Steve Evans promised with confidence that his signings would empower Leeds United and the two on his watch are yet to contradict him. Saturday belonged to Mustapha Carayol, a game defined by the winger’s “touch of quality” as Rotherham United manager Neil Redfearn put it.
Carayol joined United from Middlesbrough on Friday, scored on his debut 24 hours later and will find out this week what Evans really needs him for. Leeds moved safely into the fourth round of the FA Cup with the help of a blinding Carayol goal but back-to-back league games against Ipswich Town and Sheffield Wednesday were always prominent in Evans’ mind.
United’s head coach spoke after a 2-0 win over Rotherham of landing a high-end tie which gets Elland Road “rocking”. “It’s one of those days I’m yet to experience, where there’s 35,000 inside Elland Road,” he said, on an afternoon when 16,000 turned up. But the Championship is where his ambitions lie and the idea of sustaining potential this season is what drove his plans in the lead up to the transfer window. Trips to Portman Road tomorrow and Hillsborough on Saturday could make the club’s season as easily as they could break it.
Evans saw Liam Bridcutt, the first recruit of his tenure as head coach, as a something of a gift horse and the on-loan Sunderland midfielder has experienced defeat only once in nine games, Saturday’s included. The extension of his deal last Tuesday was seen by Evans as crucial. Carayol, a 27-year-old Gambian, joined United just four days after Huddersfield Town opted to cut short a full-season loan from Middlesbrough. He took 45 minutes to light up Elland Road and a meandering cup tie with a bullet of a finish on the stroke of half-time.
Little by little, Evans’ transfer business is vindicating the point he made to Massimo Cellino – that investment in players could be well worth the money. “The president argued with me a few days before Bridcutt came in because we have got a lot of central midfielders,” Evans said. “But Liam’s demonstrated why we brought him here.
“I told him about Carayol and he questioned why it was that Carayol came out of Huddersfield. I explained that he came out of Huddersfield because Mustapha wanted to join a big club in the Championship.
“He’s scored a goal which was completely stunning but his overall play was impressive. I hope the supporters go away thinking that if I can get the players I want to sign, they’ll improve what we’ve got. That’s all I can promise. They’ll not all work out but my job is to improve what we’ve got.”
Carayol has form against Rotherham and his previous goal, another long-range spectacular, was scored against Redfearn’s side for Huddersfield three-and-a-half weeks ago. There is little argument over Carayol’s inherent ability, amply demonstrated by his goal, but a question of whether Leeds can find a way of making him less enigmatic than he has been on Teesside. “I’m sick of the sight of him,” Redfearn joked. “We know he’s capable of that and we gave him too much space but it’s still a super strike. It’s a bit of quality, a touch of quality. It’s that which we need if I’m honest.”
The goal came with the first half in its final minute and Leeds 10 minutes into their first period of concerted pressure. The rest of the half had been a trial amid fouls, offside decisions and harsh words between Evans and his players. Rotherham controlled most of that passage and Shay Facey drilled a shot a yard wide on 17 minutes. Marco Silvestri dealt easily with a effort from Paul Green but on a hard, rugged pitch – clearly affected by the endless rain – Leeds allowed the opening half-hour to get away from them.
Carayol, however, brought the tie to life seconds before the interval, picking up a clever cut-back from Charlie Taylor and driving the ball from an angle into the roof of Lee Camp’s net. Camp was close to it but was beaten by the pace as the shot sailed under the crossbar.
“The minute (Taylor) cut it back I knew I was going to hit it,” Carayol said. “I played against Rotherham a few weeks ago and I hit one from 30 yards so I kept saying to myself that any chance I have to hit the ball, I’m going to hit it.”
Carayol was one of four changes made by Evans on a day when he could have justified more. United’s boss would have made more had Lee Erwin not suffered a back spasm and Kalvin Phillips complained of feeling off-colour but Leeds were as close to full strength as they were likely to be. Redfearn, with injuries of his own to think about, used a familiar line-up. Neither club liked the thought of a replay but Rotherham did too little up front to earn one. “We didn’t have cutting edge,” Redfearn said. “We were the better side for half an hour and we made Leeds look predictable. But Leeds maybe deserved to go through.”
Redfearn took the honours when Rotherham visited Elland Road for a Championship fixture in November, inflicting defeat on his former club, a former Rotherham manager and an owner with whom his relationship is broken. Cellino was there on Saturday, among the crowd at Elland Road for the first time since October, and saw Leeds prove stronger when it mattered and in the areas which mattered.
Bridcutt began to advance to good effect as the second half developed on and Sam Byram came into the contest.
The two almost combined to force a second goal on 54 minutes but a fine covering tackle denied Byram a tap-in.
As Giuseppe Bellusci ran the defence – playing well enough to merit a start at Ipswich tomorrow – and Lewie Coyle oozed ability on his full debut at right-back, Rotherham began hitting brick walls.
As they chipped away ineffectively, Stuart Dallas came off the bench as a replacement for Carayol and rattled the crossbar with a curling hit from the edge of the box on 86 minutes.
Three minutes later, Frazer Richardson left a rolling ball for Camp, Doukara stuck a boot in and flicked it away from both of them and left himself a tap-in. The striker had strayed offside all afternoon but saw his perseverance pay off with a first goal in 13 months. It was gifted to him but scored at a time when Rotherham were serving no warning of an equaliser.
“He started (against MK Dons) last week and with all due respect, he should have got the number 64 bus after five minutes,” Evans quipped. “But he stretched the game and gave Rotherham’s centre-backs a difficult time for 10 minutes. The goal came on the back of that. He got his reward by chasing down a lost cause.”
Leeds head now to Ipswich, who are sixth in the league and nine points ahead of Evans’ squad. On Saturday they go to Sheffield Wednesday; seventh in the league and seven points better off.
“We’re disappointed with parts of the game but in other parts we played very well,” Evans said.
“We were able to leave a few players out and still get over the line.” He might be glad of that and of fresh legs in a truly crucial week.