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Staying Alive

13 January 2016
Staying Alive
Tuesday night’s 2-1 defeat to Ipswich Town brought an abrupt end to a run of eight games unbeaten for Leeds United. Ordinarily, such a spell of concerted progress in terms of points-gathering would be a cause for some positivity. But this is Leeds United, football’s perennial stationary object, and the fact that the end of the unbeaten run sees the team as far away from the play-off places as they were at the beginning of it, is so ‘Leeds United’ it hurts.

The eight games have seen Leeds gain only 13 points, via three wins, four draws and the inconvenience of the last game being in the FA Cup. While we should at least celebrate the small matter of Leeds head coach Steve Evans still talking about the play-off places, rather than the usual talk of relegation threats around this time of year, we should also bear in mind that Leeds stand nearer the bottom three (11 points above) than the top six (12 points below).

It is a season and a current standing that is a microcosm of Leeds United’s existence over the last decade. The Club’s Facebook status could well have read ‘Furiously treading water’ for every day of the last ten years, and many fans, sadly, have found they no longer have the energy for it.

Evans, to his credit, is still wearing a positive outlook. He hangs a tag of ‘must win’ on Saturday’s trip to Sheffield Wednesday and talks of still expecting three new signings this month. Those more familiar with how things tend to go at Leeds United see that prospect slightly differently, intimate as we are with the grey, foggy void of mid-table and the fragile, skeletal framework that appears to be making the Club function. That said, whatever your short or medium term goals are, investment remains exactly what this team needs.

Tuesday night’s defeat to Ipswich peaked after 13 seconds, when Souleymane Doukara was gifted with his second goal in four days. Having pilfered a momentary communication lapse versus Rotherham on Saturday, at Portman Road, Doukara robbed a hesitant Jonathan Douglas and fired low into the bottom corner to stun the home crowd. If the night went downwards for Leeds from that point, it was the same for Doukara, who spent much of the remaining ninety minutes offside and chasing lost causes in a lone role he lacks the selfless drive for.

In fairness, Leeds fielded attacking players in Sam Byram, Alex Mowatt and Mustapha Carayol to support Doukara, but they weren’t firing, and a well-drilled Ipswich side cemented their top six spot by turning the scoreline around, albeit it took them some time to turn their territorial domination into goals. Leeds reached half-time ahead and with few scares, but it was never likely that a half-time rocket from Mick McCarthy would fail to rouse the home side. The second half was an onslaught and Ipswich drew level five minutes into it, before snatching victory in the second minute of injury time.

It felt cruel in the circumstances, as crushing late defeats automatically do, but the last-gasp winner was coming and the Leeds defence never carried a commanding air. Both Ipswich goals came in similar fashion; crosses from the left met with close range headers. The first reaction is to blame the absence of right back Scott Wootton in both instances, but you have to remember that Wootton is a centre half filling in at right back, and even though he’s been doing it for nearly a year now, and however hard he tries in the meantime, his demeanour still carries the look of a fish out of water.

Leeds United’s recurring problem in terms of building a team that is a functioning, cohesive unit, is that somehow there are always a couple of square pegs being fitted into round holes; inevitably creating a lop-sided formation that attempts to operate without the use of a crucial limb. Wootton is a classic example of this, and while the absence of the injured Gaetano Berardi is untimely and unfortunate, the availability of two other perfectly capable right backs in Sam Byram and Lewie Coyle would offer Leeds far more both at the back and going forward.

For the winning goal on Tuesday night, Wootton finding himself out of position subsequently drew Guiseppe Bellusci out of position, allowing Brett Pitman to dispatch a free header, and we saw very decisively how quickly things can unravel. If we are talking about the present being a microcosm of the bigger picture at Elland Road, then perhaps that 92nd minute winner sums it up. You can defend heroically for 92 minutes but one lapse and a huge hole is left behind. At Leeds United as an entity, countless hours are spent behind the scenes trying to move forwards, but a rash decision, an impetuous notion or a breakdown in communications can set the Club back months or even years.

The momentary lapse on Tuesday night was costly, but I felt, was never far away. The ragged win over Preston just before Christmas and the shamefaced draw with MK Dons – four of those 13 points earned via own goals – suggested as much. Tuesday night was the point at which Evans’s luck ran out, and while some individuals have come out of this recent run with much credit – Marco Silvestri, Charlie Taylor and Liam Bridcutt in particular – many fans approached this week with the mind-set that there would be no hiding place for more underperformance at Portman Road, or indeed Hillsborough. This was borne out in another ninety minute display where Leeds failed to create enough, and never suggested they didn’t have a defensive error in them. Quiet reflection confirms that such characteristics mean you are what you are, and it is hard to argue that 15th position – that comfort blanket Leeds seem so reliant on – is any better than the team deserves.

Of course, it is a trait of the Championship itself that Leeds are still engaging in talk of the play-offs, despite winning only seven of their 26 games this season. Their task now is two-fold; to gain enough points on a routine basis throughout the rest of the season to retain a modicum of interest for their short-changed fan base (attaining Rosler’s famous ‘top ten finish’ for example) and to somehow maintain a stable platform which suggests any momentum that exists can be taken into next season. Finally, that needs to be a credible message.

For Leeds United it is always about ‘next season’; never this one. Years and years of everyone’s existence is wasted away, like worthless chip papers floating away on the breeze, with just the fleeting memories of something good they once contained. Maybe that unlikely mistress, the FA Cup, will be something for Leeds United to hang their hat on? But essentially, building castles in the sand is the futile pastime Leeds have engaged in for too long, and few fans retain a confidence that anybody has their eye on continuity and tangible progress. Selling good players like Sam Byram and replacing them with average ones, usually on loan, is the business model that Leeds have adopted throughout successive regimes. If the Club achieves nothing else this season it needs to somehow break that mould, because another campaign that is dead in February will drain yet more lifeblood from its coughing and spluttering system.

Whatever the outcome at Hillsborough against Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday, Leeds United cannot afford nineteen hollow skirmishes to end another pointless season. The prospect of ten Elland Road dead rubbers at Category A prices will have Leeds fans running to the hills, or at least staying to prop up the bar in the Old Peacock at 3.00pm, and they might never come back. Here we are again, fighting to stand still, clinging desperately to faint hope and blurred images of something vaguely attainable. Staying alive, for now.

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