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Wrestling Control from Blind Hope

9 November 2015
Wrestling Control from Blind Hope
Seven days is a long time in football; at Leeds United it feels like a lifetime. Indeed, in a seven hour period two or three seismic shifts in mood can be experienced. Even more so recently, where it has become increasingly difficult to detach off-the-field events from on-the-field events. The general mood following the desperate home defeat to Blackburn Rovers on October 29th was a sense of hopelessness and helplessness, both in terms of how the team had performed and how the Club was being run. As fans, what could we do about it?

Just over a week later Leeds fans have experienced two wins in succession – one of which, finally, was at Elland Road – and owner and President Massimo Cellino has made it clear that he intends to sell the Club, regardless of the outcome of his latest engagement with the Football League. From a position of simply hoping that Leeds United would produce some brightness in our lives, with little evidence to support our unruly optimism, they suddenly have.

Saturday’s 3-0 win at Huddersfield Town was a rare thing. Leeds approached it on the back of a deserved 1-0 win over Cardiff City in midweek; the first chink of evidence rather than blinkered ambition. Furthermore, Leeds scored three goals at the John Smiths’ Stadium in a mad 13-minute period either side of half time, and afforded their fans a period of luxury and comfort in which to berate their frenziedly vitriolic neighbours with a humour long lost beneath layers and layers of chagrin and humiliation.

Humour has certainly been thin on the ground recently, except of the very darkest variety, and Steve Evans is perhaps an example of that. Evans himself claims that a “straw poll of Leeds fans from here to China” would not have predicted his appointment as head coach after Uwe Rösler was sacked in October, and it remains difficult to view the simple fact that Steve Evans is in charge of Leeds United’s first team with anything but a disbelieving chuckle.

‘Larger than life’ is perhaps too blunt and self-evident a description of Evans’s persona, but as time goes on you wonder whether the sheer absurdity of his appointment may yet prove something of a good fit, if you’ll excuse another rather brusque simile.

Certainly, Leeds fans are talking less and less about his apparent lack of experience at this level of football, where he sits just north of Dave Hockaday in terms of “competition winner gets Leeds job” farce. You sense that, slowly, Evans is earning some respect from fans and players alike on-the-job, rather than being deserving of it beforehand. Either way, two successive wins makes him a little more palatable. While it is important not to get carried away with six points out of six – which outside of the spectacular goals have still been littered with a lack of quality – it is fair to remember that Evans promised us ‘winning football’ three weeks ago, at a time when even the man on the moon saw no sign of it.

For his part, Evans has gone on a charm offensive – another incongruous-sounding phrase - which went in to overdrive following Saturday’s local derby win. Evans faced the TV cameras post-game with his face dripping in what appeared to be sweat but was actually from the rain that was lashing down outside. More strenuous halfway line excursions had seen him salute the away fans with three celebratory fist pumps that may have been viewed as incendiary in any other circumstances, and the jubilant Leeds fans didn’t quite know if they were laughing with him or at him. Each individual perhaps drew their own conclusions.

But speaking to the media afterwards, Evans was not slow in pushing the right buttons. In fairness he already had, acknowledging the unlikely nature of his presence at Elland Road, and his humility in taking on such a role at a club he apparently has always held in high regard. On Saturday, Evans spoke of not risking his captain Liam Cooper after a sickening clash of heads with his fellow defender Scott Wootton in the first half, because “he is someone’s son”. Evans then dedicated the win to tragic Leeds fan Skye Thompson who died three weeks ago and was remembered by fans and her family at the Blackburn game. This win, said Evans, was more of a fitting tribute than that occasion had been. Just words maybe, but unexpected and compassionate detail that nobody was calling for, but in the circumstances was dignified and virtuous.

The overriding feeling is that this is a job that Evans is grasping with both hands and making the most of for as long as it is his, and he even jokes about the precarious nature of that, quipping that his contract is “only until Friday, but I don’t know which one”. Where Leeds fans perhaps will hush the bluster and listen intently, is when Evans talks of sitting down with right-back and Cellino-labelled contract rebel Sam Byram to establish his long term aims. For many years Leeds fans have wondered whether personalities at the Club actually talk to each other to iron out glaring issues rather than to specially-selected arms of the media. Now, it appears Evans is attempting to do so in a seemingly adult manner.

You wonder if Evans is taking the ‘what the hell’ approach to Leeds United’s problems and how Massimo Cellino reacts to them? If the volatile Italian is going to fire him anyway, Evans might as well earn some kudos by running the gauntlet on his own terms.

On the pitch, Evans spoke of injecting bravery and commitment into his players, and while quality and cohesion is maybe some weeks away, already there are signs that Evans’s fervent brand of man-management is having an effect. In truth, the only three moments of quality from Leeds on Saturday resulted in three excellent goals. The passing movement between Chris Wood and Stuart Dallas, who then produced a sublime ‘eat me’ cross for Mirco Antenucci’s opener in first half stoppage time, was the first time either side had raised themselves above the mediocre. Two minutes later Luke Murphy’s vision picked out a defence-splitting pass for Antenucci to race onto, from which Wood dispatched the second goal. Finally, Alex Mowatt found himself in space 30 yards from goal and felt it was completely natural to let fly with another missile which arced sweetly and succinctly into the top corner of Joe Murphy’s net. It was a far cry from the team beset by timid confusion under Uwe Rösler.

In between these times, of course, Leeds were untidy in possession, relied far too much on the long ball, and allowed Huddersfield’s wide players Joe Lolley and Harry Bunn to approach the penalty area at pace and cause problems. Fortunately, they found Leeds goalkeeper Marco Silvestri in solid form. A fragile presence of late, the 24-year-old was authoritative with crosses and his handling was sound. It needed to be, because Huddersfield dominated the possession and shots-on-goal stats with ease.

You could describe Leeds as ruthless on Saturday: they took the few chances they created where Huddersfield had the majority of the play and didn’t take theirs. For a team who have created so little from open play this season, it was as refreshing as the rain that lashed Steve Evans’s face at full-time. Leeds United had taken control of the game and their fans finally had more than blind hope. They had something to believe in; evidence upon which to base expectation for the future. We might, now, even beat Rotherham at home; imagine that?

The international break is now upon us and undoubtedly there are twists and turns expected in the latest takeover saga at Elland Road. The insurgent attempt by Leeds Fans United (LFU) to gain a majority share of the Club may have been rebuffed by Cellino’s petulant mood swings, but LFU have proved before with the reversal of Cellino’s away ticket restriction, that they have the nous, expertise and diplomacy to appeal to the King of Corn’s more earnest and poker-faced side; for it is there if you look hard enough. A well-timed statement on Monday morning from LFU has put their position quite clearly in the public domain; the past week has fast-forwarded their process and put them in a strong position with many options and many willing partners.

Furthermore, they have the skills and the tools to work on an increasingly fearful and beaten Cellino. While some Leeds fans may take comfort in their own helplessness, and continue to dream, to hope that somewhere in the ether there exists a fool with his money who will bankroll the club while looking further than their own self-importance, others in the Leeds United fan base are seeking to become masters of their own destiny; our destiny, Leeds United’s destiny, for all of us. For those, the preference of supporting people we know with evidence of success and who generate trust, just like approaching one game with an expectation of winning the next; wrestling control from blind hope.

Jon contributes sports content for Leeds Living, he is an established sports and lifestyle writer for various organisations, and is a twice published author.