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Reaching for the Cup of Salvation

27 January 2016
Reaching for the Cup of Salvation
There was a time when salvaging a late point away at Brentford would have been deemed unacceptable for a Leeds United team. For some that is still the case. The reality is that Tuesday night’s 1-1 draw was credible for ‘this’ Leeds United team, who were in 16th place at the start of play, and who lost their key striker to injury after just 19 minutes. Naturally, in the big scheme of things, Leeds United should be aiming a lot higher than that, but for the fifth season running the New Year is pretty much cementing everything we suspected the previous autumn, and it’s no use being exasperated about glaring, long-term shortcomings now.

If we’re being bold, we could argue that winning your home games and drawing away is play-off-chasing form, but talk of that is slowly receding into the background as if Steve Evans has accepted that his bravado was foolhardy, if admirable, and he is kind of hoping we never thought he meant it seriously.

‘This’ Leeds United side did well to re-adjust and take the battle to Brentford after a characteristically tepid first half. Both managers felt their side deserved to win, which typifies the nature of the Championship. Goal-scoring opportunities were at a premium again, as they have been all season, but a draw was clinched with a low, curling effort from Mustapha Carayol on the edge of the box. It is more than was taken away from recent visits to Portman Road and Hillsborough, and for that we should be thankful. It doesn’t really make any difference to anything, when you consider the progress ‘this’ Leeds United team is likely to have made over the course of the season, but it is surely better for the soul to gain a point than taste the bitterness of another defeat, however hollow and, well, pointless, that point may be.

‘This’ Leeds United’s season now pivots precariously on a Fourth Round FA Cup tie at Bolton Wanderers on Saturday. Leeds are hoping to take over 6,000 fans to the Macron Stadium – as much an advert for sensible pricing as it is the Club’s amazing travelling support - most of whom will be wary of putting too much faith in a competition that has hardly done them many favours over the years. It is somewhat ironic, and perhaps entirely typical of ‘this’ Leeds United, that the Club’s immediate wellbeing is dependent on relative success in a tournament that has provided some of its most gruesome and enduring episodes.

From Colchester and Sunderland to Histon and Rochdale, Leeds United approach the FA Cup like they are entering a booby-trapped haunted house; you know something painful and probably humiliating is going to occur, it’s just a case of ‘when’. Just our luck that ‘Ghost Hunting With Leeds United’ is usually filmed and repeated for the nation’s endless enjoyment whenever the occasion seems fit. It is not often, however, that Leeds are presented with a passable opportunity to progress, and also that such favourable conditions arrive at a time when its fan base is so desperate for something tangible to cheer, to hang a thread of hope on, and to put it bluntly, to pass the time between now and May.

That is what faces ‘this’ Leeds United in the shape of Bolton Wanderers; bottom of the Championship table, riddled with debt and instability throughout the club and willing to give up half its ground to opposition fans just to pull in a few quid. Bolton won impressively at home at the weekend, 3-1 versus MK Dons, a result that Leeds couldn’t match against the same opposition fewer than four weeks ago. However, it was their first win of 2016, and Leeds will go in to the game doubtless buoyed by more favourable results, if not stellar performances, over the last week.

This puts into context the importance of Carayol’s 84th minute equaliser on Tuesday night. Yes, of course ‘this’ Leeds United showed their familiar soft underbelly in letting Sam Saunders run unopposed at them in the 28th minute and finish neatly past Marco Silvestri without a tackle being suggested, never mind made. And yes, of course ‘this’ Leeds United offered little in response, at least in terms of shots on goal, until Carayol swept home the ball after a comical series of ricochets laid the ball in his path, an inelegant build-up synonymous of much of the game; but if that single strike provides some momentum going into Saturday’s FA Cup tie, and perhaps offers more of a chance to prolong withering interest in yet another flaccid season, then we should all be a little grateful for small mercies.

This doesn’t change the fact that fundamental re-structuring is needed at ‘this’ Leeds United, on and off the pitch. Looking at what we can sensibly discuss, it appears that Steve Evans is unaware of not only his best eleven players, but also his best formation. In fairness, he acknowledged his error in starting with two strikers and a light midfield, and many were surprised that new signing Toumani Diagouraga was only on the bench. Many fans were also dismayed that Lewis Cook was played on the left wing, not just because the squad finally contains some authentic wide options, but also because the 18-year-old is being slowly marginalised, with a new starting position every week, most of which do little to let him thrive naturally.

The arrival of Diagouraga is slightly worrying in this sense, as rather than Cook being the midfield fulcrum that the side should be built around, he appears to be increasingly periphery, and the ‘spare man’ to be shifted around to accommodate others into a system that never seems to work. It is to be hoped that maybe a 4-3-3 system will now be adopted, with Diagouraga and Liam Bridcutt as a solid axis allowing Cook some freedom to stretch teams, as he is the only pacey player ‘this’ Leeds United possesses who can do that. Such a system, with three forward players ahead of it, is effectively the ‘heavy metal’ formation that symbolised Uwe Rösler’s short reign, and maybe Diagouraga is the key to making that work, a factor that should have been known to Rösler of course. Obviously, this is pure speculation, and the remainder of this week may spring a surprise in terms of much-needed attacking options, if Leeds are suitably active in what remains of the transfer market. Different solutions were needed even prior to Chris Wood’s hamstring tweak in the first half at Griffin Park, and they certainly are now.

The current sense of resignation of many Leeds fans is based on the short-termism adopted at all levels of the Club, in terms of commercial activities, player recruitment, managers and formations. We don’t even know who will be running the football club at the end of this season. From such uncertainty will come only more disruption and, ultimately, the stagnation we are seemingly entombed by.

This frustration breeds a natural and entirely understandable apathy. We can do nothing to influence the overall structure of the Club while such uncertainty exists, and in the meantime we have no option but to support ‘this’ Leeds United team and hope that, by chance, something clicks into place and a surge of excitement briefly lifts the gloom. When it does; if it does, perhaps in the form of a high profile occasion against an old enemy, or a gallant run that ends in high drama, it might just wrestle us out of our stupefied lethargy and remind us what following a proud football club is all about, if only for some fleeting but strangely energising moments. It might just remind us that ‘this’ Leeds United does contain weathered and defective fragments of what we once knew, and could one day become ‘Leeds United’ again; goals, cheering, life-giving forces, togetherness and all that.

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 provided by Mark Wheelwright