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Friends in High Places

4 January 2016
Friends in High Places
Under any circumstances a solitary point at home to MK Dons on Saturday was significantly less than Leeds United both needed and expected. As it was, the nature of the 1-1 draw and how it was ultimately achieved told us much about the current state of the first team squad, and raised a whole host of questions about how the Club was being run for the immediate future.

What struck me most prominently about this most fortunate of score draws – secured via an 87th minute own goal from MK Dons defender Anthony Kay – was that it left head coach Steve Evans a full three points shy of the target set for him by owner Massimo Cellino, with respect to releasing the purse strings in the January transfer window. Evans was charged with the task of leaving Leeds within six points of the play-off places; a sufficiently tantalising position for suitable ambition to come gushing forth, it appeared.

As it stands, Leeds now sit nine points behind Ipswich Town in sixth place, and in fairness, you can point to several games before Saturday’s where that deficiency could have been made up, but Steve Evans is still talking like a man who expects to be supported with his transfer market ambitions. Meanwhile, Leeds fans and assembled media whisper covertly in corners and bicker over who should break the news to him. I should add that maybe he knows something we don’t, but in a Championship season more balanced on fine margins than ever before, you suspect this is a transfer window more important than most. Whether that message is currently being received in Miami, we, and Steve Evans, will soon find out.
What is perhaps most galling following Saturday’s rain-drenched exercise in futility, is that Leeds once again bypassed a golden opportunity to make a statement, both to their supporters and to the rest of the division. Completing a run of seven games, the previous six of which had been unbeaten, a home encounter against MK Dons offered considerable scope for Leeds to fill their proverbial boots. Instead we stumbled upon an afternoon of chastening sparsity where craft and virtuosity were strangers to both sides and the only boots we were talking about were the shooting ones Leeds left at home.

I have talked before of Leeds being a Club that cried wolf; forever asking the question but never providing the answer. And while seven games unbeaten is a decent platform to build on as we enter 2016, the reality for those who have witnessed that run of games, is that this remains a squad bereft of many of the qualities that promotion-chasing sides have in their DNA. In mitigation, Steve Evans can point to his unrelenting consistency in making that very point very publicly, however that opinion might have been received by his players.

While Evans has overseen an upwards trend in points accumulation – and in Leeds’s predicament six weeks ago, nobody could afford to squabble over that being the immediate goal - general form is far from convincing, and errors in tactics and formations have peppered even this most recent string of more favourable results. This being the situation at present, the concern is whether Steve Evans is the right man to be spending any money Massimo Cellino may indeed offer him; a somewhat redundant argument given that Evans is currently the man in situ, and nobody is suggesting that shouldn’t be the case. But at this critical juncture, the misgivings over Evans’s squad-building abilities form something of a Molotov cocktail when mixed with the confusion over Leeds United’s short, medium and long term strategy, should such things exist.

In essence, Leeds United is a football club struggling to come to terms with its current identity. The only signing Steve Evans has brought to the Club is Liam Bridcutt, a player who has been fundamental to the upsurge in results, and has been head and shoulders above his teammates in most games, even those where Leeds have generally performed poorly. Saturday was the final game of his loan spell, and while the player has put the ball firmly in the court of his parent club Sunderland, you suspect Leeds are the party that will truly influence whether his stay becomes longer, or better still, permanent.

Fans have become conditioned to accept that such things come at a price, however, and I’m not talking mere transfer fees or wages. I have seen and heard talk amongst Leeds fans that Bridcutt will only be purchased or secured until the end of the season if Sam Byram or Lewis Cook are sold in January. This may well be a financial reality, and none of us is privy to such insider knowledge, but the worry is that some fans see this as good, or at least acceptable, business. In the face of a lack of financial transparency, that is not to say such a view is categorically wrong, but it is so long since Leeds United was run as a progressive business model, which worked, that fans have become accepting of being continually short changed. A promotion-chasing football club would not be looking to sell its most promising talent(s) to enable a ‘finished product’ to be secured; it would move heaven and earth to progress forwards with both or all of them on board.

It looks increasingly likely that Byram will leave in January, and while Evans insists Leeds will not let him go cheaply, whatever value they have on his head, this evidently doesn’t translate to offering the player a suitable contract to stay. Muddled thinking at best.

Any Leeds fan could be forgiven for looking wistfully on with a barrel-load of indifference at the Sam Byram situation; a tragic scenario given the talent he holds, his incorruptible personality and his manifest desire to play for the Club. But until Leeds United finds a business template that builds on young talent rather than either selling it off just to survive or selling it off as a result of personal relationship breakdowns, it is impossible to take any promotion talk seriously. Any relative success without this basic framework, is achieved either with huge good fortune or a huge injection of money, and Leeds United still has the begging bowl out for both of these precious commodities.

Of course, January may well pan out very differently to this, but certainly Saturday’s draw highlighted the shortcomings which need to be addressed in the transfer window. Not many fans felt that Souleymane Doukara was a suitable outlet as a lone striker, even despite his brief renaissance at Wolves. If ever a game cried out for a re-jig of formation – in light of Chris Wood’s absence through injury – it was this one. Doukara toiled fruitlessly all afternoon without support from midfield, where Byram, Cook and Stuart Dallas all appeared to be bearing the weight of a heavy Christmas schedule.

The much-rumoured signing of Norwich City striker Kyle Lafferty doesn’t set the pulse racing in terms of a flood of goals, and what you suspect Leeds need more is a pacey striker and a penalty box predator, preferably in one player, and Lafferty is neither of these. Cook in particular, made a number of surges from midfield in support of the lone striker, but every time his final decision-making was lacking; a short term trait you have to take on the chin while a special talent is learning his game.

Elsewhere Leeds were sloppy in defence, where Sol Bamba had another forgettable afternoon, and where Charlie Taylor was fortunate not to concede a first half penalty. Leeds did concede on 30 minutes when Rob Hall was allowed a crucial half a yard to finish impressively, and this set in motion a test of endurance for the crowd, who knew from the early exchanges that Leeds lacked the wit and guile to break a determined MK Dons defence down. An hour later Leeds had still to fashion a shot on target, yet through Kay’s inexplicable header past his ponderous goalkeeper from the edge of the box, they had somehow salvaged a draw.

There were no celebratory fist pumps from Evans on this occasion, as had followed the last 1-1 draw at Nottingham Forest. Here Evans was shamed into a sense of contrition, and an acceptance that Leeds had fallen way below whatever standard they had set themselves. In a thinly-veiled way, it was a cry for help. But like many in the Leeds hot seat before him, Evans will now see who is truly on his side.

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