Like Neil Warnock in 2013, the FA Cup is all that lies in front of Steve Evans.
Mentions of the play-offs have become increasingly hollow with the passing of January and Leeds United’s tie at Bolton Wanderers on Saturday is where the club’s competitive interest lies.
Evans and Warnock differ insofar as the latter was on his way at the time of Leeds’ last proper cup run and United’s current head coach will use the rest of the Championship term to think about a plan of attack next season, believing as he does that he is in the job long-term. But a 1-1 draw with Brentford in London last night was less than he and his players required.
Leeds are clinging to faint hope by thinking the Championship’s top six might open up with almost 30 games played and their squad so far back but points have gone begging too regularly this month and even at his most optimistic, Evans knows the league has little more to offer. By comparison, the FA Cup will hold United’s attention for a while longer if the club pass through the fourth round this weekend.
Evans’ squad found a strong strain of resistance in December, remaining unbeaten throughout that month, but brittle tendencies have resurfaced since the turn of the year and Brentford were on the verge of prising three points from yesterday’s fixture without looking like a top-six side themselves.
Sam Saunders’ effort on 28 minutes threatened to be the difference, a finish from the edge of the box after Evans’ midfield opened up in front of him, but Mustapha Carayol came off the bench to earn a draw with a fine strike of his own six minutes from time. At the end of a more controlled second half, Leeds were worth no less than that.
United had other opportunities, as many as Brentford, but Chris Wood was lost to injury early on and Evans’ lack of strikers will not ease unless Leeds dip into the transfer window before it closes on Monday. Two penalty appeals fell on deaf ears and Souleymane Doukara failed by inches to bury a lob just before the hour but Carayol found a way through with one of his first touches of the ball.
The visit to Griffin Park brought back memories: memories of Massimo Cellino surfacing in the away end on Leeds’ last visit to the stadium and Darko Milanic starting the briefest of managerial reigns. Just as strange, from Brentford’s perspective at any rate, was Toumani Diagouraga in United kit last night, 24 hours on from his £575,000 move to Elland Road. Brentford expected Evans to start him but Evans sold their manager, Dean Smith, a dummy and named him on the bench.
Wood was recalled, however, in a move which Evans could not resist after his impact as a substitute in Saturday’s gruelling win over Bristol City. In heavy rain and fierce wind, Evans paired him with Doukara and crossed his fingers for a sharper display up front. Doukara’s decisive goal against Bristol City was United’s only shot on target. Wood, however, did not see out the first half.
The conditions in London gave neither team free rein but the match was end-to-end from the start, without any great sense of control. Evans’ inclusion of two strikers shifted Lewis Cook onto the left wing and Leeds struggled to get at David Button in the Brentford goal until the latter stages of the half. At the other end, Jake Bidwell and John Swift whipped dangerous early crosses in front of Marco Silvestri but found no-one in a position to meet the ball.
Evans’ formation, however, was changed by default on 18 minutes when Wood succumbed to an injured hamstring, the same problem which kept him on the sidelines for the first two weeks of this month. The forward pulled up on the halfway line and received some brief treatment but looked uncomfortable and climbed straight into the dug-out after walking from the pitch. Evans called for Mirco Antenucci to partner Doukara.
With and without Wood, the game showed few signs of a goal and the weather continued to make life difficult. Cook’s strike on 23 minutes was a first shot in anger from Leeds but it hit Harlee Dean and bounced to safety. Neither Silvestri nor Button had a save to make for almost half-an-hour.
But when a proper chance presented itself to the Bees on 28 minutes, Smith’s side took it with more than a little help from Leeds. Bridcutt allowed a header to skim behind him into the path of Saunders who sprinted unopposed to the edge of the box and lashed the ball low beyond Silvestri. It was easy and simple, the sort of concession United cannot avoid. Their season has paid for too many goals like it.
The fixture needed a spark and Saunders’ finish created it. Moments later, Antenucci found space around Brentford’s box and drew a fine diving save from Button with a strike towards the top corner of his net. When Alan Judge returned fire with a drive which carried a foot over Silvestri’s crossbar, the game had produced more in a few minutes than it had in the best part of 30.
United survived another Brentford chance which Saunders curled into the crowd but they were aggrieved eight minutes before half-time when Antenucci went down inside Button’s box as he and Dean sprinted for Cook’s deft through-ball. Referee Iain Williamson took time to look at the challenge and waved play on as Antenucci rued his decision not to strike the ball first time. The encouragement for Evans was the sight of Leeds starting to find ways in behind Smith’s defence. Sections of the away end, however, found their attention straying and began to aim critical chants at Cellino.
By the interval, Evans must have wished with hindsight that he had thrown in Diagouraga and flooded the midfield with an extra body but Leeds pressed on at the start of the second half. Button denied Antenucci by diving at his feet inside the box and then met Stuart Dallas’ shot on the rebound as United chased an equaliser. Much of the second period belonged to them.
Another penalty claim from Antenucci came to nothing when he appeared to have his heels clipped and Button rode his luck after Doukara spotted him off his line and attempted to lob him from 35 yards. Button retreated desperately and watched as the ball flew inches wide of his left-hand post. Doukara hid his face in his shirt.
With an hour gone, Evans introduced Diagouraga – to warm applause from a crowd who held no grudge against a player who completed four full seasons at Griffin Park – and he took to the pitch with Leeds in control of the match. Brentford rode the worst moments and the game appeared to be petering out amid a flood of late bookings when Carayol, a late replacement for Dallas, took advantage of a mis-hit clearance to pick out the far corner of Button’s net with a low, curling strike. That goal might do to Brentford’s challenge what January has done to United’s.