putting his foot down about the kind of players he wants in his team for the rest of the season. I know it’s more likely to be because Cellino was in Miami and nothing happens when he’s not here, but I can dream. The problem with Pavoletti is that, like Doukara and Antenucci, he’s going to be a gamble. If we sign him it’s going to be in hope that he can quickly get to grips with the division, not to mention the city and the country, and get to grips more quickly and with more impact than many of our foreign imports this season.
That’s when eyes turn to Luciano Becchio. We’d be gambling there too, you could argue, but we’d be making a different bet. We know Becchio can cope with this division. He already knows the city and the country. The question is whether, after two years of effective semi-retirement at Norwich, he can still do what he used to do when he fired his way onto our record goalscorer charts.
There’s an element of desperation about going to back to Becchio, true, but we can’t pretend these aren’t desperate times. We’re 21st in the Championship. Luciano’s return would be a risk, but it’s one of the lesser risks available. Whether he can still do his thing is a fair question, but we only need him to do it for the length of a loan spell, and emotion and adrenalin could carry him – and us – that far. If the team was still set up to make sure Bianchi can always pass to Pearce it would be hard to see him making an impact, but the idea of Becchio getting onto the end of a cross from a newly attack-minded Byram is a sweet one.
At stake, too, would be his reputation at Leeds; one of the reasons they tell you not to go back is for fear of spoiling the memories of last time. But we need players who are prepared to put whatever they’ve got on the line. If Luciano Becchio is willing to put his reputation at Leeds on the line to save our season, we should be willing to let him take that risk.
We’re going to need a talisman soon anyway. Stephen Warnock is leaving, a move move that is an inversion of Snodgrass’s lament when Howson was sold and shows how far we’ve fallen: “How can you say you’re aiming for promotion and then sell your captain?” has become, ‘How can you say you’re aiming to avoid relegation and then let your emergency stand-in captain leave?’
Warnock’s leaving because a better club than Leeds want him, where he can aim for promotion rather than fight relegation while getting the same money and a longer contract without being employed by a maniac who hates him. It’s a no-brainer for Stephen Warnock, and it’s a reality check for Leeds United.
Massimo Cellino might argue that the club needs the money it’ll save from Warnock’s wages; Neil Redfearn might argue that the club needs an experienced left-back and that, under a transfer embargo, we need to do everything we can to keep what we’ve got. Stephen Warnock might tell them both that it’s none of their business because he, quite simply, wants out of Elland Road.
I’d be surprised if he’s the only one who does, and that’s not a positive sign for our impending relegation scrap. It’s typical Leeds United, of course, that just when Redders manages to make some positive changes to the team, we get smacked with the departure of our most consistent player of the season. If he wants out, though, he wants out, and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it, or really any way to find fault with his reasoning. What it shows, though, is how badly and how soon we need players who want in.