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Hitching a Ride

21 December 2015
Hitching a Ride
Stuart Dallas spoke of the goalless draw at Charlton last weekend feeling “like a defeat”. The mood after Sunday’s 1-0 win over Preston North End was similar, but mixed with gratitude and relief, such was Leeds United’s paucity of quality on a day when the gods certainly smiled on them – for once – by way of two fortunate developments which fundamentally influenced the game.

The saying goes that the sign of a good team is winning without playing well. Leeds United are masters of the unorthodox and refuse to be defined by conventional idiosyncrasies. In their case such a sweeping generalisation fails to take into account the fact that Sunday’s game was played against ten men for an hour and with a 17-year-old goalkeeper making an unexpected debut. It also avoids the thorny argument that with a sizeable slice of luck, an average team can win without playing well, too.

Unfortunately, the enduring suspicion after Sunday’s win is that Leeds have yet to convince us that, on the whole, they are anything above average. It is true that we may look back at this result at the end of the season and see it as a very necessary three points in the middle of a run of more convincing performances. Indeed, Leeds were far more effective in patches in their previous three games against Hull City, Charlton Athletic and Wolverhampton Wanderers; but the mood of caution amongst most Leeds fans with their feet firmly on the ground is born from characteristics in Sunday’s performance, which suggested the team is not much further developed from that which hovered perilously above the relegation zone less than a month ago.

Leeds were lethargic, disjointed and unadventurous against Preston, and the lone front man formation belied the maverick spirit which had torn Wolves apart less than 72 hours previously. At home the formation appears circumspect and overly-cautious, and you could be even more critical of Steve Evans that he didn’t see fit to change it when Preston were reduced to ten men after 30 minutes, when goalkeeper Jordan Pickford was sent off for handling outside his area. At the time, part of me wanted to see a yellow rather than a red card, such is Leeds’s history of failing to capitalise on a man advantage. In territorial terms this happened again, but thankfully the stars demanded that Sunday was to be Leeds United’s day. Pickford was shown a red card despite no subsequent evidence categorically proving that he handled the ball. He was replaced by rookie goalkeeper Matt Hudson and Leeds’s most heinous crime on the afternoon was that they didn’t once recognise the gluttonous opportunity this presented. Indeed, it was Marco Silvestri at the other end who made the most telling contribution for Leeds, further advancing his claims as the team’s most improved player by making a series of, admittedly routine saves to keep ten-man Preston at bay. Meanwhile, Leeds continued to frustrate against a solid Preston back line unflustered by their concession in numbers.

The breakthrough for Leeds came thankfully quickly and thankfully with acute assistance. Barely a minute after half time a Stuart Dallas cross was headed past Hudson by his own defender Alan Browne. It was more trouble than any Leeds player caused the novice keeper all afternoon. Other than picking that ball out of his net, all Hudson was called upon to do was rush from his goal to clear away errant Leeds through-balls. There were no crosses to worry him, no onrushing strikers to physically unsettle him, and certainly no shots on goal to test him. In past years, an Elland Road baptism for a 17-year-old debutant would be a merciless assignment that any sane manager would avoid, but Preston boss Simon Grayson couldn’t have asked for a more accommodating blooding under the circumstances. Even the Elland Road crowd appeared to go easy on Hudson, resigned as they seemed to be that Leeds wouldn’t muster a concerted spell of pressure on the fledgling keeper. Once the goal went in there was no scent of blood and no stony-hearted call for a set of stocks in which to pelt the goalkeeper with tomatoes. Society’s cotton wool protection of the vulnerable was extended to Hudson, whose embryonic career wasn’t mortally affected by the once barbarous and intolerant Elland Road crowd, even though 22,000 of us have had our own lives psychologically distressed by Leeds United countless times over.

The irony is that Leeds actually performed better against Preston’s full complement of players. The opening ten minutes saw Silvestri make three agile saves to keep the score goalless, but Leeds gradually made a mark in the game and were carrying more threat before Pickford was harshly red carded. From that point the reasoned observer would have expected Leeds to turn the screw, and while they controlled a very low key game for a period, as the second half ticked away, the more Preston woke up to the fact that Leeds weren’t capable of burying them. For much of the last twenty minutes it was the handicapped visitors who were finding space and stringing incisive moves together. Former Leeds midfielder Neil Kilkenny entered the fray as a substitute and tested Silvestri three times; more significantly he settled Preston into a pattern that troubled the home side, and triggered a troublesome finale which seemed absurd in the circumstances. Steve Evans’s now customary celebratory fist pumps at the final whistle appeared somewhat hollow given the ham-fisted fatigue Leeds had employed to slay their opponents. But it did remind you that three points had been at stake and had been safely secured, by any means necessary.

Pockets of a season tell their own story after the event and December so far has been pretty much everything Leeds could have wished for. It has yet to truly convince us that the team is finding a pattern and setting a standard for the rest of the season – providing compelling evidence that performances like Rotherham and Queen’s Park Rangers are a thing of the past, for example - but if Leeds can pick up points while we find that out it would be ill-advised to complain.

Sometimes you need a helping hand to get to where you wish to go. That can come in the form of the pacey striker or the dominant centre half that Leeds still need to become a side going places. While we wait for that we will gladly accept results like Sunday’s 1-0 win, and gloss over the fact that Leeds had to grind out a home win against ten men. Hitching a ride can be a dangerous game, fraught with danger and uncertainty. Better to get somewhere under your own steam and be the master of your own destiny. But right now, in the pre-2016 period of calm that demanded results, Leeds fans will accept any assistance going.

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