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The Brief Return of the Unlikely Lads

18 December 2015
The Brief Return of the Unlikely Lads
The problem for Leeds United at Charlton on Saturday was that they upped the tempo with no tangible end product. Thursday night at Wolverhampton Wanderers saw a similar very necessary change of gears, but with a devastating output which swept aside a team that could very much have been Leeds United in disguise, and resulted in a crucial 3-2 win.

Bearing all the grisly hallmarks of a team carrying mental demons before their own fans, Wolves made a stuttering start but were gifted an early lead though some errant marking in the Leeds defence, when Benik Afobe ended a recent goal drought to make it 1-0 after 11 minutes. Had Wolves made more of the very presentable chances they were offered in the ensuing thirty minutes, the night may well have ended very differently for Steve Evans’s men. As it was, the Molineux crowd – exuding the polar opposite to the bubbling vibrancy that propelled them to a play-off chasing victory over Leeds last April – audibly withdrew within itself as if it knew what was coming. The Leeds fans didn’t. But it was so refreshing to see a combination of team and fans as potentially potent as Wolves crumble before our eyes. Schadenfreude at Christmas, and no set of fans has earned that more than Leeds United’s.

A twenty minute period either side of half time saw a rampant Leeds team haul down their opponent, execute savage incisions and sadistically twist the knife for good measure. Wolves manager Kenny Jackett spoke afterwards of Leeds being “too powerful for us” in that period, and it read like a foreign language, or a secret code shared between a covert gang that Leeds United had not recently been a member of. Another team was out-muscled and out-played by Leeds United. Forget your top ten finish, if the season ended now I would take that alone as a noteworthy measure of progress.

During the opening 35 minutes of the game Leeds did play like strangers however, and that is an important matter we shouldn’t ignore. The rest of the game showed what Leeds are capable of, and while we haven’t seen enough of this, we know it is there somewhere. Where Leeds handicap themselves is in letting teams stamp their authority before they can put down their own marker, and the rest of the game is usually spent trying to clear their head and stop it from spinning. Thankfully last night, this period only resulted in one goal in the debit column. Steve Evans gathered his players around during an injury break for midfielder Tom Adeyemi, and the immediate mid-half transition was as if the pre-match dressing room team talk had been abandoned because Evans was locked in the toilet. Suddenly a game plan was apparent and Leeds entered proceedings; winning every second ball and finding a man. And that man suddenly knew what to do.

Much has been made of the impact of Souleymane Doukara as a substitute for the virus-suffering Adeyemi, and as unlikely as his impression on the game was, credit should go to Evans for making the change and, perhaps, not throwing the more obvious choice of Mirco Antenucci in to the pot.

Doukara’s influence came from being a moving target. He gave the Wolves defence something to think about, but also showed tremendous strength in holding the ball up and buying precious seconds to allow supporting runners to join the attack. Furthermore he passed the ball, a nagging flaw in Antenucci’s game, and suddenly Leeds were re-born.

Watching Doukara effectively change the contest was like the clouds parting to reveal an immaculate deception. All this time we had spent visibly wilting as Doukara entered the fray and looked the picture of disinterest and inadequacy, was actually part of his plan all along. While we thought he was deliberately loitering on the periphery of the action with a conspicuous disdain for any form of combat, he was actually implementing the first phase of his plan to fatally bamboozle the opposition. It was only against Wolves where his drifting into space, his menacing meandering and his fluid running was given enough time to affect change.

The other improbable hero on the night was Sam Byram. His natural and unrestrained reaction to each of his two goals succinctly depicted how much he wants to play for the club, if indeed there was any doubt. He doesn’t need Steve Evans to question that as if a gun was to his head. The two goals Byram scored, along with his movement, energy and interaction with teammates on the pitch, demonstrated his value to the Leeds United team. His value to Leeds United as a club, however, appears only to be represented by a one year extension to his current contract.

Byram clearly has a value on his own talents and there will be no problem in him finding appropriate remuneration for that elsewhere, it will be in line with the ‘going rate’, and while people can question whether another club can offer the stature and fanbase that Leeds United can, that becomes irrelevant when only a one year extension is being offered. In one years’ time how many Leeds fans would confidently predict the club will be much further on than it is now? It is possible, but it is a gamble, and is it a gamble worth taking when elsewhere there is due recognition for your talents? In less than one year Sam Byram, could be playing in the Premier League at a stable, progressive football club. Right now, that is his quandary and like many players before him, loyalty can only stretch so far and you can only wait so long for career ambitions to be anywhere near fulfilled.

While Byram’s two goals were warmly received in the circumstances, the nature of them had Leeds fans purring with delight. Everything clicked in a mesmerising spell of fluent passing, incisive running and unerring composure. Byram’s first goal saw Chris Wood dive out of the ball’s path – like he didn’t on Saturday at Charlton – showing more agility than at any stage this season, and while Wood missed two sitters during the second half onslaught, Leeds were so superior you sort of knew another goal wasn’t far away.

The game’s standout player overall was Stuart Dallas, and he was rewarded for a masterful spell of peak form by his first goal for the club. An exchange of passes with Doukara exposed the Wolves defence who retreated fearfully and allowed Dallas to pick his spot. It gave Leeds the lead for the first time, which Byram quickly extended to 3-1, and while Wolves pulled a goal back on 81 minutes, the onslaught never truly came. Leeds handled the closing minutes well, Marco Silvestri’s handling was confident and sound when it really needed to be as Wolves winger Jordan Graham, who was a thorny opponent all night, whipped in a series of dipping crosses into dangerous areas.

Whether we see Souleymane Doukara or Sam Byram on Sunday against Preston North End, or whether Thursday was just a brief return, is difficult to predict. Doukara is clearly an enigma who needs the stars to align before his mojo is unleashed. When such a constellation is next predicted I suspect is beyond the knowledge of Steve Evans, but I dare say it’s worth some amateur stargazing over the Christmas and New Year period. Byram on the other hand would appear to be a shoe-in for the visit of Simon Grayson’s men. Regardless of the politics of the situation, Byram contributed to an effective formation and performance, and while he is with a football club with pretensions of climbing the table, he is a worthy contributor to that cause. In the long term, it would appear that performances like Thursday nights’ won’t be repeated in a Leeds United shirt, for if there is a plan at the Club, doing everything it reasonably can to keep young talent isn’t part of it.

The long term is evidently not something that Leeds United can consider at this moment, and you can speculate long and hard over what is dictating that thinking. Short termism has dogged Leeds United for over a decade, and perhaps explains why fans get excited by three games unbeaten, when to affect change in terms of a football club’s status you need to go ten, fifteen or twenty games unbeaten. No Leeds fan has confidently looked that far ahead in a long, long time, conditioned as we are to the changing scenery. Thursday night was a start, but still part of the short term. Let’s see if we can look further ahead and then maybe the plan will take care of itself.

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