hull city 2-2 leeds united: unreal inventionBack
Leeds United have entered that strange end of the season spell when lots of things happen but none of them really matter, beyond the moment.
There will be repercussions, no doubt; there will be consequences. There are always consequences. Gaetano Berardi could feel the consequences raining down on him like the old apple core flung at him by Hull fans, as he was stretchered off with another injury to his ankle; moments before he’d been punching the ground, as he did when Matt Derbyshire split his head at Rotherham, this time angry at his fate and angry at the consequences for his summer, his fitness next season, and everything he has worked hard to put into place this year being under threat.
But it’s hard for those of us whose ankles aren’t swollen up like volleyballs to wrap any meaningful context around Saturday’s game. We had this in last season’s penultimate game, when Steve Morison scored the goal that beat Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough and it changed nothing, because he was still sent to Millwall and Neil Redfearn was still eventually sacked and Leeds still finished 15th.
Leeds might not finish 15th this season, and that’s about the most significant thing about these last few weeks, because history will otherwise be defiantly unaffected by the recent good form. Is it even good form? Leeds have switched on since our season ended; would we have drawn 2-2 with Hull if relegation would still have been a concern? Would Lee Erwin be getting a half, Jordan Botaka?
It’s impossible to say; all we can say is that this stuff is happening, now, and it doesn’t matter, because Steve Evans will be sacked anyway. Evans is getting a proper look at Lee Erwin in the first team, but won’t get to make any decisions about his future as a Leeds player. Jordan Botaka has played his way back to Evans’ attention, had man-to-man chats with him after being criticised, but will have to impress someone else altogether when pre-season comes around. Berardi’s place at right-back will be taken by Lewie Coyle while he’s injured, but he’ll only gain experience, not a permanent spot. Likewise Bailey Peacock-Farrell, in line for another run out, just game time, unless Evans sees enough to take him with him to wherever he’s going.
In one sense this is a liberating time; but at the same time it’s oppressive. Because the suspicion remains that Leeds can only play well when the gig is up and nothing really matters anymore. Giuseppe Bellusci was left out against Hull, and didn’t travel, and the rumours began to fly that Steve Evans had stood up to the mini-Massimo in the dressing room; but even if that is true, isn’t it rather too late for Steve to be chucking his weight around, now that he’s lost it?
Nothing that’s happening at Leeds United now feels real because none of it feels like it counts; and while that doesn’t offer us much to believe in for the future, it is showing some positive results in the moment. Sol Bamba can be the freewheeling, free-volleying Yeboah-reborn that he was last Tuesday, we can trade goals with Reading and Hull for fun, we can miss penalties and play experimental sides that still never, ever, ever include Casper Sloth. It’s liberating, and it’s a relief; after the grinding winter months of games where with one shot on goal — wide, after an hour — it’s a relative joy to see the ball flying into the net. United suddenly look like a football team worth watching.
Against Hull Leeds were inventive, and not only after Botaka came on. The first goal showed creativity and speed of thought that it looked for a while like Evans had beaten out of the team. A quick free kick by Bridcutt allowed Lewis Cook to turn while the Hull defenders backpedalled into their positions; he found Chris Wood, who again favoured feet over head as he played a long range one-two with Charlie Taylor, first feeding Taylor into space down the left wing, then charging into space behind Erwin to meet the cross and score from close range.
Even if United veered back towards the sort of fragile collapses we’ll remember from Blackburn and Brighton and Huddersfield, conceding two lazy goals in first-half stoppage time, we were just a Botaka away from playing our way to an equaliser. It came late, but was worth waiting for. Leeds were crammed in by Hull’s left corner flag; Coyle, Cook, Dallas and Bridcutt were all in attendance with Botaka, with six Hull defenders close by. Botaka called and called for the ball, and when he finally got it, with all ten of those players in front of him, he did something Leeds players don’t do these days: he deceived a defender, faced up to and with a trick beat another, then with vision and a feint he laid the ball off to Stuart Dallas to put into the net.
Botaka has been called out for apparently lacking an end product, but that’s at least twice this season, in his few appearances, that he has shown himself to be a player with the vision to understand what’s around him and the ability to slow the game down until he can turn it to his advantage. The first time ought to have been a goal, when he took all the time he needed to turn in Charlton’s penalty area and play in the Adeyemi nobody else had seen, only for Adeyemi to hit the post.
The second time was against Hull, and while Dallas and Wood and a crowd of Leeds players celebrated behind the goal, Botaka took the shortest route he could find to celebrate with the Leeds fans behind the right wing.
“I’m a man, and I’m fighting for my place in the squad, and it’s going the right way now,” he told Adam Pope of BBC Radio Leeds after the game. About Evans, he said, “He was very critical. Everyone has their own opinion of a player, and he had his for me. It was up to me to prove him wrong. I’m honest with you, it was very difficult for me to accept the fact that I wasn’t even near the squad, and I told him as well.
“You know, we’re men, we face each other. I told him what I thought of the fact I wasn’t playing, I told him in his face, and he told me in my face what he thought about me. And we moved on from that moment.”
Botaka is 22 years old, the same age as Max Gradel when he came to Leeds — our last truly unpredictable (in a good way, Varney) winger — and he could become anything as a player here. As a young man he’s had a tough time, coming from Holland on his own for a big fee and, after a managerial change, been called out in public and sent to the U21s. Seeing him play, and hearing him talk, he seems to have handled the situation with maturity, to his and the club’s mutual benefit. Steve Evans said something about him, so Botaka spoke to him, and they sorted it out and moved on; and now here is Botaka, playing for fun and notching up assists, proving himself.
Steve Evans, meanwhile, said he had an hour-long man-to-man talk with his president on Friday. But not about his future as head coach. “I am ready and waiting to speak to the president when he is ready,” said Evans, but we all know the score here, because Cellino told The Telegraph the score last week:
“I become a coward. I’m embarrassed. I don’t want to tell them. I don’t know which way to tell them. Most of the time I call someone else and ask them to do it.”
I should revise that paragraph above, because Steve Evans has had his last man-to-man talk with Massimo Cellino, and it was weeks ago. His next serious chat will be with someone else, and no doubt the next time he hears Cellino’s opinion of him, it will be through the papers. Massimo Cellino, it seems, is no Jordan Botaka, either as an entertainer, or as a human man.
And the Leeds United of this week will be unremembered beyond this week, because while this result was good, it will mean nothing the moment that Steve Evans is sacked. Do you remember Steve Morison’s goal at Hillsborough this time last year? I don’t. I can only hope Jordan Botaka gives me more to remember next season, because I’m not ready to forget him yet.