watford 1-0 leeds united: future overBack
Leeds United’s 2015/16 season came down to ninety minutes and a bit at Vicarage Road, on Saturday 20th February, 2016.
That ‘and a bit’ was important. Before the game, Steve Evans had done all he could to downplay the idea that this could be the last meaningful ninety minutes of United’s season; there might be a replay, he suggested. Imagine it: 30,000 people filling Elland Road — well, three-quarters filling — and maybe even the prospect of extra-time, which would be another thirty minutes, and a penalty shoot-out. Some of those penalty shoot-outs can go on for ages.
Maybe there was some other reason Evans was blabbering about a replay last week; he mentioned too that, to a lower-league club, the cash windfall from a replay can be the difference between surviving the season and not. Either he’s not updated his Lower-League Manager’s Big Book of Bullshit since lucking his way into the Leeds job, or there’s a severe financial hole at Elland Road that we need to know about. Given he also went on Football Focus to yet again grimly fellate “Sir Alex”, I’m going with the former.
Last summer, Massimo Cellino promised Leeds fans that this would be “a beautiful season”, so we need to take a close look at the Scott Wootton own goal that ended it, which was beautiful in the way war photography becomes beautiful when it’s displayed in an exclusive white-walled gallery.
It’s best viewed from behind the goal. Here you can fully appreciate the uncertainty with which Marco Silvestri watches the looping cross across the six yard box; the way the ball suddenly drops, like an angel flung from heaven to land at Scott Wootton’s feet. It’s not a matter of whether Wootton should deal with it; it was too late for him to move out of the way, and the ball would hit him whatever he did. Wootton realises this early. He prepares his body for the impact and, as a footballer, prepares to use his feet. There’s an old When Saturday Comes caricature of a footballer with enormous feet but a tiny head, within which is a tiny brain; this may be an image worth keeping in mind.
I’ve replayed this moment, frame by frame, over and over, and I still can’t work out what happened. I wonder if Scott Wootton can remember the point of impact. He’s off balance, that’s for sure. His left, standing leg is further to his right than his right, kicking leg; his arse is somewhere over to the left, to the left (in the box to the left). But even so, Wootton as a whole is far enough to one side of the goal for it to require a severe intervention to send the ball in a new direction that would take it goalwards, and his kicking leg is angled far enough around the ball for it to look easy for him to send it into the stands.
The impact, though, is horrible. It’s not a clean contact; the ball is shot into the ground and scuffs into the goal. With his whole leg at his disposal, Wootton seems to have given the ball an edge of shinpad. The slow bounce inside the post will be what Wootton does remember, because it gave him time to realise what he’d done before the ball was even over the line; his head is in his hands before it touches the back of the net.
The photo of this moment from the side of the pitch has been widely shared, but from behind the goal it’s an arresting tableau; from left, Sol Bamba, stood upright, the Leeds United captain, his hands behind his head; then two Watford players, their arms upraised in Vs of celebration; Giuseppe Bellusci’s hands cover his face, and then there are the fallen: Bridcutt has felled Deeney, and Deeney’s arms form another V, but it’s a penalty claim to the referee. He hasn’t yet heard the good news from six yards away behind him, where Silvestri kneels at his goalpost, staring at the ground like a mortally wounded medieval knight, about to force his sword through his abdomen. Furthest to the right, on his own, his hands on his head and his head below his knees as if the airliner on which he’s a passenger is crash landing at sea, is Scott Wootton.
To be fair to Wootton, he held his hands up to the travelling fans at the end of the game, an apology he might have withheld given the less than gracious reaction to his error from some of the supporters. And all of this did happen in a nanosecond. But that’s the story of this game: it’s the game where Leeds United’s beautiful season came down not to a final ninety minutes, but to a final nanosecond, like a lightbulb flicked off as part of Cellino’s cost cutting.
Overall Leeds United were okay against Watford, but nothing more, on a day when to keep our season alive they had to be excellent. Watford rested a few players, let us have the ball for spells, and did need Scott Wootton to win the game for them; but they had other ways to win stored up if the own goal hadn’t come, whereas Leeds United didn’t have a way to win to begin with.
What you want from a cup tie, when a cup run is your only hope to salvage something from the season, is a full-blooded performance that, even if it ends in defeat, lets no one think that more could have been done. That wasn’t this performance, and that wasn’t this cup run; it was shaping up promisingly, but ultimately comprises a win over Rotherham that was one of the most miserable games I’ve ever been to, a solid victory against the worst, most crisis-ridden team in our division, and a whimpering away defeat to the least-exciting Premier League team ever.
