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No Surprises

1 March 2016
No Surprises
It is pretty much nailed on that a nadir will be reached during a football season that is straining every last sinew to be the absolute opposite of the ‘beautiful season’ we were promised. With Leeds United you never quite know when the definitive ‘bottoming out’ will occur, however. The 1-0 defeat away at Queen’s Park Rangers in November felt like it, and numerous home games have also defied brief, even some that Leeds have won. Monday night’s 4-0 defeat to Brighton & Hove Albion is the latest contender, but while other clubs experience defining moments in a season, with Leeds United you can only really make this judgement at the end of the season, because you never really know what is around the corner. There is always a way that things can get worse and/or more absurd.

To some extent, the nature of the defeat was decidedly un-like Leeds United, particularly being 4-0 down at half-time. After all, Leeds’s heaviest defeat prior to this was the 3-0 reverse at Middlesbrough in September; a game similarly tipped away from Leeds’s favour by a yearning for self-implosion. Other than that and Monday night, Leeds have not capitulated to the tune of conceding more than two goals in a game, despite a litany of soft goals conceded, indeed of the eleven defeats this season only five of them have been by more than a solitary goal.

Yet somehow there were no surprises in how and why Leeds United lost on Monday night, and no surprises among the surrounding sub-plots which continue to market the Club as the most dysfunctional in English football.

It is no surprise that Leeds United lost the game given the starting line-up that Steve Evans selected, even though on first glance it appeared to be extremely defensive. Ordinarily, when it is possible to suggest four or five conceivable formations from eleven names on a piece of paper, it offers visions of fluidity, an array of options and essentially ‘total football’. With Leeds United at present it is merely a guessing game, where you are attempting to minimise the number of players who will be fielded out of their natural position. On Monday we had a centre half at right back, a rookie right back at right midfield, a central midfielder on the left wing and another central midfielder as an auxiliary attacker. This could and probably will change again on Saturday. Sure, injuries have left Leeds United in such a predicament, but a lack of squad depth that has been apparent all season is essentially responsible, and that is gross mismanagement of a fundamental nature.

It is no surprise that Leeds United capitulated so badly given the morale within the Club. Team captain Sol Bamba was close to leaving in the January transfer window, which in itself speaks volumes, but few players have made such a spectacular fall from grace in a Leeds United shirt. Twelve months ago Bamba was a key component of Neil Redfearn’s successful battle against relegation, and appeared to be the imposing and fearless leader of men that we had been seeking for years, despite warnings to the contrary from fans of his previous clubs. Since signing a permanent contract in the summer Bamba has seemingly become riddled with insecurities. His decision-making, composure and statuesque assurance has been shot to pieces among a series of error-strewn displays, and Brighton saw another exhibition of his yielding to the pressures of playing for Leeds United, something he appeared to take in his gargantuan stride last season. Elsewhere, nobody is playing with a smile on their face, and by the time the fourth goal was nodded in direct from a Brighton corner by Lewis Dunk, the Leeds players’ body language plainly suggested they had given up. We would love to see a 90-minute ‘reaction’ on Saturday, it’s the ‘go-to’ phrase with which to placate us, but I am not sure the players have it in them.

It is no surprise that Leeds United failed to score on the night. Despite 17 attempts on goal, mostly in a second half devoid of the element of ‘contest’, Leeds only hit the target once, a thumping strike from Lewis Cook straight down the goalkeeper’s throat. In fairness, you would have to review the last three or four games to gather together the previous 17 attempts on goal, but that should not fool you into thinking Leeds were a potent attacking force on Monday night. Both Lewis Cook and Alex Mowatt – who along with Lewie Coyle were largely immune from criticism purely for their sheer endeavour on the night – are capable of the unexpected, but the disjointed, confused and off-the-cuff nature of Leeds’s attacking play was never going to open up an organised and consummate Brighton defence. Quite apart from having very few attacking players, Leeds have no attacking pattern and to put it bluntly, no idea how to attack. The final ball decisions are devoid of vision, craft and composure, and unfortunately, no re-shuffle of personnel is likely to change that.

It is no surprise that Massimo Cellino chose to leave the game at half-time, without returning. For the Leeds United president watching was too painful, having seen several similarly meek performances in his two years in charge. For Leeds fans, they have witnessed more than a decade of this, and indeed a lifetime. We don’t know if Cellino’s timid retreat was out of sheer anger or a need to prepare himself for big decisions, or maybe even a scheduled court appearance in Italy on Tuesday, but in customary fashion it enabled him to avoid facing the music and avoid facing the mirth of an astonishingly patient and tolerable 1500-strong away fans’ section.

It is no surprise that Massimo Cellino ordered Steve Evans not to speak to the press after the game. Even though this is a rare and unforgivable affront to over a century of football protocol, that Leeds United find new ways to cold shoulder basic decorum and insult the professional reputation of the game - not to mention the fans who had travelled over 500 miles there and back and deserved someone to be accountable for the shambles they had just sat through - no longer raises an eyebrow. For all his faults, Steve Evans is a man who will have wanted to front up and may well have held himself responsible for some of the many flaws in Leeds United’s performance. Maybe Cellino was fearful that Evans would finally open up and spew forth with the cavalier venom upon which he has built his singular reputation? Evans has brassneck to spare, and it will have killed him to leave that performance open and exposed to acute dissection, without his characteristic slant, however incredulous that might have been.

It is no surprise that Leeds United have somehow kept their season alive. Saturday’s game against bottom-of-the-table Bolton now has the air of a ‘must-win’ encounter. From a position of mid-table safety, one win in eleven games has left Leeds just nine points clear of the relegation zone and in need of three points to avoid being drawn into a battle they seem ill-equipped to survive. Leeds United have never been higher than 10th position under Massimo Cellino, and occasional wins never snowball into ten, 12 or 15-game runs that make an impact into the Division. Leeds United are never safe; forever the small child on the beach, stooping to pick up the ball and run with it, but merely kicking it further along the sand away from its tantalising grasp.

It is no surprise that Leeds United’s fans stayed until the end on Monday night. With no responsibility taken by the chairman or the head coach, and with another spineless display on the pitch for all the nation to witness, it was left to the fans to uphold the honour of the football club. A perfect metaphor for the current state of Leeds United; a name sung loudly forever by the only people who understand what it means, but in reality an organisation bereft of class, substance and responsibility. Money can’t buy that, but the fans have it. Maybe that is telling us something?

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