Floundering after the 4-0 battering by Brighton & Hove Albion, Leeds United head coach Steve Evans has been thrown a couple of hearty lifelines by his players. Phil Hay reports.
It is never wise for a head coach to feel too comfortable at Leeds United but, for the time being, Steve Evans has made it through the woods.
Defeat to Brighton threw him into a sink-or-swim week and he was still afloat by the time the team bus drove out of Cardiff on Tuesday night.
Some of his predecessors were condemned by their failure to deliver results at the right time. David Hockaday’s stay of execution after a bad defeat at Watford was ended five days later by a League Cup exit at Bradford City and Uwe Rosler paid for losing to Brighton as soon as tension came to bear on him.
Employment at Elland Road can be short and sharp and it went without saying that after an inexcusable night at The Amex last Monday, Evans was under pressure to reassert himself. Bolton Wanderers yielded three points on Saturday but Tuesday’s win at Cardiff City – Leeds’ first victory there since 1984 – allowed him to speak like a coach in control of his job again. He might feel that he has come through his first forensic examination.
United’s owner, Massimo Cellino, was quick to support the Scot last week – albeit in his own way and with some choice words of criticism – and the assumption that Evans was on his last legs after Brighton proved to be unfounded.
Leeds are virtually at the point of being safe from relegation. His target of a top-10 finish is there to be taken with United five points behind Preston and holding a game in hand.
Evans said he had drawn confidence and reassurance from a team meeting held at Thorp Arch last Thursday, ahead of Leeds’ meeting with Bolton.
“We had a frank meeting with the players,” he said. “It was two-way and I felt really good when I came out of it because it was so productive. After that, you have to put into practice what you talk about in the room.
“I’m grateful to the players and I hold my hands up to them. I asked them to prove some points individually and collectively and they’ve done that. We said after Brighton that no-one plays on reputation. They play if they deserve to play and that goes for all of us. If I deserve to be here then by results and performances, I’ll be here.
“There are better head coaches than me who’ve sat here and had their futures questioned. You just have to focus and all the way through last week I maintained my dignity and said we had to work harder and be smarter. This club deserved better. That was the bottom line. We had to learn from Brighton and make sure as best we can that we have more nights like Cardiff.
“I knew when I came here that there was a lot of work to be done, otherwise I wouldn’t have been here. I needed time but you have to get some wins along the way to be afforded that time. I’m grateful to the president (Cellino) for standing by me. And I’m grateful to my players for giving me support.”
It is not clear yet if Cellino will meet Evans’ expectation by extending a contract which ends in the summer once Leeds are mathematically safe from relegation and the beating sustained by United at The Amex focused attention on more short-term concerns.
Cardiff were seventh in the Championship before Tuesday night, with only one defeat on their record at home.
They had chances against Leeds, hitting a post, the crossbar and forcing countless saves from Marco Silvestri, but produced no answer to Souleymane Doukara’s first-half goal and Mirco Antenucci’s calm finish deep into injury-time.
“After a game like Brighton, sometimes you don’t know what you’ll get when you go away to a side as good as Cardiff,” Evans said.
“They’re attempting to be part of the play-offs but from the moment we did our homework and decided how we would set up and play, I believed we could beat them.
“I’ll never be the best head coach Leeds United have but I’ll certainly care more than any.
“The last few weeks have hurt but it was nice to get a win on Saturday, a bit more dogmatic, and it was a wonderful feeling when Mirco slid the ball into the net (in injury-time at Cardiff) because you knew it was game, set and match.”
Evans made an unexpected change to his midfield on Tuesday, leaving Toumani Diagouraga on the bench and starting Luke Murphy for the first time since a 1-1 draw at Brentford on January 26. Diagouraga’s defensive work had been effective in Saturday’s win over Bolton but Evans said he had dropped him to prevent the midfielder from incurring a two-match suspension for 10 yellow cards.
Diagouraga has eight bookings to his name and the cut-off for 10 cautions falls this weekend, after United’s visit to Blackburn Rovers.
Centre-back Giuseppe Bellusci is the only Leeds player to have reached double figures this season.
“Toumani had eight bookings with two games to go before the cut-off so we had a decision to make on that front,” Evans said. “But Luke came in and had a calming influence on the team and, first and foremost, he’s been our best performer in training for the past two weeks.
“As a head coach you have to look at that.
“He’s been performing at a level where we felt we had to find a way to get him in the team.
“I’ve always believed that performances pick the shirts. Reputations and transfer fees don’t.”