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Back in the old, old, old routine

7 March 2016
Back in the old, old, old routine
When the mood is dark at Leeds United, you can pretty much stake your mortgage on them finding a way to make it darker. But Saturday’s 2-1 win over Bolton Wanderers somewhat bucked that trend, and a much-needed three points were secured in routine fashion and without the kind of drama that preceded the match itself.

A second round of protests against the ownership of Massimo Cellino prior to the game, once again appeared to galvanise some fighting spirit in the players. The 0-0 draw against top-of-the-table Middlesbrough followed the first creative output from the ‘Time To Go Massimo’ group and Saturday’s victory was in a similar mould, and while the protests are far from universally-backed, they appear to have released some energy amongst fans and players; a stirring of the pot towards positive action, albeit the desire was to see this primarily in the boardroom.

It can’t be said that this was a win that told us anything new, however; achieved as it was with the customary nervous finish and amongst a general paucity of quality throughout. But having approached the game with one win in eleven league games, and following the shock and awe felt after Brighton’s rapid fire 4-0 demolition of Leeds last Monday night, Steve Evans was desperate for a response.

To suggest that Leeds gave a ‘reaction’ during Saturday’s win would be stretching the boundaries of credibility. In truth they did the bare minimum against a bottom-of-the-table side, and the win was not without an accurate portrayal of this team’s many shortcomings.

Bolton’s goalkeeper was one Paul Rachubka, he of the most hapless series of individual performances I have ever seen from a Leeds player, culminating in the 5-0 defeat to Blackpool at Elland Road in 2011, when Rachubka was substituted for a rookie debutant goalkeeper at half-time. Having a ‘Rachubka’ is now an official addition to football parlance, and doubtless he was still in a fragile mental state as he stepped back on to the Elland Road turf for the first time since then, and an early peppering of shots and a mischievous shoulder charge at a corner could have triggered ‘Blackpool’ flashbacks like the sound of exploding land mines. In the event, Leeds couldn’t have been more hospitable to Rachubka’s psychological scars.

Leeds were familiarly ponderous and predictable up front, wasteful and sloppy in possession and succumbed far too easily to incisive counter-attacks in the opening half an hour, during which Bolton – without an away win for approaching 12 months – looked the more potent side and the more likely to open the scoring.

All that said, there were positives in Leeds’ performance. Yes, I know. Guiseppe Bellusci slotted straight back into the Leeds defence after a two game suspension, and restored an air of uncharacteristic calm after the slapstick calamities of Brighton. Toumani Diagouraga patrolled the midfield with unruffled authority, while his similarly disciplined partner Liam Bridcutt had a rare off-day. All of Steve Evans’ three substitutions were effective, and needed to be. Two of these were enforced before the second half had even kicked off, Lewie Coyle being replaced by Gaetano Berardi in the first half and Liam Cooper – also injured – swapped with Sol Bamba at half-time. Leeds’ defence remained organised throughout some significant second half pressure, and the final addition of Stuart Dallas gave Leeds a willing runner late in the game to stretch Bolton’s weary legs.

The biggest positive, I guess, were the two goals from Mirco Antenucci, eight starts and eight substitute appearances since his previous goal, in the 3-0 win at Huddersfield last November. We know all about Antenucci of course, and his recent body language has backed up the theory that he is likely to move on at the end of his current contract in the summer. However, a somewhat surprising comment post-game was that the 31-year-old Italian was open to discussing a contract extension to stay at Leeds. It would represent a monumental change in policy were Cellino to do such a thing, particularly given the goals-scored contract clause scenario that came into play at the end of last season, and also taking in to account the wage reduction offered to 22-year-old Sam Byram before Christmas. Antenucci has his uses, but like so many of Leeds’ current players, lacks the element of surprise and in the kind of squad Leeds need to build if they are ever going to make progress up this godforsaken division, Antenucci’s ranking would be no better than fourth or fifth-choice striker, and I sense he would not be overly content with that.

Antenucci’s two strikes to defeat Bolton were both welcome and opportunistic. Steve Evans claimed that the first was the fruits of some training ground orchestration. This appears barely plausible given that the ball fell to Antenucci from a corner and he somehow hooked it into the goal from a position facing backwards. It seemed like a goal requiring too many favourable factors to be something premeditated, but then Leeds have barely had an aerial threat from corners this side of the Millennium, so a Plan B from set-pieces, if that is how we are describing it, was long overdue.

This goal was a little out-of-the-blue, and Leeds were fortunate to go in still leading at half-time after Marco Silvestri flapped at a cross and Liam Cooper had to clear the subsequent shot off the line, but the much-required safety net was established after 62 minutes when Antenucci added a second. This goal was also not without an element of luck, but was finished in sumptuous fashion by the Italian. Antenucci broke on the counter and attempted to square the ball to Souleymane Doukara in the penalty area. It was a weak and misdirected pass characteristic of Antenucci’s hurried and wayward decision-making when under no pressure whatsoever. However, a lax clearance from Bolton’s defence immediately presented the ball back to Antenucci, who swept a curling finish into the net with his first touch, to huge sighs of relief all round.

Given that Leeds haven’t won a league game at home by more than one goal all season, it was no surprise that Bolton’s Kaiyne Woolery slammed home a fine finish on 74 minutes to trigger the customary increase in heartbeat as the minutes ticked down, but Leeds survived without major scares.

Quite apart from reacting to the pitiful display at Brighton last Monday, the victory was imperative in the context of the division. Three sides below Leeds in the table all won on Saturday, meaning that the gap between Leeds and the relegation zone remains just nine points, and rather than the win easing the pressure it merely chalks off another game in which the bottom three can’t creep closer.

It is so typically ‘Leeds’ to win when the pressure is on, yetto maintain the mild threat of relegation to such an extent that nobody can relax. With a trip to Cardiff coming up next on Tuesday night, you wouldn’t bet on Leeds’ divisional status being any clearer after that.

But still, Leeds United are in many senses tiresomely predictable, and on Saturday that was exactly what was needed. They did enough; no more, no less - we are back in the routine of keeping anything that might cause us genuine concern at a suitably safe distance, while still residing a million miles away from the gateway to riches and stardom and the prospect of Saturday afternoon matches that really matter; really matter. Remember that involuntary knot in the stomach before big games and that tingle you used to get when Leeds won big matches that really mattered? Saturday was a much-diluted version of that, but at least we won it. Leeds United; forever just about doing enough, and seemingly happy about it.

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 provided by Mark Wheelwright