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Hail the Improbables

5 November 2015
Hail the Improbables
When you approach a football match considering that the toss of the coin to see who kicks off is as vital as it is in cricket, then you know there’s something wrong. After Leeds United conceded a goal to Blackburn Rovers last Thursday after 17 seconds – the fastest concession ever by Leeds at Elland Road – you felt that simple possession of the ball from kick-off was another Achilles heel that Leeds had to contend with, particularly when you saw a makeshift defence bereft of the suspended Sol Bamba and the ‘tired’ Sam Byram.

However, as soon as Leeds ‘kept it tight’ and rode out those hazardous first thirty seconds you could sense they had a chance. Indeed, to reach half-time still level, for the first time at home since the opening day of the season, was another milestone reached and the improbable became increasingly probable.

Prior to this game, statisticians would have laughed Bayes’ Law of Probability out of town had it been used to somehow predict a Leeds victory. The resulting 1-0 win was a triumph of blind hope over spent expectation, and as the first home win since March 4th – 13 whole games – and via a first clean sheet of the season home and away, and against Cardiff City, a team we haven’t beaten at Elland Road since 1984, it came as sustenance for the soul and a source of oxygen to the flagging frame of Leeds United. Blessed relief, and a lot more.

It would be a little premature to attribute the victory to the renewed buoyancy around the Club at the apparent desire of Club President Massimo Cellino to sell his majority share to fans’ group Leeds Fans United (LFU), buoyancy that was immediately dashed on Wednesday morning when the capricious Italian somewhat predictably reversed his decision. More accurate in claiming positive influence, could be the absent spectre of Cellino himself, who banned himself from attending home games after vocal dissent at his reign at last week’s defeat to Blackburn, prior to which it was rumoured he cooked the players’ pre-match meal. Credit too, of course, should go to head Coach Steve Evans, who promised us winning football and in his fourth game in charge finally delivered it.

Not that the performance wasn’t riddled – at least in the first half – with some familiar anxieties. Both sides lacked quality and the composure to play incisive and cohesive football. Not a single Leeds player looked to be playing with confidence, but what had returned was a determination not to lose, and more pertinently, a determination to fight for the ball and not allow a visiting team to skip at will through the idyllic and accommodating lilac fields of Leeds United’s defence.

Leeds spent the entire ninety minutes refusing to allow Cardiff to find a pattern and play their natural game, an attitude at Elland Road as refreshing to see as the win itself. Furthermore, Leeds harried the opposition and forced errors; they imposed themselves on Cardiff rather than the other way around. As a result, Cardiff looked disjointed and harassed, and were the first away team in quite some time that hasn’t used Leeds United and a visit to Elland Road as a training ground dummy, upon which to practice out failings. It was an old school Leeds United performance, perhaps born in the 1980s when flair and quality was thin on the ground but attitude and endeavour was at boiling point.

Throughout the team there were valiant performances that at the very least showed a desire to graft for the shirt in the circumstances, if not necessarily the manager. Evans had been scathing of his players in the build-up to the game, but where he asked his players not to hide, emphatically nobody did. Italian striker Mirco Antenucci put in a shift of remarkable tenacity and stamina, and at centre half makeshift pairing Liam Cooper and Guiseppe Bellusci were solid, focussed and composed. In midfield Lewis Cook and Luke Murphy toiled relentlessly, and then we come to Alex Mowatt.

To break the 13-game duck at Elland Road the significant goal was likely to come via an unlikely piece of magic or off someone’s backside from two yards. Given the paucity of quality on show, most fans would have bet on the former, indeed Mowatt’s fleshy regions were the source of Leeds’s most recent goal-scoring near-miss, when a ricochet off him struck the post against Brighton. But the 63rd minute on Tuesday night brought a moment of beauty in a game that scarcely suggested it, when Mowatt’s 25-yard strike swooped into the net from distance as goalkeeper David Marshall simply watched it. It was the Mowatt of old, sadly missing for much of this season so far, but back with a swagger and the promise of more.

The 17,914 Leeds fans of course played a part in the win also, maintaining their belief throughout the game rather than having the stuffing knocked out of them by the habitual early goal against. The scenes at the end were reminiscent of a long forgotten Elland Road vintage, with even Steve Evans striding across the pitch to applaud the fans, lost in the moment with O’Leary-esque euphoria, but stopping short of the halfway line in his rare concession to physical activity.

Leeds United’s rivalry with Cardiff City has waned of late, as Cardiff’s stadium move and the officious scheduling of the fixture has removed much of the toxic nature of it. But after 31 winless years, certainly the Welsh Club remained listed on a Leeds fans’ 20-volume compendium of irritants; and so, as Leeds United’s demons go, Tuesday night certainly exorcised some enduring and sizeable ones.

Despite the sparse crowd there was a spirit there which offered hope that Leeds United might just survive the Cellino era. For many that hope is extinguished with the news that LFU have been denied the opportunity to formulate a deal for the Club. To others there remains hope that a willingness to sell to ‘someone’ still remains, and Cellino’s chicanery is merely a conduit to starting a bidding war. Either way, surely we are entering the ‘end game’ now, however elongated and unkempt that may become.

For now, remember nights like Tuesday and the relief, elation and atmosphere at the end. That is what life could be like at Elland Road every week with the Club being steered by the right people. Improbable maybe, but there’s a chance.

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.