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Is this the real Leeds United?

14 March 2016
Is this the real Leeds United?
In terms of Leeds United’s flagging season, three wins in a week – achieved via a 2-1 win at Blackburn Rovers on Saturday lunch time – was not so much the painkilling injection the bedridden patient so badly needed, more a kiss of life to counter symbolic enactments of the club’s untimely demise. On the face of it at least.

Whether nine points in seven days changes the overall picture at Leeds United, depends very much on how far into the future you choose to look. In the short term, undoubtedly, things look rosier. After the 4-0 defeat to Brighton on February 29th, Steve Evans bore all the hallmarks of yet another of Massimo Cellino’s fallen victims. With Leeds now occupying the nosebleed territory of 13th place – it was briefly 12th until Wolves earned a point on Sunday - thoughts of relegation are firmly put behind the club and Evans’ primary objective has been achieved.

In the medium term, it would do Leeds no harm at all to continue this run with a similarly prosperous final ten games, thus taking some momentum into next season while also consolidating the basic framework of what is a capable team. Under normal circumstances that would be the sole aim from this point onwards, but with Leeds United there is always an elephant in the room. Which brings us to the long term view.

The last time Leeds enjoyed a similar surge of optimism was almost exactly a year ago, when a 3-0 win at Fulham on March 18th 2015 capped a fine run of eight wins from 12 games. Shortly after that win, Neil Redfearn’s assistant Steve Thompson was inexplicably suspended, and the team immediately lost five games on the spin; a run that culminated in the ‘sicknote six’ episode at Charlton Athletic.

Leeds’s season had been thrown from relative calm and progression, into chaos. A year later and an enduring sense of impending doom hovers over Leeds United in the form of Massimo Cellino’s ownership battle with both the Football Association and the Football League. When the outcome is known, and should it go the way most qualified observers expect it to, the good ship Leeds United will be sailing into choppy waters once more.

For this reason, these three wins in a week are very much the monosodium glutamate of Leeds United’s 2015/16 season, an artificial flavouring compound making things taste much sweeter, but not masking what has been another bland and unappetising campaign, and not able to hide the fact that there is hazardous, unknown territory ahead.

That is not to say that a little MSG in moderation is not welcome. Leeds showed on Saturday that there is a football team trying to break out of this unholy maelstrom of uncertainty. The third consecutive win was by far the most convincing, and would have been Leeds’s most ‘complete’ performance of the season, had it possessed the quality in the final third that has been so sorely lacking. Indeed, Mirco Antenucci took his fourth goal in three games very well after 63 minutes, and captain Sol Bamba volleyed home a fine in-swinging corner from Alex Mowatt to give Leeds the lead after 36 minutes, but other than that, only a superb Mowatt free kick gave the Blackburn goalkeeper any trouble.

We should remember, of course, that three very presentable sights of the opponents’ goal is far more than Leeds have achieved in several games during this coagulated porridge pot of a season, and in addition, undoubtedly Leeds possessed the solid spine which kept a ragged and toothless Blackburn comfort at bay. Marco Silvestri had his quietest afternoon in several weeks, with only an early Danny Graham opportunity to deal with. After that, the midfield duo of Liam Bridcutt and Toumani Diagouraga wrestled superiority with a nonchalant ease, and at half-time, with Leeds leading 1-0, it was as apparent as it has been for quite some time that Leeds should win the game with relative ease as long as they didn’t succumb to individual errors. That is a characteristic they possess in their locker, of course, but Blackburn faded badly, apart from a late rally that never seriously troubled Leeds. And collectively, Leeds deserve much credit for that.

Special commendation should also go to Steve Evans, who has stayed strong in challenging circumstances and fought to live another day. The media gagging post-Brighton was Cellino’s not-so-subtle hot teaspoon against the back of Evans’s hand, and since then, in fairness, some humility has invaded the Scotsman’s public comments. After Blackburn, Evans as good as acknowledged that the three wins couldn’t detract from what has been a hugely disappointing season, and he also alluded to the very obvious fact that Leeds still need to improve.

While Leeds have undoubtedly found some form, the lack of a cutting edge remains a concern, and we suspect is only something that fresh personnel can solve. Whether the return of Chris Wood is the answer remains to be seen. He and Antenucci briefly shone together at the start of the season, and you would point to that as the immediate way forward. Antenucci and Souleymane Doukara are both attackers who like to drift around the pitch, which causes its own problems, but often leaves Leeds with no focal point or spearhead in the box, particularly with no midfielders gifted in the potent art of a Lee Bowyer-esque late run. Wood is more of a traditional forward man, and in the wingless wonders formation that Evans currently prefers, we sense that his partnering with Antenucci could work, if the Italian is prepared to graft and find space as he has done in recent games.

A fanbase that has suffered as many false dawns as Leeds’s has always looks to the next fixture for a strong suggestion that a run will continue. Leeds face Huddersfield Town at home on Saturday, and having won the last four meetings between the two and with the inconsistent Terriers still struggling in 18th place, it is a fixture that could definitely have been more unaccommodating. Leeds have yet to play as convincingly at Elland Road this season as they did at Blackburn on Saturday, and the local derby would be a fine time to truly persuade the doubters that a corner of sorts has been turned and a certain standard has been reached. Being strong at home is the most basic hallmark of any good side, and with just five wins all season, Leeds certainly cannot lay claim to that trait.

I looked around Blackburn’s ground on Saturday and saw a lower-second tier side struggling to attract 16,000 gates, with a disgruntled fanbase appearing to be accepting of their status. Four straight home wins prior to the visit of Leeds didn’t appear to raise much expectation. This quaint and proud, provincial football club, trading on past honours, is pretty much the one that Jack Walker found and bank-rolled in the early 1990s. They have had a hell of a ride, but apart from three fine stands and a Jordan Rhodes-sized cheque in their back pocket, it is hard to see any sign that this is the club that won the Premier League within our recent memory.

Blackburn had a Premier League status as recently as 2012, their decline is nowhere near as spectacular as Leeds United’s but apathy appeared to reign at Ewood Park on Saturday. The rolling hills of the former mill town that surround the ground, reminded you that this was a club that had far exceeded its potential to do what it did in 1995, and it appeared to be back where it started. It also reminded you that Leeds United, the real Leeds United, is capable of so much more than the paltry fare it has offered its fans in the last decade. Three wins in a week don’t change that, but if the real Leeds United somehow comes out of this, then maybe this win at Blackburn was an appropriate reminder of what Leeds United are now, and perhaps, what is possible.

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 provided by Mark Wheelwright