leeds united 2-2 derby county: expect anythingBack
Burnley and Ipswich Town play each other on Saturday; fifth against sixth in the Championship, 41 points against 40.
Leeds United play Milton Keynes, twelfth against twenty-second. If Ipswich lose, and United win, Steve Evans will have done it: got Leeds to within six points of the play-off places, and unlocked the vault to Massimo Cellino’s amassed pie tax millions.
Evans will rush to phone Simon Grayson. ‘I’ve seen it Simon, the war chest is real!’ Then he’ll rush back with a wheelbarrow. And then he’ll find it gone. ‘Ay Stephanie!’ Cellino will yell down the phone. ‘These lawyers, they fight Sky they need the money. You me go have a nice drink, eh?’
Such cynicism at Christmastime, after a string of results that has Leeds unbeaten in six, a string of performances that has Leeds matching its league rivals? Even Chris Wood has scored a headed goal. Peace on earth, and goodwill to all men!
It’s upon a fragile foundation that Steve Evans has built what looks, at last, like a Leeds United team, but while over the last couple of months he has changed the playing side around from the glacial weeks of Uwe Rosler, the next month will be a test of how well he can control the uncontrollable.
The pre-match stand-off with Sky was bothersome not only because it was unnecessary — legitimate grievances buried beneath petulant playgrounding — but because it was a reminder that Cellino rules through unruliness. You know things are bad when Shaun Harvey is sitting outside your stadium, performing absolutely in character by refusing to confirm to reporters that he is Shaun Harvey. He presumably showed up expecting to find somebody in charge; instead he found a staff operating under threat of the sack and a phone number to call in Miami; where it was 7am. Well, that wasn’t going to work.
And it won’t work if that’s how the club is to operate for the foreseeable future. We wondered how it could take so long for Liam Bridcutt’s loan deal to go through, but it’s a little less wonderful to consider the command chain for the Sky stand-off applied across the club.
Things might be different when the sheriff is actually in town, but there are few signs of a coherent plan in place should Shaun Harvey return to run him out again. If yesterday achieved one thing, it will have ensured that Harvey’s Football League to-do list for today had one item moved right to the top: ‘Cellino’s Appeal — Check Progress, Speed Up.’
It would be just Steve Evans’ luck to get Leeds to that magic six-point spot and unlock the gold, only to find there’s no mechanism left above him to spend it. Evans has, somehow, got Leeds United playing as well as they have for ages; Redfearn and Thompson had the results last season, but even when they won games they weren’t as enjoyable as this draw with Derby County.
A lot of that is down to the deployment of Bridcutt. Trotting out onto the field at the start of every half he plays, he must look behind him before kick-off and see some combination of Bellusci, Cooper, Wootton and Bamba high-fiving and hugging each other, and remember: they’re crap, and the ball must be kept away from them. That’s his focus moment. He lost that focus for just a moment against Derby, expecting Bamba where there was no Bamba, which let Hendrick in to score. After that he got back to work, darting across the pitch to wherever the danger was, restricting Bradley Johnson to long-range shots; one of those, for old times’ sake, boomed into the executive boxes at the top of the South Stand.
Another key factor has been Sam Byram. Since Evans ran out of reasons to keep him out of the side, Byram has contributed three goals that made the difference in the results at Wolves and Forest, and a perfect assist against Derby that put Leeds within reach of an unlikely win and made Chris Wood look like a proper striker.
A few days ago I pointed out how it seemed like Wood was always leaning back to reach a cross instead of timing his run to meet it with power; here Byram made his mind up for him, taking the ball from Cook and muscling his way round the outside of the full-back, not waiting to cross but sending the ball as soon as he could. Wood had worked himself free of the centre-half and didn’t have time to get into a bad position; from a great position, he scored a solid downward header. Do that twenty times a season and we’ll make a striker of him yet.
Byram has struggled to get to grips with his job on the right-wing this season, not helped by the noises-off from the owner or, I suspect, by the constant public badgering from the manager, but since returning from exile he’s excelled. He could be playing for a move, but I don’t think any team interested in Byram will be bidding for him based on form; they already know the potential he has. Instead he seems to be benefitting from whatever magic touch Evans has brought not just to Byram but to Silvestri — who made excellent saves again to keep Derby out — and the back four, still shambolic looking yet mysteriously firm; but to the team in general. Four draws and two wins hint at mojo.
Mojo is lost as easily as it’s found, however. With two minutes left in the match, and two days left to the transfer window, Sam Byram left the field to a standing ovation; the first big team news of the weekend will be, is Sam playing? Bridcutt should play, but Milton Keynes will be the last game of his loan period; and while Steve Evans says confidently that ‘the boy wants to play for me’ and that, in any case, ‘I know where there’s another Bridcutt’, I think this is one of those times when it’s best to see what Evans does, rather than listen to what he says.
Or rather, to see what Evans is able to do. He needs other players, too. Bridcutt’s moment of trust in our defence showed that reinforcements are needed at the back; and imagine how Leeds might perform as a team if the midfield could have more confidence in the defenders? Chris Wood has his goal, but he’s had his goal before, and we need better options to either replace or partner him than Doukara and Antenucci. If Byram does go, the wings look pretty empty again, especially given Evans doesn’t appear to rate Botaka as even an option from the bench. Dear Transfer Santa, please save us from Lewis Cook on the left wing again.
Cellino might be willing to fund a play-off push if we’re within six points of them, but the truth is we need to move forward to stand still. Leeds are ending 2015 in good form, but start 2016 ready to have some crucial foundations of that form kicked away. There’s a longer game, too; since the day he arrived, Cellino has talked in terms of two year plans, then got bored after three months and decided to start again. Perhaps someone could convince him of the value of incremental improvements; demonstrate to him that by finishing this season better than last, Leeds could attract better players in the summer.
Who exactly is going to convince him of that is another matter. For a football club, Leeds United is not blessed with football people at its higher levels. In the boardroom Cellino can call upon the expertise and experience of his two lads (well, one lad, as vice-president Hercules is on permanent vacation); his pals Daniel Arty and Giampaolo Caboni; and his not-pals, Salem Patel and Janesh Patel. Outside of them he’s got Andrea the furniture salesman, Terry George and Stix Lockwood. Oh, and Peter Lorimer. No wonder that when Cellino vacates to the poolside, decision making devolves to the poolside.
It’s been a good six games for Steve Evans; better than I thought him capable of. But cut that Miami hotline, as the Football League aim to do, and who knows what will happen. If Brighton pluck Bridcutt from our clutches, and Byram exits the madhouse, and United’s good form turns to dust against Milton Keynes and we don’t hit the magic target; well, who knows what will happen.
There’s no reason to expect it to all go wrong. But then there was no reason to expect Cellino to padlock Sky out of Elland Road from four thousand miles away. There’s no reason to expect anything. Hi there, 2016!