bolton wanderers 1-2 leeds united: promiseBack
The risk in taking 6,600 fans over the Pennines to Bolton was that, because we are Leeds, we would mess it up.
Cup glory is only the other side of the coin from cup pain, and Leeds United even in their greatest years have always been better at the pain than the glory.
It started badly, when we were denied a story. You can’t have a truly romantic cup run without a story, but Paul Rachubka was only a substitute for Bolton Wanderers, and wasn’t given the opportunity to atone for his six games of utter madness in a Leeds shirt; we didn’t hear the commentators exclaim, ‘He was a villain for Leeds, but now he’s their hero, oh what a topsy-turvy turn to his reputation, and what a topsy-turvy goal to concede!’ as a crowd of old men in overcoats shook rattles and policemen chased a border terrier around the pitch. The magic of the cup? Dead, all dead.
No story, then, so we have to talk about the game, and we have to give some credit to Steve Evans. My criticism after the Bristol City and Brentford games was that the team had been set up wrong each time; that too often, in general, Evans has had to make changes to fix the tactical decisions he had called wrong.
Against Bolton, the first half could hardly be faulted. Evans has actually been edging around this style of play for a while, since back when Bridcutt arrived and, alongside Tom Adeyemi, gave the back four the protection it badly needed, and the four players ahead of them the confidence to attack.
Since then, Evans has lost faith in Adeyemi, and has had to wait for Toumani Diagouraga to arrive to reestablish a Leeds United presence in midfield. With Bridcutt and Diagouraga there to pass, to prod, to absolutely smash opponents off the ball, Lewis Cook in particular was brought back from the brink of squandered talents to shoot dangerously at goal from the edge of the area, after several weeks of increasingly grey performances. ‘Come and get him, boys!’ Evans screamed at the Premier League after the game; his faith in his presidents assurances that Cook isn’t for sale is rather touching, at times.
Control of the midfield was such that, for United’s first goal, seven patient passes moved Leeds upfield until Soulemayne Doukara shot at Rachubka in the Bolton goal, who deflected it into the back of the net. Okay, it wasn’t Rachubka, it was a look-a-like; but more importantly, Leeds United played seven consecutive passes without ironic cheers; and they put the ball in the net in the first ten minutes.
Not only that, there were three shots at goal in the first twenty minutes — more than Leeds have managed in whole games in recent times — and another goal before half-time. Toumani Diagouraga never scores, but this is the FA Cup; he took advantage of what looked uncannily like Leeds United defending to meet Mirco Antenucci’s cut back, tucking it away and looking uncannily like Lee Bowyer circa 1998. Heady, heady moments.
Of course having seen the state of Bolton’s back line, Leeds’ defenders weren’t about to be outshone, and made it pretty clear just why Bridcutt and Diagouraga are needed to protect them, and that trouble still is always on the cards when those two are bypassed. The ball kept dropping in the penalty area between Silvestri, Bamba and Bellusci like a cucumber landing between three inattentive old moggies, but fortunately Gary Madine kept booting it everywhere except in the goal. Darren Pratley showed him the right way to do it after when Leeds attempted to defend a corner while flinging their hands in the air and dancing a can-can; Pratley then brought a Hollywood save from Silvestri, which put the ball at Madine’s feet, but Madine was well into his groove of misses by now and his shot hit the outside of the post.
The width of posts is what cup dreams are made of, and the ramshackle ending shouldn’t detract from the fact that Leeds United, as a minimum, did not mess this up. Improving the back four will be a hard job for Leeds unless we do what we’ve done with the midfield, and sign some better players; at least the players we’ve signed for the midfield should do a better job of protecting the back four.
Not messing this game up for the absurd number of fans that traveled was the minimum; keeping the season alive and showing some promise and hope for the future added that little bit more. Evans can get it right; Diagouraga can play; Leeds can be effective and win; the question for the league campaign is, what are the circumstances required for this to happen again? Will we always need a lowly, struggling opponent; an enormous away support? Can we do this against Nottingham Forest, at Elland Road, in the league?
The other question is whether Leeds United can make anything out of still being in the FA Cup, and for a few hours over the weekend, it felt like they could. I had no enthusiasm for the win over Rotherham in the third round, a match which seemed to sum up all the problems of the modern FA Cup; getting our ball into the Fifth Round, though, brought me to a more dream-like state. You only have to win one game to reach the quarter-finals; you only have to win two to reach the semi-finals; perhaps Allan Clarke would be out of reach, but with the right draw, could we get have a Brendan Ormsby moment to treasure or a Mickey Adams at Springfield Park?
Watford away is not that draw. Bloody football.