leeds united 0-1 rotherham united: don’t thinkBack
Steve Evans knew exactly how Steve Evans would celebrate if Steve Evans’ new club beat Steve Evans’ old club on Saturday.
“I can remember taking Rotherham United down to Crawley Town and we scored a late goal with a substitute,” he said. “I celebrated the way a manager should celebrate that day though I don’t think the pitch at Crawley has recovered yet.”
So that was all taken care of. What had been neglected was a plan for Leeds United to beat Rotherham United and give Steve Evans something to celebrate. It might have been nice for some of the 25,802 fans who turned up to watch this dross to get something from the game, too.
Activity on the touchline and in the car park took precedence over activity on the pitch, but there’s not much entertainment to find in any of it. That it was Neil Redfearn celebrating the way a manager should celebrate was good for him but not for any of us. The squabbles over parking passes, meanwhile, just made me wish every complaint I have about Leeds United was as simple as the ones I have about Marco Silvestri’s kicking. At least there a ball is involved, although Marco often acts as if he’d rather there wasn’t.
As far as I can make out, reading the conflicting stories about parking-gate, Leeds United gave Rotherham the standard six passes, Rotherham gave Leeds the names of the six who would be using them, and for his car to be among the six Redfearn had to give it to Rotherham’s fitness coach to drive.
It all sounds petty because it is, and I sigh deeply, because when I wonder who might be the source of the pettiness, and which club might not be telling the whole truth, I think about our former manager who was accused of disappearing on holiday when he was at his sick mother’s bedside, our former striker who was accused of refusing to travel on a preseason tour when he had permission for a medical at Fulham. I even think about Mathieu Smith, proudly signing his new contract as he was given the number nine shirt, and Dom Poleon, practically having to beg the club to stop moving the goalposts and let him leave for Oldham, and then I decide to stop thinking.
That would have put me in plentiful company on Saturday afternoon, because scouring the Elland Road pitch, it was impossible to find anybody with a thought worth having. It’s easy to see why Rotherham United are bottom of the league; they’re awful. Their team is much worse than Leeds United’s, but they still beat us anyway, because our team is capable of worse, and it brought its worst to the game on Saturday.
This game was the needle that burst the bubble of hype that had developed as Steve Evans won two games. Three games; we probably do need to cling to Wycombe now. The wins over Cardiff and Huddersfield were credited to increased motivation, improved tactics, Evans’ passionate ability to get the best out of our players. These are the same qualities he was being talked up for in advance of the Blackburn game; “For any club at any level, you can’t be going over seven months without winning at home,” he said before the match. “It’s a staggering statistic. It’s right to say it’s a shocking statistic. We need to sort it.” Seven minutes after kick-off that game was lost.
Alex Mowatt saved the day against Cardiff, an otherwise dour match; and ten minutes of pre-halftime confidence did for Huddersfield and set the stage for more Mowatt beauty; but the tale behind the score in both games was that Leeds United had struggled to assert themselves against two poor teams. United’s best spell against Cardiff came when they cottoned on to how bad Cardiff actually were, but it took thirty-five minutes for the players to sense that opportunity.
My doubt in those two games was that we hadn’t travelled far enough from the Blackburn debacle to be confident it wouldn’t happen again, and while Rotherham were nowhere near as devastating in the early stages as Blackburn, Leeds overall were worse than they had been that night.
The goal was a perfect illustration of our depths. Mirco Antenucci whinged his way through the game, pulled up short instead of burying a chance to score when the ball was crossed in front of him, and here was dispossessed softly in the Rotherham half, his arms outspread at the injustice of being tackled. Next it was Stuart Dallas’ turn to miss a chance to win the ball back, then Murphy and Cook were made to look daft as Rotherham stroked the ball over the top.
Bellusci ran out of position to challenge Newell, and soon both he and Cooper were chasing the same player; Bellusci went dashing into midfield as Rotherham moved the ball to their left and Wootton looked uselessly on, unable to decide which Rotherham attacker to pick up. Cooper occupied himself with the player Bellusci should have been marking; that meant that behind him, Newell was unmarked, as Berardi hadn’t got the memo.
It was simple for Rotherham and a mess for Leeds from front to back, but where the depths were really struck was at the restart. The ball was played to Cooper, who looked up and, to begin Leeds’ fightback, lofted it into the front row of the East Stand.
That started a headcount, as we tallied one by one the Leeds players who let themselves down with some sort of shameful mistake over the next fifteen minutes or so. The true nadir was reached when Bellusci, under a moderate amount of pressure from a Rotherham player as he dealt with a stray ball over the top towards the corner flag, attempted a simple back pass to Silvestri’s feet, missed him, and put the ball out for a corner. You can sugar coat it all you want, but Leeds fans right now are paying a lot of money to watch a defender miss the goalkeeper with a fifteen yard pass while losing to the team at the bottom of the league. And it was bloody cold.
The only player I would exclude from criticism would be substitute Jordan Botaka, who looked as angry as I felt every time one of his team mates weighed up the options on our right wing and gave the ball to Wootton. Botaka looked on the verge of going full Berardi on the world just to get the ball, and as ever was direct and dangerous when, after about fifteen minutes of creeping frustration and no touches, he was finally given it.
We’d lost Berardi by that point, a double sending off that at first looked as complicated as everything else referee Keith Stroud was involved in — I’ve never seen such a carry-on over moving back a wall before, but then I don’t think I’ve seen a referee so determined to measure the distance so wrong before — but was actually quite simple. Straight red for Leon Best for smashing Berardi’s nose; straight red for Berardi for pushing him to the floor.
There’s no hope of an appeal for Berardi; even when provoked, footballers are supposed to stand back, get their noses repaired, and let the referee deal with the assailant. The risk is that his punishment will get worse for using the linesman as some kind of shield as he tried to get involved with Best again. The further pain is that I absolutely support Berardi for reacting the way he did.
The problem for us there is that Charlie Taylor will be rushed back from his illness, while Sam Byram will have to play; and despite Steve Evans’ confident claims that he’ll fix things up with that young lad (he actually claimed to have fixed him within twenty-four hours of walking through the door, but I think even Evans doesn’t expect us to believe that anymore), his exile on the bench continues to tell a louder story. The next lineup could actually be a watershed moment for Byram; with Bamba out and now Berardi, I’m not yet confident that we won’t still see a new way to keep Byram out of the team.
I’m not confident about anything, frankly. Cellino announced this week that he’s not going to sell up until he’s sure the club is safe, and judging by Saturday, he’ll have a long wait. The wins against Cardiff and Huddersfield didn’t lull me into the Steve Evans fan club — I’m not sure anything will ever do that — but I was happy to have the points and ecstatic to have Mowatt’s goals to watch on loops forever.
Defeat to Rotherham has shown just how little impact the Steve Evans effect has had. If Steve Evans is such a motivating force, why did the team take only seconds to concede to Blackburn? If Steve Evans’ man-management can bring the best out of a player, why did I watch Lewis Cook against Rotherham having the worst game of his young career? If Steve Evans is the coach he thinks he is, how did a team of apparently good players play so abysmally against the bottom team, and lose to them?
Victory at Elland Road was Neil Redfearn’s first as Rotherham boss, and their first in seven games; they lost the previous four straight. They beat Leeds United, and now they’re off the bottom. Bolton Wanderers are there now; Leeds played them in Steve Evans’ second game, the high-point of the new manager bounce, and we drew.
I’m starting to think about Leeds United’s level, and it’s giving me the same don’t-think fear I get when I think about Leeds United’s pettiness.