Steve Evans wants Leeds United in round four of the FA Cup but the club’s head coach will unashamedly rest players against Rotherham on Saturday. This weekend, for him and Leeds, is a precursor to what he sees as a “gigantic” week.
The Championship season has halted briefly but the campaign and United’s position in the league is very much on his mind. Leeds are nine points short of the play-offs and, crucially, nine points adrift of Ipswich Town in sixth. Next Tuesday they play at Portman Road. A week on Saturday they visit Sheffield Wednesday, the club below Ipswich in seventh. Evans can feel everything riding on those games.
United’s boss has been fighting resolutely to keep his squad in the running for the play-offs, even though so much is stacked against them. The club were 18th when he replaced Uwe Rosler in October and 18th again at the end of November. Evans thinks Leeds will be in business if trips to Ipswich and Sheffield go well. He knows he will be clutching at straws if both fixtures go wrong.
“We’ve got a gigantic game at Ipswich on Tuesday,” Evans said. “Next week’s a gigantic week really. There’s no point in playing it down. We need four points minimum from the next two games and I won’t be the only person who thinks that.
“Is the league my priority? A million per cent yes. Those games are my priority. There’ll be three or four (regulars) on the bench against Rotherham because they have to be fresh for Ipswich. There’s no chance that we’ll be going to Ipswich with tired legs or players below 100 per cent. I can’t let that happen.
“I’m not saying the cup doesn’t matter because it does and the message to the three or four lads who get a chance on Saturday will be that the transfer window’s open. They’ve not necessarily played too much recently but this is a chance to show that they’re good enough to handle this sort of game going forward.”
Leeds are on a seven-match unbeaten streak but results among clubs above them have conspired to leave them as far back from the play-offs as they were in November, despite their consistent form. Ipswich have won five of their last seven matches and three victories from four games kept Sheffield Wednesday close behind last Saturday.
“It’s a little frustrating that we haven’t got closer because we probably deserve to be closer,” Evans said. “Ipswich’s form has been tremendous. Five wins from seven is outstanding but I’m pretty sure of this – it can’t last forever. They’re going to have a blip and I want us to stay right on their tails.
“Promotion’s a long shot, I’m not denying that, but if you stay in the hunt then you’ve always got a chance. What we can’t be doing is leaving ourselves needing seven wins from the last seven games or something like that. Because that just doesn’t happen in the Championship.”
Against Rotherham, Evans is likely to hand a first competitive start to striker Lee Erwin, who came off the bench towards the end of Saturday’s 1-1 draw with MK Dons. The forward – a summer signing from Motherwell – was criticised by Evans for a lack of fitness recently but he featured for the first time in over a month at the weekend after Leeds lost Chris Wood to injury.
Wood is likely to be missing, for the second game running, against Rotherham but midfielder Kalvin Phillips is another player who is in contention to start the third-round tie at Elland Road. Mirco Antenucci is carrying a ‘clash strain’ but could be recalled having dropped out of the team after Evans’ recent change of formation.
Evans, meanwhile, has the option of using Liam Bridcutt after Sunderland granted the on-loan midfielder permission to play against Rotherham.
Leeds secured their first deal of the January window on Tuesday by extending Bridcutt’s emergency loan until the end of the season and Evans said: “I’ve spoken a lot about the way he’s performed for us but I think just as much of the way he handles himself at Thorp Arch.
“He’s an absolute example to the young lads here, a complete role model in the way he trains, the way he behaves, the way he conducts himself. We’ve got other transfer targets beyond Liam but that was a really important deal for us.”
Rotherham, who are one place above the Championship’s bottom three, claimed a 1-0 win on their last visit to Elland Road, edging a tight league game in November through a second-half goal from Joe Newell.
The match was overshadowed by a resumption of the dispute between Rotherham boss Neil Redfearn and United owner Massimo Cellino. Redfearn, who was head coach at Leeds last season and resigned as the club’s academy boss in July after a fall-out with Cellino, claimed United had denied him a car parking pass and described the Italian as “very childish”.
Evans and Redfearn have also been involved in a recent exchange of views, with Redfearn criticising Evans’ recruitment of players at Rotherham in the summer and Evans responding by saying that Redfearn sounded like “a man who’s under extreme pressure and wonders what happens if he loses the next (game).”
But speaking last night, Evans said: “All I’m interested in seeing is a good tie where the best team wins. I respect Rotherham but I back my players and I’m confident the best team can be Leeds United.
“The last game between us became a ridiculous sideshow. No party was not guilty and I mean no party. Neil said something strange afterwards about some Leeds fans being happy that we’d lost and I’m sure he regrets that.” Evans added: “I’ve said plenty of things in the heat of the moment which I wish I hadn’t.
“But I’m an ex-Rotherham manager, Neil’s an ex-Leeds manager coming back to Elland Road and we’ve been through all that already. I imagine everyone would be quite happy to just focus on the football.”