Some football clubs would confine such a profound affliction to events on the pitch, and the rigours of a game open to human error and the motion of a round thing that bounces, spins and comes into contact with players as turbulent as Guiseppe Bellusci. Not so Leeds United, whose capacity for self-inflicted implosion has been taken to new levels in the recent past, and involves such arbitrary and unpredictable tangents – be it legal cases, human resource calamities or robbing fans of the opportunity to watch their own team – that life at Elland Road has at times bordered on a brand of performance art that even the most enlightened cultural analyst couldn’t fathom.
The last time Leeds United won two successive games, they defeated Ipswich Town at home 2-1 and Wigan Athletic away 1-0. This came during a run of form in the second half of the 2014/15 season which did not exactly have the rest of the Championship teams clenching their buttocks with fear, but did suggest that the general climate at Elland Road was, for once, progressive. At the helm at this time was Neil Redfearn with his assistant Steve Thompson, whose arrival to help out his old friend had unquestionably coincided with an upturn in Leeds United’s on-pitch fortunes and had lifted them away from the Division’s dreaded relegation zone. In the next two games following the Wigan win, Leeds drew 0-0 at home to Nottingham Forest then beat Fulham 3-0 away. Life was rosy, and the young team that had been assembled from the miscellany of a frenzied trolley dash in the summer transfer window, had somehow clicked; it worked. This is notwithstanding the enforced absence of Massimo Cellino of course, due to his first Football League ban. It meant he couldn’t influence the daily operations at Elland Road, which rather than resembling the agenda of a plot meeting at EastEnders, were tranquil and hazard-free, sort of.
We will perhaps never know the absolute truth behind why Steve Thompson was relieved of his position, and why six members of the first team squad suspiciously elected to declare themselves unfit on the eve of a trip to Charlton Athletic. The upshot was that somehow, Leeds United had affected the course of a smooth-running vehicle, quietly and efficiently gathering pace, and had introduced terrain fraught with pitfalls whilst draining all fuel in the process.
It is why many Leeds fans are not getting too excited by consecutive wins over Cardiff City and Huddersfield Town, which preceded the international break; even ignoring the fact that they were achieved without the team scaling the heights of optimum performance in either game. The hovering and almost asphyxiating fear of the ‘unknown’ is never far away, and while ever Massimo Cellino appears to be entertaining suitors to take over control of the Club, the ground upon which we are trying to keep our feet firmly attached appears desperately brittle.
Two wins, albeit achieved in spectacular circumstances by some fine goals, represent slender foundations in any circumstances, but particularly so when Cellino’s unpredictable temperament controls the Club’s destiny and wellbeing more than ever.
For this reason Steve Evans’ comments during the international break, while completely understandable following two successive victories, sound slightly hollow when context is added. Evans suggested that if the run of good form continues, other teams in the Championship will be looking over their shoulder at the behemoth that is Leeds United appearing over the horizon. Chest-beating bravado of course, but rather vacuous when you consider there is no recent history of such a surge occurring.
Leeds inhabited the play-off places for a short period in December 2014 under Brian McDermott, but this was hardly achieved on the back of an imperious run of form that thrust all-comers into the moat that surrounded our impregnable fortress. Prior to this, the top six had not been Leeds United’s domain since the sepia-tinted and carefree days of Simon Grayson’s reign, when the 2010-11 season petered out from a focussed promotion push to a languid roll around in the grass with the family puppy.
Since this time, every season and every transfer window has resulted in a succession of false dawns and missed opportunities, littered with mis-management, legal stifling and an appetite for chaos. The remaining 23 teams in the Championship could be forgiven for a wry smile and a sarcastic response upon hearing Steve Evans talking up his Leeds team’s impending charge, having heard the same many times before, when the shuddering roar has quickly turned into a timid and confused whimper.
This is not to suggest that Evans is wrong to take the stance of reminding the Division of Leeds United’s stature, however reminiscent of a fading past it might be. Aesop’s fable of the ‘Boy Who Cried Wolf’ carried the moral that liars are not rewarded, for even after a series of false alarms, if they eventually tell the truth nobody believes them. Leeds United, of course, do things their own way. In Leeds United’s case, they have not lied but continually fallen way short of both expectation and promises made without foundation to those who can see beneath the veneer of bombast. The story of season 2015/16 may not end with the Championship’s 23 other clubs smiling wryly again, but with Leeds United finally turning expectation into reality and returning on the promise that a healthy squad with no little quality adds foundation to.
The righteous message from Leeds United this time may be that ‘every dog has its day’, a sense that sooner or later the dice have to land right; like they did under Neil Redfearn and Steve Thompson, and perhaps how they incongruously have now under Steve Evans. Perhaps.
A more accurate moral may be that if you ‘stab around aimlessly in the dark long enough, you might just drop lucky’. It seems more appropriate to the slipshod ethic that runs through Leeds United’s core, but as Christmas approaches and the halfway point in yet another season begs the question ‘where are we going?’ an answer with any clarity and conviction has never seemed so far away.
Previous head coach Uwe Rösler spoke in pre-season of a top-ten finish as progress, and while most Leeds fans baulked at that given the still somehow hardened belief that ‘Leeds United’ is better than that, it was a realistic barometer of progress on the back of four consecutive mid-table finishes. At this stage of the season, as many Leeds fans would probably take a top-ten finish as derided it in August, in the light of yet more upheaval that continually hampers any sense of continuity on the pitch.
This Saturday Rotherham United come to Elland Road, with their manager Neil Redfearn sure to receive the hearty thankyou he was denied last May, for a job well done, not just in staving off relegation in 2014/15 but also in nurturing a conveyor belt of Academy talent that Leeds United could benefit from for years to come.
More pertinently, the visit of the Championship’s bottom-placed club – who have not won in eight games, since, in fact, Steve Evans was their manager – represents a golden opportunity for Leeds United to win a third game in a row and deliver on a small portion of that expectancy. It perhaps explains why Steve Evans has appeared so confident in the media since the 3-0 win over Huddersfield Town. It perhaps explains why Leeds opted to play a friendly away at Wycombe Wanderers last Friday, which they won 2-0, but which could have backfired into a public humiliation if the team was struggling for results, as they have been for much of this season. It perhaps explains why Leeds have been so patient in the loan market and not reacted so forcibly to patch up an admittedly thin squad, and where a couple of defeats could very quickly highlight deficiencies again, arguably in all departments. It is amazing the power a couple of results can provide; the confidence they can energise every facet of the Club with. Some more would be very welcome and long overdue, and maybe Leeds United won’t be the club who cried wolf, yet again, but just might become the hungry and advancing wolf themselves.