Leeds United are currently on a six match unbeaten run. You might want to read that again and stop for a moment to dwell on it. Of those six games, three have been won and three have been drawn. Arguably Leeds could and should have gained a maximum return from all of them. But it is the fruits of the last two games – the 1-1 draw against Nottingham Forest on Sunday 27th and the 2-2 draw with Derby County 48 hours later on Tuesday evening - where the word ‘promise’ plays nagging mind games and shunts our fans’-eye psychology wildly between unrealistic gluttony and balanced, rational ambition.
Most fans were left frustrated by the Nottingham Forest result, having seen the team dominate possession and control the game, concede a woefully self-inflicted goal, but gain only a draw against a disjointed Forest team clearly lacking confidence and drifting aimlessly around mid-table in a decidedly ‘Leeds’ fashion. The promise Steve Evans’s men showed needed more of a return on that occasion.
On Tuesday evening, Leeds fans had different expectations against a Derby side who could have regained top spot in the event of a win at Elland Road. However, the resulting 2-2 draw, while fashioning short term frustration at the fact that Leeds had come from behind to lead in the 71st minute, on reflection offered a more healthy and hopeful realisation on the promise shown.
Which of the two score draws gives us a more solid indication of where this Leeds United team truly resides at this present time, is difficult to say, but certainly there were positives in both displays which Steve Evans is now charged with moulding into tangible progress in 2016.
It is true that there were periods in both the Forest and Derby games where the cavalier attacking abandon that Leeds displayed at Wolverhampton Wanderers 13 days ago, and indeed the three points that resulted from it, appeared to be a freak of nature. In the first half on Tuesday evening, against a well-drilled Derby side – beaten only once since Leeds did the same back in August - Leeds were chasing shadows in midfield for long periods, while the isolated Chris Wood begged for more support up front on the rare occasions they made territorial inroads.
For all the neat possession of Derby’s Johnny Russell, Jeff Kendrick, Bradley Johnson and Jacob Butterfield, they didn’t transform that into shots on goal. That said The Rams didn’t have to work hard for the opening goal, when Kendrick sashayed around some questionable challenges from the Leeds defence to slot home on 13 minutes.
A few weeks ago you would have feared the worst at this point; but if nothing else, Steve Evans has instilled some backbone into this Leeds team, and while Sol Bamba’s equaliser on 42 minutes came via sizeable assistance from Derby’s goalkeeper Lee Grant, it was deserved in the sense that Leeds had worked to nullify Derby’s expansive passing and moving and gained a foothold themselves. It set up a raucous second half in which Sam Byram became more of an attacking threat, Stuart Dallas grew into the game and Charlie Taylor’s unbreakable spirit carried Leeds forward.
Where the tireless endeavour of Dallas, Taylor and Murphy unsettled Derby and didn’t allow them to dictate like they had in the first half, much of the credit for Leeds’s solidity and strength of purpose – both in this game and over recent weeks – must go to Liam Bridcutt. The Sunderland loanee has one game left of his short term deal at the Club, and Leeds must do everything they can to secure him for longer, if not permanently. Bridcutt is able to read the game expertly, and effortlessly gives Leeds a better tempo; moving the ball quickly and purposefully to maintain the intensity with which they were able to take the game to Derby. Leeds need more up front and at the back of course, but Bridcutt creates a great balance.
Bridcutt is one of those rare nuggets within the spendthrift desperation of the emergency loan system, and while he doesn’t quite compensate for the little part of me that died every time I watched Habib Habibou or Edgar Cani play for Leeds United, he offers something that makes our midfield, and hence our team, much, much better. You could argue, perhaps, that he is the key to taking this Leeds team to the next level, which like it or not, is the much-derided top ten finish that has been tantalisingly out of our reach for the last five years. It will be a telling statement of the football club’s intent if Bridcutt is not a Leeds United player at the end of January.
The same has already been said of Sam Byram of course, and it was his succulent cross which Chris Wood dispatched to give Leeds a 2-1 lead in a pulsating second half. Alas, it only lasted seven minutes, as substitute Tom Ince showed his class to drift through the Leeds defence and drill home a shot which set up a barnstorming finale that didn’t quite deliver. Parity in the end, was fair, and for Leeds was a concise end to an unbeaten December, which leaves them poised in 12th place and ready for a revealing sojourn in one of two directions. If Leeds delivered on their promise on the pitch, while displaying ample professionalism and wily acumen the fans hitherto didn’t know existed, the opposite was true away from the green fields of Elland Road, and more specifically on the barren mud patches of Fullerton Park, where other promises were under threat. Here, Sky Sports’ staff and equipment sat idle in an uneasy and almost unspoken stand-off until ten minutes before the 3.00pm cut-off point, at which time they would have been unable to broadcast Tuesday night’s game.
It is true that the majority of Leeds fans, and even for once many neutral observers, were in agreement with Massimo Cellino’s noble stance in fronting up to the Football League and Sky Sports’ meddling intrusion on the staple ingredients of the game. But while football fans the country over may have smirked and nodded at Cellino’s maverick swipe, Leeds fans were more concerned by the mere trivialities of contracts and the “full range of sanctions” the Football League claimed it had at its disposal, for what it had already confirmed would have constituted misconduct by the Club.
Were Leeds United confirmed as a financially stable football club, and were they not already facing up to thirty legal cases from kit suppliers, shirt sponsors, and ex-managers, coaches, executives and office staff, then fans could afford to chortle at the form of protest Cellino decided upon. Like the uni common room back-of-a-text-book scratchings of Rik from the Young Ones, Cellino’s revolution had considerable heart and a characteristic hint of cowardice and back-tracking, but lacked true consideration and any strategic thinking as regards the repercussions.
If Cellino always intended to allow the cameras in at the eleventh hour, his point was well-made. If it was a late decision taken on the back of some sound advice, we should just be thankful that he is finally party to some.
Cellino’s argument that Leeds’s attendances suffer as a result of Sky TV’s live games at Elland Road is not born out by the figures, where a 23,000 average remains for all games this season, whether they are on TV (four games) or not (eight games). The corresponding argument over schedule disruption for Leeds fans and the players themselves is universally beyond dispute of course. Where you suspect Cellino’s main beef lies, however, and where the motivation for his impetuous, lionhearted posturing stems from, is not purely financial or even football-related. It could be his ongoing dispute with the Football League in terms of ownership, but mainly it is more likely with the governing body and Sky Sports playing God, a situation where he lacks control and rests uneasy.
In the statement released by the Club following the concession to allow the cameras into Elland Road, Cellino claimed this would be the last time this season he would do so. Currently, there are no further games lined up to be broadcast live from Elland Road, only away games. Should Sky Sports choose to select another game from Elland Road this season – and the Football League subsequently allow it - it will squarely present what status they hold Cellino in. They will clearly expect a similar battle to Tuesday’s but will be safe in the knowledge they hold all the trump cards. Should they choose not to select another game from Elland Road, it may represent some compassion for Leeds United’s argument and the avoidance of another PR headache, but such sensitivity probably won’t extend to sacrificing viewing figures by not selecting Leeds away games.
Either way, you sense it is a battle Leeds United can’t win, at least until the next round of contract negotiations come around. Until then, they will have to deliver on their promises, just as, for once, the eleven men in white are doing.