Distractions from the main goal of winning football matches, or even being able to concentrate solely on football at all, have never been far away, but particularly so in the week preceding the encounter with Steve Bruce’s promotion-chasing Hull. If there is a new and radically conceptual way to raise eyebrows across the football-watching public then Leeds United will find it. This week it was ‘Pie tax’ and the mandatory and highly volatile £5 ticket surcharge slapped on already-disenchanted supporters in Elland Road’s South Stand, coupled with news on Saturday morning that Sam Byram had rejected the latest contract offer made by the Club. Regardless of your opinion on how Byram has been treated by Leeds United, and the details of the latest deal presented to him, which merely offered a one-year extension on top of his current deal for a highly-sought-after 22-year-old, this ongoing saga along with the Pie Tax debacle are messy affairs initiated by Leeds United, and well within their power to manage better.
Also this week, Leeds fans, and any Leeds United first team player who happens to read a paper or scour the internet, have been further distracted by damaging column inches in various sections of the national press. Persistent stories claimed Massimo Cellino entered the dressing room at half-time of the 1-0 defeat to Queen’s Park Rangers last weekend and attempted to influence Steve Evans’s tactics. It is a story flatly denied by Evans, despite a direct quote attributed to Cellino that “it didn’t work any way”. Prior to that, the same papers ran the story that Cellino was planning a fire sale of the first team squad in the January transfer window and every player has his price. Both stories have questionable foundation, but are entirely believable in the current climate, where Cellino bears the scowl of a wounded soul in the final throes of a crumbling empire. The public face of Leeds United, currently Steve Evans, also denied that story, and while both could well be mischievous scribblings which the Club can do little to control, they carry credibility and promote circular debate purely because of the relentless waves of commotion that encircle Elland Road.
Recent 1-0 defeats to bottom-of-the-table Rotherham United and Queen’s Park Rangers were just the response you would expect from a talented squad devoid of confidence, leadership and organisation, and unable to focus purely on 90 minutes of football without the hindrance of uncertainty over their own future and those of their teammates, some of whom they have known since their early teens, and carry ‘blood brother’ status.
This all began to bubble over during the week, but a planned protest initiated by those directly affected by the ‘Pie Tax’ debate – a mass walkout on 17 minutes for 17 minutes - failed to materialise in significant numbers. There was a protest of sorts and some very vocal anti-Cellino chanting from many more fans than physically joined in the protest, but naturally for the Leeds United fan base, even fans who believed in the principle of it, couldn’t agree on the method of protesting. And this is where it is possible that the ‘power’ of social media can be skewed.
Saturday morning was a battleground of simmering anger and dejection, particularly when the Byram news stoked the fires further; and never before have I seen an approach to a game so entrenched in helplessness. The number of people claiming they would join in the protest did not provide an accurate microcosm of those who actually did, however. Equally, the harrowing obituary of people claiming they weren’t going to attend the game at all – some of whom were fully paid-up season ticket holders – was not born out in a respectably healthy attendance in the circumstances, of just under 25,000, albeit helped by a rare sell-out away section.
This is not to say there is no appetite for protest amongst some sections, more that the vehicle for it didn’t resonate with the majority of those. Certainly, the fact that Leeds United, for once, started the game brightly at home, made it difficult for anyone to turn their back on it. Hull manager Steve Bruce claimed his team’s first half performance was “pathetic” and possibly the worst in his time as manager. While Leeds do need a helping hand at times, this does them a disservice for a first half performance which bristled with intensity, inventiveness, and most incongruously of all, good football. Furthermore, Leeds prevented Hull from slipping into the groove which so many other away teams have so accommodatingly found at Elland Road.
Leeds were 2-0 up at half-time and deservedly so. Goals from Chris Wood and Tom Adeyemi were the result of an astute tactical change from Steve Evans, which utilised new loanee Liam Bridcutt and allowed midfielders Adeyemi, Lewis Cook, Stuart Dallas and Alex Mowatt to bomb forward in support of a lone front man. The formation appeared to inject some freedom and adventure into the side and, coupled with a spikey atmosphere, provided an old-school Elland Road buoyancy, and the fruits were there for all to see.
Hull were bound to respond in the second 45 minutes, and the fact that Leeds sat deeper – a natural position against a quality side when you are bedevilled by a lack of home comfort – helped with this. When Ahmed Elmohamady headed one goal back on 51 minutes, most Leeds fans braced themselves for the inevitable, for it would be the most ‘Leeds’ thing to provide a tonic in the most surreal circumstances, yet fail to ultimately deliver anything other than another kidney punch. However, Leeds held on, with a stout defensive performance that was not without its scares. A late point blank header from Hull’s Chuba Akpom flashed narrowly wide, and while that would have been cruel on Leeds, football is known as a harsh mistress in LS11. The result left Leeds stuck in 17th, not even for Leeds fans the boost of rising to the over-familiar position of 15th which appears to be their birth right and a position that succinctly encapsulates the sense of muddled stasis at the Club. After such an unlikely victory, it would be natural to be looking up the table, but for Leeds fans there is always the sense that instability is never far away, particularly with a possible Football League ban for Cellino and the January transfer window on the horizon. With Cellino’s ownership of the Club up in the air, even the most sanguine and breezy Leeds fan will be expecting some left field hammer blows over the coming weeks and months. We don’t have to look back very far for evidence to support this.
In football terms, even the most complete performance under Steve Evans’ management carries with it some caveats, namely that the recent Rotherham defeat perfectly demonstrated Leeds United’s inherent ability to reject any gift-wrapped opportunity to gather some momentum. Leeds’s next three games are all against winnable opposition – Charlton Athletic, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Preston North End – and if there had been any sense of consistency at any stage of this 2015/16 season, you would be confident that the victory over Hull City was the reaction we had been waiting for.
There are diversions ahead at Leeds United, and while the players have shown that in isolation they can maintain a focus amongst all the background noise, and win a game in accomplished fashion, these are ongoing diversions they don’t need. For Leeds fans, one victory makes the weekend sweeter and serves as a welcome distraction to the mounting exasperation at how the Club is being run. If the players can follow the diversion in the meantime then all well and good, but ultimately, Leeds United fans need to stay focussed and keep an eye on the bigger picture, until the diversion ends.