Steve Evans has prided himself on maintaining a team who if nothing else were difficult to beat but Leeds United’s capitulation at Brighton last night was the sort of performance which has travelling fans asking for a refund.
It was the sort of surrender which earns managers the sack.
Evans has spoken with confidence about his chances of making it into next season but he could not deny that his position as head coach and his general authority have been badly weakened by Leeds caving in at The Amex.
His players were 4-0 down by the time the clock reached 39 minutes. Little more needs to be said.
Brighton is a hard venue for visiting clubs, an unforgiving ground in the Championship, but few teams give up points as easily as Evans’ squad did in a debacle of a first half.
A game with nothing in it was tipped dramatically by a Tomer Hemed penalty on 18 minutes and Albion ran riot with impunity after that, cutting through Evans’ midfield and tearing his defence to shreds.
Sam Baldock and Hemed scored again in quick succession and Lewis Dunk’s header seven minutes before the break gave Leeds the appearance of a team who were liable to concede any time the ball came into their box.
The crowd at The Amex taunted Evans with chants of “we’re taking the p***” as Brighton’s players knocked the ball around casually in the final seconds of the half.
The 45 minutes that followed were irrelevant, save only for United’s successful attempt to stop the scoreline worsening and running off the scale as it did under Brian McDermott at Sheffield Wednesday.
That 6-0 rout came in the week before Massimo Cellino’s takeover of Leeds began to properly gather pace.
The months tick by but the club goes round in circles, forever returning to familiar patches of panic.
How Cellino reacts to last night’s performance is entirely down to him but the Italian, who has largely kept his counsel for the past two months, is not a bastion of patience with head coaches and Leeds’ effort at Brighton was nothing other than a major cause for concern.
Nine points clear of the relegation places, they looked last night like a team who might conceivably slip into the fight; like a team who badly need to beat Bolton on Saturday. It would be risky of either Cellino or Evans to assume that they are safe.
United were on a run of one win from 10 league games before yesterday’s match but Evans’ argument was that in amongst those fixtures his players had avoided regular defeats.
The result at The Amex was nonetheless as bad as any before or since his appointment in October and it focused attention on the record of a team who reached the turn of the year with 31 points and now have 38.
Trips to Brighton in previous seasons have coincided with ructions surrounding Cellino and dissent towards him will not be dampened by a sore loss. In 2014 Leeds lost 1-0 at The Amex in the week after Cellino’s takeover was tentatively agreed and the Italian chose the hours before this fixture last year to issue a lengthy statement about the ownership ban imposed on him by the Football League.
Cellino was present last night but the drama played out entirely on the field. United’s season has lost its sting but Evans arrived on the south coast knowing that more daylight between his squad and those in the Championship’s bottom three would do no harm.
In the end, the game was lost before half an hour was out. It was gone from the moment Brighton first scored.
Evans’ plan at Brighton was experimental to say the least. Lewie Coyle kept his place after a good league debut but moved to the right wing to accommodate Scott Wootton, despite Evans saying last week that Coyle as a winger was not an option he was ready to consider.
The loss of Stuart Dallas to a knock before kick-off might have changed his attitude, with Mustapha Carayol on the bench but not fully fit.
Lewis Cook played as support for a lone striker in Souleymane Doukara, another improvised move, and Doukara took four minutes to draw Dunk into a challenge which had referee Peter Bankes thinking about a penalty. The official sized up the tackle and let it go, in spite of Doukara’s hopeful appeal.
Brighton made no disguise of their plan to attack Leeds out wide, particularly on the left where Wootton’s temperament was in question after an own goal on his last appearance at Watford, but United held Chris Hughton’s players back for a while, offering up nothing more than a half chance for Dunk who failed to catch a volley cleanly as he and Sol Bamba contested a corner.
At the other end, Alex Mowatt whipped a promising free-kick against the top of Brighton’s wall and over the crossbar but with 18 minutes gone, Brighton did what many teams have done to Leeds this season and pinched the opening goal with the minimum of fuss.
Liam Rosenior rounded Coyle on the left wing and broke inside Wootton, tempting the defender to dive in with a tackle which took his legs from under him.
Wootton offered no argument as Bankes pointed to the spot and Hemed beat Marco Silvestri with a casual chip straight down the middle of the his net.
It was all Albion needed to sound the collapse among Evans’ players and four minutes later Baldock scored a second as a one-two with Dale Stephens took out United’s defence and allowed the striker to beat Silvestri with the aid of a low deflection off Liam Cooper. Evans stood dejected on the touchline, well aware that Brighton rarely concede anything at home and that Leeds produce too few goals to mount dramatic comebacks.
All thoughts of a recovery were extinguished within moments as Brighton struck for a third time. Anthony Knockaert peeled away as a long free-kick dropped towards Silvestri’s box and a desperate touch from Bamba succeeded only in diverting possession to Hemed. The forward attacked the right side of United’s area and drilled a shot under Silvestri’s body. With 28 minutes played, the game was over.
With 38 gone, Brighton claimed a fourth goal, finding the net again with painful simplicity. Dale Stephens hung a corner up at the back post and Dunk rose above Bamba to thump a header into the corner of Albion’s net. By that stage it was hard to think of many more inept or spineless first halves served up by a Leeds team. The body language of shell-shocked players told its own story as they walked from the pitch at the break. The second half, which began with Mustapha Carayol replacing Wootton, yielded none of the same torture and Leeds had most of it. Mowatt should have pulled a goal back when he read Carayol’s pass and lifted a shot over the bar and a sequence of useful free-kicks went begging as the midfielder’s radar and left foot failed him.
A stoic away crowd of 1,500 cheered ironically when a shot from Cook found David Stockdale’s hands but there was spirited defiance in their mood rather than anger.
Anger will come in the days ahead.