This is nothing new of course. We have known of Mowatt, Byram, Cook and Taylor for a long time now; but while the first three on that list have perhaps been talked of most brightly, and rightly so given the goals and performances they have produced, Charlie Taylor has been carried along a little more discreetly. To say ‘by association’ would be to discredit some sound performances, often out of position in an attacking role through necessity, but while Leeds have fought off the many distractions of new head coaches, backroom comings and goings and high-profile signings, not-to-mention inconclusive results on the pitch, one thing that has risen to the surface and into the realms of the ‘indisputable’ during the first eight games of the 2015/16 season, is that Charlie Taylor is a fine, fine footballer.
Saturday’s timely and chaotic 2-1 victory against MK Dons came courtesy of two individual pieces of brilliance from Taylor, but also through a series of factors as primary, venerable and prevailing as the game of football itself, somewhat ironic given it was against a fabricated football club bereft of any history or justifiable narrative. At the core of the win were guts, benefit through misfortune, individual errors and the age-old ingredient of the gods somehow smiling on you. But don’t tell MK Dons’ embittered manager Karl Robinson that. Such a concession would be giving credence to whines that should be earned through decades of bad luck at the hands of officials and evil forces from above, below and beyond.
Instead Leeds ended a difficult week with a series of things finally going their way, and while Robinson brought a laptop into the post-match press conference to somehow legitimise his team’s dominance of the game and rough treatment at the hands of the officials, Leeds’s head coach Uwe Rösler simply wore the look of a man who would take the result any which way it came. It was the look of a man who knew his team had skated on thin ice but for once had prevailed, and the look of a man who cared little for bad luck stories when the debilitating baggage of being Leeds United’s head coach had been weighing heavy on his shoulders as the clock ticked onto 98 minutes.
It is true that Leeds were not slick, despite reverting back to the favoured 4-3-3 formation, but others qualities came to the fore. While MK Dons boss Robinson had admissible gripes that Leeds scored two first half goals against the run of play, such hardship is in the very fabric of the game and the incident that prompted the pitiful and certainly futile production of a laptop was his only well-founded grumble with the officials. This was when Leeds captain Sol Bamba handled in the area shortly before half-time. That he handled was not up for debate. Rösler claimed his skipper was pushed in the back and the referee had already told Robinson he didn’t have a clear view of it. Robinson’s laptop showed that referee David Webb was 20 yards away with an arguably unobstructed view. However, the next question on the lips of most of the journalists in the room was ‘and?’
Such decisions come and go, albeit at more of an alarming rate than perhaps they should, but Robinson did himself no favours in citing debatable laptop evidence and calling the official “atrocious”, particularly when the other two decisions to raise his ire were rightly backed by most sane observers.
On 31 minutes Charlie Taylor raced into the box from a deep position and was clearly taken out by Carl Baker. Chris Wood dispatched the penalty for his fourth goal of the season. Late in the game Samir Carruthers lunged needlessly at Leeds’s Stuart Dallas and was shown a red card. Robinson’s barely concealed venom would have perhaps been better reserved for Carruthers’ frankly weird challenge with his team only one goal adrift and in the ascendency, and for his profligate forward men who failed to net a host of chances.
Leeds reached half-time with a two goal lead courtesy of more Taylor brilliance. Collecting the ball in exactly the same position he drifted forward unchallenged, and, via a fortunate ricochet, found himself advancing into the penalty area. From a wide position he then rifled a shot past David Martin in the MK Dons goal and around stadium:mk Leeds fans were in “what do we do now?” territory.
It is some time since Leeds enjoyed comfortable supremacy in any game, home or away, and their still prevailing inability to kill games off came forth yet again. In an eerie similarity to the game at Ashton Gate earlier this season – when Leeds caved in late on and let go a 2-0 lead to draw 2-2 - Leeds increasingly bore the hallmarks of a team with psychological demons. Whilst Elland Road evidently sees them retreat into their shells at present, a 2-0 lead away from home also induces mental flashbacks. Simon Church tapped in from close range on 74 minutes after Scott Wootton allowed Josh Murphy to send in a dangerous low ball, and most Leeds fans watched the eight minutes of injury time through their fingers.
This time, however, there were no maladroit antics from goalkeeper Marco Silvestri and he reminded us what he is actually quite good at: basic shot-stopping. Leeds survived, Uwe Rösler added his own eight minutes of supplementary time while he lay quietly in a darkened room before facing the press, and the 6,000-plus Leeds fans drifted away to mingle with the cows, concrete and new town sterility.
Leeds now face a hopefully quiet week as they build up to a visit to the Riverside Stadium on Sunday lunch time. Second-placed Middlesbrough are in fine form in the Sky Bet Championship at the moment, but face Wolverhampton Wanderers in the Carling Cup in midweek and have already lost once at home this season, to Bristol City. Leeds will also arrive at an away ground, carrying the unaccustomed air of actually having a decent record there, most notably last season’s 1-0 win. Rösler has talked about Leeds having “nothing to lose” and while many fans may take yet another draw if it was offered right now, something tells you Leeds are capable of winning again, if they enter the game with the same gusto that caught Derby off guard last month.
Such a performance is clearly within the team, but somehow not at Elland Road itself. That is an anxiety perhaps best left for another day, and this week Rösler will surely build on the courage and bravery he called for after the abject Ipswich defeat and evident in spades in Milton Keynes. Lacking in Leeds’s play has been that singular desire to take a gamble, test yourself one-on-one and ‘make things happen’. Lewis Cook has shown it and Charlie Taylor has shown it, before Saturday, but most tangibly demonstrated in the soulless bowl that Leeds so brazenly took over and raided.
Looking on, Sam Byram may well have seen in Taylor that familiar spark that ignited his own career, but has been so palpably lacking of late. Byram was improved on Saturday but still seems shrouded in timidity and a hesitancy caused by asking himself questions, rather than doing what was once natural. He still searches for that one breakthrough moment that could turn his and Leeds’s season around.
On the left hand side, however, Leeds have that fearlessness in Charlie Taylor. While Rösler fiddles with his formation; this time resting right back Gaetano Berardi – who signed a deserved two year contract extension on Monday – and replacing him with Scott Wootton, hence instantly weakening a settled back four, it is striking that there is no such luxury on the left side. For once, it might be just as well. Rösler’s penchant for tinkering does not have the benefit of an alternative to Taylor in the left back slot. The 22-year-old has played every minute of every game so far this season, but is as enduring, tenacious and strong-willed as they come, notably returning to pre-season a more muscular and physically formidable opponent. Add to that a mature unflappability and now the garlands that come with taking a chance and getting a reward, and maybe Leeds’s young side have a new talisman? An emblem of what can be achieved if, in-that-moment, you question yourself and decide to go for it.