wolverhampton wanderers 2-3 leeds united: fully backBack
It’s a bloody daft idea, nicking a shopping trolley, climbing into it, and hurtling in it as fast as you can down a hill. You’ll almost inevitably get badly hurt when it overturns and you slide, Lee Chapman style, face first along the gravel.
But what if you get to the bottom and everything is fine? Imagine how that might feel?
It might feel like beating Wolverhampton Wanderers felt for Leeds United. For half an hour Leeds’ destiny looked as definite as concrete, Steve Evans’ grip on the game about as strong as if he’d been holding the sides of a Mozzdogs trolley doing 40mph into traffic.
The first prematch surprise was Sam Byram’s return to the starting lineup; the second was that Scott Wootton was playing too; the third that, instead of Jordan Botaka, Lewie Coyle was another fullback on the bench; fourth that David Kerslake and Ray Wallace had come out of retirement to sit alongside him, just in case we were short of fullbacks, like.
It was nice to see Byram back but odd that Botaka should have dropped out altogether; if Tom Adeyemi had his act together at the weekend, we’d have been dropping a precious goal creator. Byram might have been wanted to give us more defensively, but in the first half an hour we needed a lot more than Sam Byram to sort things out.
The Tom Adeyemi and Liam Bridcutt combination had also felt like it was clicking into place against Hull and Charlton, a solid base that allowed the defence to relax and the attacking players to go create; while it’s not true to say they didn’t get a kick in the first half at Molineux, every kick they did get went to a Wolves player.
This was an impossible way to play; to give the opponent the ball at every opportunity and then try and catch them as they ran at our goal, and it’s amazing that Wolves only scored once. They had outlets, Graham and Afobe, and it was during this long spell — that felt like it would last for the full ninety — that I rued the absence of Botaka from the bench. An outlet seemed to be what Leeds United needed; a Graham to do something with the ball other than give it away in front of our own penalty area, an Afobe to provide a threat around the other. Kerslake and Wallace weren’t going to provide that.
Souleymane Doukara surely wasn’t, either, and yet here he was. Bridcutt had seemed to me to be the most culpable for the first thirty minutes, but it was Adeyemi who seemed to be falling victim to the same kissing disease Charlie Taylor had and was removed for Doukara. And then the game changed.
It’s difficult to judge a manager in this situation. Doukara for Adeyemi was a counter intuitive call, because in his cameos this season, Doukara has looked poor; but it was a move that swung the game around in Leeds United’s favour. It was a move that was necessary, though, because the starting lineup Evans had set up was being chased all over the place and certain to lose; and it was a move that brought about through an opportune illness rather than a decision to change the game. It was also something of a retreat; Evans scuttling back to 4–4–2 and two big lads doing the big lad thing up front.
Evans also surely couldn’t have expected Doukara to play as well as he did. Of course, after the game Steve Evans was full of how much Doukara has come on since — coincidence of coincidences — Steve Evans came to the club, but come on. Little that Doukara has done this season has suggested he could be a difference maker in a game that was getting away from Leeds in midfield.
Early last season was a different story, back in the Milanic days when any Leeds player who got within twenty yards of goal fell to the ground and slept for a hundred years, so Doukara and Antenucci had to score every goal by shooting into the bottom corner from twenty-one yards or more; but even then Doukara didn’t play like this.
Wherever on the pitch the ball needed to be kept, Doukara was on hand to collect it, nurse it, give it, get it again if necessary. He instigated Byram’s first goal simply by holding on to the ball out wide until there was a decent way to use it; he instigated Dallas’s goal with a neat flick into the winger’s path, although Dallas’s subsequent clear path to goal was all down to the Wolves defence. For the third, Doukara’s contribution was legging it off the pitch into the stands so he wouldn’t be caught offside; unconventional, almost as hilarious as Wood’s dive over Byram’s shot for the first, and most importantly, it worked.
Where this performance came from isn’t clear; whether it will be repeated can’t be known. But it will be enough to renew Doukara in the thoughts of the fans and the manager, and give Chris Wood even more to think about, as he rolls his eyes to the sky as he continued to fluff chances a £3m striker should bury. This is a textbook case of a player taking his chance.
Out on the right wing, also taking his chance, was Sam Byram, but Byram may continue to be treated differently. Evans’ post-match comments unnecessarily singled Byram out: sign a contract or get gone is not the advice to give a player who, contract or no contract, had just put in his best performance for months and scored two goals that were, first, perfect right-winger’s goals — cutting inside for one, heading in at the back post for another — and, second, saved this game just as much as Doukara did.
If Doukara can be considered anew after this game, then it ought also to be enough to allow Byram to shake off the performance against Blackburn that has been used to justify his being condemned to Devs while Wootton came in and floundered just as hard at right-back. Scott Wootton has a contract, but that doesn’t make him a more useful player for Leeds United than Sam Byram.
Byram made a statement with this game, and rather than dismiss it out of hand as changing nothing the way Evans did within minutes of full time, it ought to be listened to. If Byram doesn’t think he has a long-term future at Leeds and doesn’t want to sign the contract being offered, that’s his prerogative. But if he’s going to play like he did against Wolves in every match, and chip in with sorely needed matchwinning goals, then he should be considered for selection for every game until the end of the season or until he leaves, whichever comes soonest. And he shouldn’t just be considered, he should play.
No other player is being put under the pressure Sam Byram is about his future. You could argue that’s because he is the only player with an expiring contract, but just because Cook, Mowatt or even Doukara have longer contracts, does that make them any more likely to stay at Leeds United beyond next summer if they don’t feel this is the club for them?
Lewis Cook’s contract extension will mean nothing if he fancies the rumoured move to Bournemouth in January and their offer balances out the money Cellino might end up owing to Macron; but nobody is asking him for public and private declarations of commitment to the club far into the future.
We’re just asking him to go and play. And sometimes, like against Wolves, that’s what works best. Just get in the trolley, and go, because sometimes good stuff happens, even to Leeds United.