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A Week for Heroes

11 January 2016
A Week for Heroes
It is doubtful David Bowie was thinking of the unborn Mustapha Carayol, or indeed any professional footballer, when he wrote ‘Heroes’ in 1977. But on this grey, fresh and poignant Monday morning when the world mourns the loss of one of its biggest ever cultural icons, the words feel quite apt.

Carayol arrived on Friday, unheralded, as the 92nd Leeds United loanee since relegation from the Premier League in 2004, but with one vicious strike from 30 yards shortly before half-time in Saturday’s 2-0 FA Cup win over Rotherham United, Carayol instantly made a mark, perhaps, just for one day. At the beginning of a crucial week for Leeds United, it was a mark that many will need to emulate.

If Carayol does nothing else in a Leeds United shirt – and lukewarm references from fans of both Middlesbrough and Huddersfield suggest that is quite possible – then he has already made an impact far greater than the vast majority of that maladroit pot pourri of ill-judged misfits from the last 12 years.

It would be wrong at this early stage to draw conclusions either way on Carayol, of course. His season-long loan to Huddersfield was cut short last week, which is not the best testimonial in truth, and stories differ as to who instigated that. The media seem to suggest it was at the behest of Huddersfield Town, while Leeds United head coach Steve Evans claimed Carayol triggered a premature, and brief, return to parent club Middlesbrough in the pursuit of a loan to a ‘bigger club'.

Either way, question marks remain over whether Carayol has the mental stamina to continue Saturday’s decidedly promising introduction to Leeds United. Two things immediately struck me as both encouraging and almost ground-breaking about this particular loan – and let’s face it, Leeds fans are well positioned to discuss the many subtle nuances in such short term deals – firstly the fact that the Gambian winger is match fit, having featured for Huddersfield throughout December and as recently as January 2nd, and secondly the fact that he embraced the Elland Road stage as if it was his natural home. So often loanees arrive at Leeds, even those with a solid reputation, and transform into meek lambs before our very eyes; the fear and trepidation dripping from every pore. But Carayol was refreshingly positive, able to show he was befitting of the opportunity and suggested he has approached this latest tangent in his career at least with the right attitude. Whether he can now continue Saturday’s form is key, as Leeds face a pivotal week in which Steve Evans needs people he can trust.

Tuesday night’s trip to sixth-placed Ipswich Town is swiftly followed by a Yorkshire Derby away at seventh-placed Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday lunch time. While Leeds have typically upped their game against the better opposition in recent times, many fans have pinpointed this week as the time when the eight-game unbeaten run was most likely to come unstuck. Having negotiated the tricky Nottingham Forest and Derby County double-header in late December with professional aptitude if not grace and killer instinct, Leeds now face a sterner test of their squad’s mettle, and if they similarly emerge unscathed and unbeaten at the end of this week, fans should be sold on the prospect of a brighter Spring ahead, even if that means the team has drawn five games in a row.

Saturday’s win over Neil Redfearn’s Rotherham was as routine as you felt the league fixture in November should have been. Leeds entered that much-publicised personality contest – which the Millers won 1-0 - on the back of two very encouraging wins, but second time around found the ‘magic of the FA Cup’ somewhat difficult to rouse, having limped apologetically to a 1-1 draw with MK Dons in their last outing.

It is fair to say that Leeds United and the FA Cup have been only perfunctory acquaintances for much of each other’s existence, but on those all-too-rare occasions where the socially ham-fisted Leeds have made the effort to discourse, they have become more than affable bedfellows. There is no doubt that Leeds United could do worse than sprinkle some stardust on an otherwise perplexing and colourless campaign, and maybe the FA Cup will do just that; after all, every show stopping Wembley finale has begun in the cheerless drizzle of January. Saturday’s often attritional ninety minutes fitted that dichotomy perfectly.

Perhaps the novelty of Redfearn’s return to Elland Road and the vigour with which Rotherham’s players wished to outdo their own former boss had waned, but certainly Leeds navigated an even contest with little drama, even if goals in the dying moments of each half maintained a modicum of interest amongst the muted 16,039 crowd. Rotherham controlled the first half an hour without offering a meaningful threat, and while Leeds had the upper hand from then on, only the two goals and substitute Stuart Dallas striking the bar late on raised a murmur.

Carayol struck first, collecting Charlie Taylor’s pass on the left wing before cutting in and beating Rotherham’s Lee Camp with a venomous strike into the roof of the net. Forty five minutes later, Leeds were looking similarly ponderous as the referee again looked to his watch, until a defensive mix-up allowed Souleymane Doukara to demonstrate a hitherto unknown alertness and tap the ball into an empty net.

Evans has not been shy in drawing attention to the sparse nature of his first team squad, and while it is better equipped than many others in recent seasons, most fans agree there are pockets of quality missing. Many expected Evans to make a raft of changes in light of the two games coming quickly on the horizon, but in the event, the enforced absences of Alex Mowatt, Lee Erwin, Chris Wood and Kalvin Phillips somewhat forced his hand.

That said, you could argue only Liam Cooper, as acting captain, was a player on display that begged to be rested. Goalkeeper Marco Silvestri will play by default whenever no serious cover exists, while Guiseppe Bellusci, Luke Murphy and Mirco Antenucci have all been in and out of the side in recent weeks. Elsewhere, Charlie Taylor, Sam Byram, Liam Bridcutt and Souleymane Doukara have all missed large chunks of the season and could be argued to be short of 100% match fitness, leaving debutants Louie Coyle and Mustapha Carayol as the only concessions to experimentation and the more forgiving nature of the FA Cup. Both suggested they were worthy of more rigorous testing, while Bellusci’s performance at centre half was particularly solid and timely, given the week's schedule ahead, where you expect Leeds will spend considerable time with their backs to the wall.

You would expect Steve Evans to now keep attention firmly on the two games ahead, and hence movement in the transfer market may well be on the backburner this week. In the aftermath of Saturday’s game Evans referenced a total of £30million in bids currently on the table for his players. This is a somewhat exaggerated figure given that this presumably includes multiple bids for the same player(s), but nevertheless, if Evans and Cellino wanted to deflect attention from such bids and focus everyone’s minds on keeping an improving squad together, then this wasn’t a particularly adept manner in which to do it. A suspicious and mischievous observer might suggest the figure was put into the public domain to subliminally implant in the collective mind a sum of money that ‘can’t be refused’, and certainly the £30million figure has been oft-quoted and in some quarters already spent, even though only a fraction of that will actually be received, even if Leeds do finally cash in on some of their saleable talent.

For now, however, Leeds would do well to keep such talk to a minimum, and for once, focus minds on two games that could define their season. In an unforgiving division, fixtures come thick and fast of course, but here are two where Leeds will truly demonstrate their worth; where some players will stand up and others may fall. Unlikely candidates may well come forth and Leeds fans will take that, given the circumstances and given the high stakes. We can beat them, just for one day. We can be heroes.

By
Jon contributes sports content for Leeds Living, he is an established sports and lifestyle writer for various organisations, and is a twice published author.
Photography by Mark Wheelwright