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Missed targets, wrong targets and remaining targets

19 January 2016
Missed targets, wrong targets and remaining targets
You should always have something to aim for in life, even if you are most likely to miss it. It offers a sense of worth, a reason to get up on a morning, maybe a reason for people to invest money in you achieving that target? A target offers something to believe in, and while we learnt nothing that we didn’t already know from Leeds United’s 2-0 defeat to Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday lunchtime, at least it gives us a chance to analyse our targets and see what is left to achieve in the 2015/16 season. For there is something.

This may sound foolish, given that a second crushing defeat of a pivotal week has prompted a rather rotund lady to start warbling falsetto-style about the end of Leeds United’s play-off hopes. But as we assess the wreckage of the 2015/16 season, it is a very obvious but very salient point that there are over four months of the season remaining, and the Club needs to offer fans something, however hollow and intangible.

Saturday’s 2-0 defeat at Hillsborough was in many ways a perfect metaphor for Leeds United’s season. They played well for large periods and made a team far above them in the table look very ordinary, without having that killer instinct up front. They then conceded two soft goals and found themselves chasing the game without the opposition needing to do anything spectacular to gain the ascendancy. Throw in a sizeable slice of farce and a whiff of injustice, and there you have the five and a bit months since August wrapped up in a neat but unseemly ninety minute nutshell. Leeds fans are used to seeking a target for their frustration and anger, and they find new ones on a regular basis. If it is not Sky Sports, the Football League or the Highways Agency creating late night diversions on the way back from Bristol, then certainly referee Anthony Taylor is now etched in permanent marker in the little black book after Saturday’s comical and wholly appropriate sideshow after 79 minutes.

With Leeds trailing to two quick-fire goals gobbled up by Gary Hooper in the 46th and 49th minutes – in much the same fashion Leeds had been unable to do with two equally presentable chances in the first half - a Liam Cooper goal was disallowed by referee Taylor because a Sheffield Wednesday substitution was incomplete when he blew the whistle to re-start the game. Leeds head coach Steve Evans was right to feel aggrieved, but anyone suggesting there is an agenda against Leeds is missing the bigger picture and the true root of Leeds United’s recurring ills.

Evans scoffed at a post-game apology from Taylor, which presumably was for his incompetence in re-starting the game, not for eventually over-ruling his own decision, which by the letter of the law, was the right thing to do. The farce and sense of injustice, however misguided, was of the referee’s own making, but Leeds United’s problems lie much closer to home and within elements that they could control if they had the skills to.

Whichever attacking formation Leeds United line up – on Saturday we had Mustapha Carayol, Lewis Cook and Stuart Dallas behind Souleymane Doukara, while at Ipswich on Tuesday we had Carayol, Alex Mowatt and Sam Byram – there is an absence of the understanding, fluidity and goal-scoring instinct to make it work, and this has been apparent all season, even before the unfortunate injury to Chris Wood. At the other end, pick any two from Sol Bamba, Liam Cooper and Guiseppe Bellusci and the result remains the same; concentration lapses and avoidable goals conceded. Although, in fairness, Saturday’s two goals stemmed from mistakes by goalkeeper Marco Silvestri – for whom there is still no serious competition three months after an injury to Ross Turnbull.

These are just short term issues of course. However glaring such lack of attention is from the outside, Leeds United’s malaise runs far deeper and it seems almost pointless highlighting the fact that Sheffield Wednesday’s Daniel Pudil should have received a second yellow for the brazen foul which lead to the controversial free-kick on 79 minutes. This is particularly relevant given it was Pudil who headed Scott Wootton’s goal-bound header off the line from the re-taken free-kick moments later, while everyone’s head was still clearing. Similar to Mirco Antenucci’s goal at Middlesbrough earlier this season which was chalked off after the referee had initially allowed it, Leeds trailed 2-0 on each occasion, and the one goal may have made no difference to the end result, but you just never know, certainly with Leeds United.

But had a late rally salvaged a point on Saturday, it is unlikely that Leeds United’s immediate future would have played out any differently, bar the brief adrenalin surge of rescuing an unlikely point in a Yorkshire Derby. This week would still have seen Sam Byram signing for Everton or West Ham and Leeds fans bemused by a weakened squad and a recurring sense of hopelessness, and this week would still have seen Steve Evans fighting a losing battle for any level of control at the Club.

Evans clearly recognised Sam Byram’s worth to Leeds United and wanted him to stay. Even in the build-up to Saturday, when Everton’s bid for the 22-year-old right back had been accepted, Evans spoke of fielding him in the Yorkshire Derby if he was allowed to. Byram was an important part of Evans’s team, an important part of Leeds United full stop. Evans also spoke of being able to positively influence Byram’s contract situation had he been at the Club last summer, but it is hard to see how that would have played out any differently to his brief interjection in December. Evidently the derisory offer to Byram would have been the same, because Evans cannot influence what Leeds United’s hierarchy does, however much he might think otherwise. For whatever reason, noses were put out of joint a long time ago with regards to Sam Byram, and there was no coming back from that, regardless of the multiple layers of logic screaming out the solution to the impasse.

Byram’s absence on Saturday, at his own request, was inevitable in the circumstances, a mixture of preventing an injury that could jeopardise the deal and quite simply because his head was not in the right place to positively help the team. From there we wave goodbye to another home-grown starlet and once again assess what we have left.

Talk already, in January may I remind you, is of ‘building for next season’; the cyclical ‘free beer tomorrow’ promise that permeates Leeds United campaigns like a creeping death; but before we fast forward to another summer of vague promises and ‘pin a tail on the donkey’-style squad-building, there is something Leeds United can still achieve in 2015/16.

Wouldn’t it be nice in years to come if we could distinguish one season from this suffocating spell in stasis from another? The years and the names all merge into one, and while records might inform us that Leeds finished 14th, 13th, 15th and 15th in the last four seasons, throughout all of those seasons, in real terms, Leeds made no progress whatsoever, and many fans couldn’t even tell you where they finished, having lost interest long before the grass started growing again. We can only recall each season by its most distinctive features. The one where Simon Grayson lost the plot and we sold Max Gradel and Jonny Howson. The Neil Warnock one where we sold Robert Snodgrass and Luciano Becchio. The Brian McDermott one where we sacked him twice. The Massimo Cellino one where we sold Ross McCormack and bought all of Serie B.

This could still be ‘the one where we finished in the top half’, or better still the top ten. While the play-offs are a distant 13 points away; Wolves in tenth place are only five points above Leeds. A top ten finish right now would represent a modicum of progress; empty and futile maybe, but something to distinguish this season from the others and a platform of some sort to say ‘Leeds United did something different this season’. Even a positive or zero goal difference would be a crumb of comfort after successive campaigns ending with -3, -9, -8 and -11. Leeds currently sit on -5 with the pendulum tantalisingly poised for a positive swing. If we want it enough.

In terms of a message of intent, it is perhaps as far away from the fabled roar of the advancing Leeds United behemoth of old as it is possible to get; a timid, bashful and apologetic whimper in fact. But it is baby steps, the first awkward stumblings forward with the promise of more purposeful ones to come, and perhaps as much as a clearly more capable set of players than recent seasons has deserved under muddled leadership. But it is something.

Come on Leeds, give us something.

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