It feels like only Leeds United have the ability to win a game yet leave their fans heading home afterwards like they have been dragged ankle first through a sluice gate, and then slapped repeatedly around the jowls for ninety minutes with a prize Carp. Such are the bleak conditions in which Leeds have stuttered almost comatose through another befuddled campaign.
But Saturday’s win was an occasion that Leeds United finally rose to with titillating zeal; charged as they were with maintaining rapidly diminishing interest in a languid season, before an astonishing away following of 6,600. All-too-often Leeds have failed to show up in the face of such goldfish bowl conditions, and the pressure of the mammoth support on these occasions is the perfect illustration of why so many capable players fail to cope with life in Elland Road’s fast lane.
This is why the nature of this FA Cup win felt almost as significant as the win itself, even though the clichéd stance –one of many where the FA Cup is concerned – is to breathe relief that any win in any circumstances, and a place in the hat for the next round, will do. In Leeds United’s case, both the players and Steve Evans had to convince the many doubters that there is the basis of something above average within this group of players, and finally they did. While they didn’t quite manage a 90 minute performance – given Bolton’s late surge which should really have resulted in a last minute equaliser – the at times electrifying first 80 minutes were as vivacious and captivating as Leeds have been all season. From the first minute Leeds took the game by the throat and played with authority, intensity and, most pleasingly of all, freedom. It is true that Bolton are stuck at the bottom of the table and riddled with the kind of background distractions that Leeds know all too well, but they won impressively on their last outing, a 3-1 win over MK Dons, and had comfortably held Leeds at arms’ length in their previous visit to the Macron Stadium, a meek and unsatisfactory 1-1 draw in October.
With Leeds United and the FA Cup being such thorny and uncooperative bedfellows, and with recent points being earned with all the panache of a wet weekend in Rhyl, things did not auger well before kick-off, but somehow Leeds found the groove they have been hovering tantalisingly above since August. Playing largely on the counter-attack, Leeds comfortably contained a nervous and flustered Bolton and then attacked with fluidity, expansiveness and pace. To almost everyone’s surprise, it appeared that the players had actually met each other before, and had discussed plans in training that extended beyond the vague notion of simply putting on the same kit and playing football together.
It was not as if Evans had implemented a radical change of formation. This was exactly the same pattern that had been deployed in previous games, but with Toumani Diagouraga starting his first game for the Club, it allowed others to express themselves without inhibition. Lewis Cook took to the ‘number 10’ role behind the lone striker like we knew he could, but had been frustratingly lacking in recent weeks. Mirco Antenucci and Souleymane Doukara combined effectively and stretched Bolton like a broken accordion, and Liam Bridcutt dictated the play and conducted the tempo like he was suited and booted in the Albert Hall.
This was Leeds United, but not as we know it. Of course, in other much shorter spells of promise during this season Leeds have failed to capitalise, but here they did it twice, and with savage intent. After eight minutes Doukara scored his fourth goal in six games to continue the most unlikely of renaissances. It is true, we should add, that each of those four goals has involved an element of fortune. For the previous three the ball has been presented on a plate to him, and the 24-year-old Frenchman has finished neatly and decisively. On Saturday the good fortune came in reverse. Doukara latched onto a Stuart Dallas through-ball and used his strength and pace to create an opening and hold off the defender. This time his shot lacked power and intent, but it bobbled awkwardly off the goalkeeper Ben Amos and bounced into the net; rightful reward for a player who is perhaps aware of his limitations, but is doing the best with what he has.
Leeds continued to look threatening but could and should have yielded to a first half equaliser when a risible clearing header from the returning and off-colour Sol Bamba fell to Gary Madine in the six-yard box, but the striker somehow lofted the ball impressively over the bar. The same striker was also culpable in the final moments of the game when Marco Silvestri had parried a Darren Pratley shot into Madine’s path, who could only hit the outside of the post with a tired stab of the ball.
It would have been harsh on Leeds, but entirely typical, as Diagouraga’s 39th minute goal to put Leeds 2-0 up was scant reward for their domination. Bolton skipper Pratley had reduced the arrears on 80 minutes with a close range effort to set-up a nervous finale, but Leeds held out in a show of fortitude and, for once, cocksure swagger.
Evans spoke afterwards of the win being a reward for the long-suffering Leeds United fans who had travelled in droves, and taken over this openly-suffering corner of the North West like a swarm of locusts. It is true that a display of such lucidity was long overdue, but perhaps more starved of anything to keep then away from an early dash to the bar at half-time are the 20,000 or so hardy souls who still feel compelled to saunter down to Elland Road. With Nottingham Forest – unbeaten in 13 league games - visiting on Saturday, a timely display in the same mould as this provocative sashay in the FA Cup would continue to halt those who may have walked away thinking the season was over.
Ironically, Forest’s first defeat since November came against Watford in the FA Cup on Saturday, the side who Leeds will face in the Fifth Round in February. In many respects it is the worst draw that Leeds could have wished for; an away tie, against largely unfashionable Premier League opposition and a side who they have a poor recent record against. Elland Road is crying out for a big occasion to dust off the cobwebs and remind Leeds fans and the watching world what the Club is capable of being, but maybe a replay will provide such a showcase.
For now, Leeds have met their initial target, and with a style that came as a hugely desirable bonus. Successive home games come now in the shape of Nottingham Forest and high-flying Middlesbrough, and it allows fans to focus on something other than the mundanity of a string of meaningless home games.
The FA Cup is the classic welcome distraction; something other than finance, legal cases and ownership that will permeate almost every discussion, something that will elevate Leeds United into the limelight for wholesome football reasons and something that might remind people that beneath the veneer of farce and instability, is a football club with teeth; something tangible to grasp and enjoy, something at last, to talk about and not laugh or shake your head at.