It was beginning to look as if Leeds United’s problems at Elland Road might require a special remedy and Alex Mowatt produced it last night.
Steve Evans, United’s head coach, promised last week that Mowatt’s “time would come” after a strangely quiet start to the season and it came in the nick of time, salvaging a victory over Cardiff City in Mowatt’s usual style. One blistering strike on 63 minutes ended Leeds’ worst ever sequence at their own ground – against a club they last beat in 1984.
Eight months and 12 home games passed in the meantime but a toothless Cardiff team had no answer to a finish well above the standard of a mediocre match. Leeds found the means to be dominant and a makeshift defence found a way of avoiding the soft concessions which are rapidly defining United’s campaign. When Evans picks the bones from this, his maiden win as head coach, he will have far more to chew on than Blackburn Rovers left him last week.
Elland Road was not treated to a classic but the stadium limits its expectations these days and Mowatt’s flash of brilliance was more than enough. Player of the year in May, this season was threatening to leave him behind but the 20-year-old’s swagger returned in the moments after that finish and United were worth their win. On this occasion, Evans could not accuse his players of attempting to hide.
Leeds’ performance ensured that Cardiff’s reputation of being toothless up front was not righted at their expense. Two second-half chances aside, when Marco Silvestri dived to push away goalbound efforts, the evening was stress-free until Cardiff dispensed with caution. Once again, it cried out for a winning goal but Mowatt produced it, his first since April. Ahead of key games against Huddersfield Town and Rotherham United, Evans’ former club, the Scot need no longer feel like the walls are closing in.
Three games and one appalling defeat to Blackburn was all it took to sour Evans’ opinion of the squad he inherited from Uwe Rosler. His pre-match comments bordered on scathing and his line-up last night was not first choice: Giuseppe Bellusci recalled in place of the suspended Sol Bamba, Sam Byram demoted to the bench and lodged behind Scott Wootton and Luke Murphy retained in midfield after Evans’ move for Sunderland’s Liam Bridcutt failed to go through in time.
The crisis of confidence in United’s camp cried out for the assistance of the opening goal but neither side made much pretence of finding it in the first half-hour. Scott Malone swung a delicious cross in front of two Cardiff players after leaving Wootton for dead in the sixth minute and Mirco Antenucci went down in Cardiff’s box under a suspicious challenge from Lee Peltier 60 seconds later but the initial exchanges were as heavy as the fog.
United’s inconsistency was present again in that period; Murphy picking out Alex Mowatt with a precise 40-yard pass but then hooking the resulting corner straight out of play; Chris Wood hassling Cardiff’s defence but finding possession hard to retain. The encouragement for Evans was his side’s control of the ball and Cardiff’s failure to make any impact at all.
The match offered nothing resembling a serious threat to either goalkeeper before the closing stages of the first half and Stuart Dallas’ dragged attempt on 29 minutes – directed well wide – was an isolated moment of invention and persistence. The contest took a long time to justify the entrance fee and only 17,914 turned up.
Evans’ answer to United’s recent form has been to look for immediate loan signings and the United boss will try to bring Bridcutt in before Leeds meet Huddersfield Town on Saturday. To judge by his barracking of Silvestri in the first half, a goalkeeper remains on his wish list too.
Mowatt’s strike, though, eased the urgency significantly. A goal almost came Leeds’ way eight minutes before half-time, perking them up in the process. Russell Slade’s defence allowed a cross from Dallas to rattle around inside their box and Mowatt’s shot from 10 yards was only kept out by two players in blue launching themselves at the ball. For the first time, a patch of pressure developed.
In that spell, Dallas came to life and tested David Marshall with a rising shot which the keeper beat behind. Wood was a foot away from meeting the Northern Ireland international’s cross at close range and should have done better in the 45th minute when Bellusci’s delivery gave him a free header. In all it gave Evans something to enthuse about at the break.
Slade, unsurprisingly, seemed to demand more adventure in the second half and Sean Morrison forced Silvestri to palm the ball off his line with a header from a corner in the 53rd minute. Wood, however, had Morrison stretching to fend another delivery from Dallas away after Leeds broke forward soon after.
The direction of the pressure was undeniable and with 63 minutes gone, Mowatt made it pay in the way that he so often did last term.
Twenty five yards out and with few other options, the midfielder drove his left foot through the ball and smashed it into the top corner of Marshall’s net. Marshall stood and watched it sail beyond him, transfixed for a moment and unable to react.
Slade threw his version of the sink – Kenwyne Jones, Sammy Ameobi and Anthony Pilkington – from the bench but Leeds held firm after Silvestri turned a goalbound finish from Joe Mason around a post in the 73rd minute. Wood should have ended the contest seven minutes from time after a mistake allowed him to round Marshall but he drove the ball into the side-netting as Matthew Connolly sprinted to guard the goalline. Evans’ defence was faultless under strain and remained immune to Elland Road’s nerves.
The win coincided with the start of Massimo Cellino’s self-imposed absence from United’s games.
The club’s beleaguered owner was not missed. It also represented a first victory over Cardiff since George McCluskey scored in the Welsh capital 31 years ago.
Evans, whose side climbed six points clear of the Championship’s bottom three, said: “It was a special goal, worthy of winning any match, but I don’t think it was a scruffy 1-0 win. Some of our quality was outstanding.
“I wanted to bring Mowatt in and with hindsight I should maybe have brought him in before.
“Since I’ve come into the club, young Alex has probably had another lease of life. He’s on the way back up.
“This club hadn’t won for eight months and that’s too long a time for such a magnificent support.
“They were there when we needed them. It’s about Leeds United tonight and we’ve got that win.
“The statisticians will need to find something else to write about.”