Steve Evans’ post-match thoughts on all this were lost because, after backing Scott Wootton to come back from this cruel blow, he plucked another scapegoat from thin air and declared that Jordan Botaka, “Was very fortunate to be on the pitch. He was in the squad because I didn’t have any other options.” That was later clarified by Phil Hay of the YEP, who said Evans couldn’t fault Botaka’s ‘“passion or effort.” Just doesn’t think his performances have been good enough.’
Which is certainly a point of view, but not one that makes much sense given that we’ve seen Botaka for four minutes (plus five added on) — at the end of this game — since December 12th. Whether Evans expected Botaka to be able to secure that all-important replay in the four minutes he gave him before full-time isn’t clear; nor is it clear whether Evans’ anger with Botaka was down to his failure to produce an equaliser from nothing. But that Evans needed to save the game in the first place is down to the right-back he consistently picked ahead of Sam Byram and the players who produced two shots on targets in ninety minutes; and that he doesn’t have any other options is down to his president.
Jordan Botaka splits opinions. Some see him as a YouTube showpony; others (me included) were excited and interested enough whenever he got the ball in his early cameos to think he might be a good die to roll while our ponderous so-called attackers keep pondering themselves into deep, goalless troughs. As a 23 year old struggling to make an impact in a tough league, I’d expect him to be given the same sort of support Evans said — just last week — is due to Doukara: “At times Doukara’s been made to feel like he’s not good enough and I’d suggest that because of that he’s ended up playing like someone who isn’t good enough,” was last week; a little while ago: “This kid was discarded and told every day that he was rubbish. You don’t tell him that, because he’s not rubbish. People forget he’s a young man, who’s still learning the British game and he has a big part to play”; and even before that: “His heart was crying when I arrived. Now his heart is blessed.”
But I also wouldn’t expect a four minute substitute appearance to be worth commenting on at all. Botaka came on; he didn’t save the game; the game ended. There were plenty of other things to talk about before getting to Jordan Botaka; but perhaps those things cut too close to the bone.
Steve Evans has a problem now. He is in the biggest job of his life, a job that gets him on Sky Sports News every week, that puts him on Football Focus, that lets him talk about Alex Ferguson as if they were peers. And it’s slipping away from him. It began before the transfer window, when Evans talked up the deal he had with Cellino for transfers if he could get the team within six points of the play-offs places; he couldn’t, and only the bare minimum of transfers were allowed. In return for those, Cellino will have wanted to see improvements on the pitch, but while the one permanent and two loan players are better than what we had, results are worse than what we were getting. And now the FA Cup has gone; and if you don’t think Massimo was getting giddy about the prospect of lording it up in front of Shaun Harvey and all the rest of the establishment in the Royal Box at Wembley, then you haven’t been paying attention.
This season, the “beautiful season”, is over, and Cellino has to think long-term now, and think hard; he has to, right? Whether that’s his own future, his coach’s future, the club’s future, or when Verne is next visiting. Thinking through the scenarios, it’s difficult to see which ones result in Steve Evans staying long-term. If Cellino sells, will new owners want to keep him? If Cellino stays, will he want to keep the guy who didn’t get him to Wembley, who was given players but couldn’t get the results to keep Cellino’s face off the side of the East Stand?
What might keep Steve Evans in the job for a while longer is the fact that this season isn’t over at all. While Leeds United were slipping out of the FA Cup, they were also slipping out of sixteenth in the Championship table: downwards. Leeds are seventeenth — 16B, as the wags are calling it — eleven points clear of Rotherham in the last relegation place. It’s inevitable that Neil Warnock will at least come close to keeping Rotherham up, and his presence is bound to be disruptive at the bottom of the league table, and while there are clubs nearer to the trapdoor than Leeds, there aren’t many who are scoring so rarely as Leeds.
In the league, Leeds have scored eight in ten at home since Evans took over; away it’s eleven in ten. At those rates we’ll score 5.6 goals in the remaining seven at home, and 8.8 in the eight games away.
It looks a lot worse if you take into account that the goals we’ve scored include two penalties, two own goals, three scored by Sam Byram; and that three of the remaining goals from open play were scored by the perpetually injured Chris Wood. Knock all those off and we can expect a grand total of seven more goals from open play this season, in the fifteen matches ahead.
That might be the worst thing of all about our season coming to an end on Saturday: it’s actually far from over. And it’s Steve Evans job, now, to end it.