Queens Park Rangers had Charlie Austin, and Charlie Austin was all they needed but the story at Loftus Road was not about him, or not from Leeds United’s perspective
It hardly flattered Leeds that Austin played without a warm-up, was only fit enough to complete half-an-hour and scored a minute after leaving the bench but the striker took limited credit for another emotional breakdown. Time after time, coach after coach, United find themselves in this hole: doubting each other, fighting each other and pushed to the point of killing each other.
The sobering thought at Loftus Road was that the club experienced this brutal introspection a few weeks ago, when Blackburn Rovers scored after 17 seconds and Massimo Cellino felt the walls close in. That night was only a month on from the sacking of Uwe Rosler which brought Leeds to their first crisis-point of the season. They are stuck in a cycle which is never-ending and which Steve Evans does not expect to rectify quickly.
The football on Saturday was dire – soft, inept and indefensible – and Evans and his players suffered for that as the away end did what the away end does whenever Leeds start taking liberties with them. Late in the second half, as QPR tried to add to a 58th-minute header from Austin, Evans was subjected chants of “you don’t know what you’re doing” as he threw Lee Erwin on as a substitute. It was mild in comparison to what came next as a following of more than 3,000 engaged in the rendition of a painfully simple song: “We’re f****** s***.”
Evans took that on the chin and did spare his players from harsh examination “The supporters are entitled to not pull any punches,” he said. “The players have let themselves down.
“I don’t believe in this nonsense about letting managers down. They let themselves down and they let the supporters down. If there’d been 6,000 tickets available here we’d have sold 6,000 tickets. That’s who they’ve let down.”
Without naming names, United’s head coach criticised the player who should have been marking Austin when the striker ran into meet Alejandro Faurlin’s corner less than two minutes after taking to the field. The trick was nearly repeated five minutes later as another free header from Austin forced a fine parry from Marco Silvestri, one of two first-rate save the Italian goalkeeper pulled off in the second half.
“We nominated a marker and he’s an honest kid,” Evans said. “He came in and apologised afterwards but it’s too late by then.” On the back of Austin’s two chances, Evans asked Charlie Taylor – back in the team after several weeks away with glandular fever, and a shining light amongst few others – to deal with QPR’s prolific forward. “It’s amazing what happens when you put someone in there who’s got a passion to play football,” Evans said. “Charlie (Austin) is no longer a problem.”
Others got it in the neck too. Giuseppe Bellusci, Evans said, caused him “one or two concerns” after half-time. Alex Mowatt and Stuart Dallas needed to “give us more”.
Evans was adamant that with good business in January – more than he was able to complete in the emergency loan market – United’s season would turn for the better. As a rusty Liam Bridcutt made his debut at Loftus Road, it was true nonetheless that the club’s new loanee might have been sharper and more dominant in the ‘pocket’ had the club not taken three weeks to sign him.
“There’s a lot of honest supporters behind that goal,” Evans said. “When they go to work, they can only work with the tools they’ve got. When I get opportunity to get my toolbox sorted out, I’ll be more than all right for them.” He is asking for considerable patience with January a month away and Leeds cannot afford to tread water until then. He will also know that while he asks questions of his squad, United’s owner tends to ask more questions of his coaches. History says that these are dicey moments for Evans. Cellino was present at Loftus Road on Saturday; unexpectedly so after taking the decision to stop attending United’s fixtures after the defeat to Blackburn last month. Cellino’s self-imposed absence lasted for all of three games, a little longer than his plan to sell the club. Evans did not know he was there until someone mentioned it to him at half-time.
Little abuse was directed at Cellino, perhaps because most of the away end were not aware that he was in the ground, but he remains the one constant at a club who are prone to internal stress. Evans oversees the football, as Rosler did, and the players are responsible for it.
Some are underperforming badly.
But United still project the image and culture which Cellino has maintained if not created: of a club with a fanbase whose anger is utterly ingrained, and a club who look like visiting this point repeatedly with Cellino in situ.
The 59-year-old will not have liked Saturday’s display or the direct, aimless passing which invited QPR to dictate all but an early period of the second half and the final stages of the match. Evans insisted his side had been sent out with different, more purposeful tactics.
“You don’t work five days a week on passing and moving and then watch them put the ball in the air,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that in the air isn’t a good pass – but when you put it in the air and kick it out of the pitch, it’s not very good. I can’t remember us putting together more than two or three passes.
Leeds had two chances worth mentioning. Chris Wood saw the better of them in the first half when QPR goalkeeper Robert Green misjudged a stray ball and allowed the striker to round him. Wood dithered and allowed defenders to recover before lashing the ball high over the bar.
The second opportunity, late in the game, ran to Lee Erwin who shot low at Green from a wide angle when he might have squared to Wood in the middle.
QPR were more energetic and creative but until Austin arrived from the bench, barely recovered from a calf strain, they looked every bit a team who had not scored in four games.
But for Silvestri, QPR would have won by a couple of goals. The keeper kept out another flashing header from Austin and produced a top-class block from substitute Tjaronn Chery in the 76th minute, diving to meet the ball as Chery attempted to strike unmarked from 10 yards out. It was only when QPR began sitting on their lead that United created some pressure.
“We can’t wait until the last 10 minutes to get the ball down, pass it, have some urgency and play the way we should,” Evans said.
“It’s the loudest I’ve been, the angriest I’ve been. The players have been left in no uncertain terms that if you want to play for Leeds United, you have to perform. There’s a responsibility of playing properly for Leeds United. This is a famous club that’s had world class stars represent the shirt.
“People need to earn their places now.”
Top 10 by the end of December was Evans’ aim before the trip to Loftus Road. By full-time, even he was admitting the odds on that were drifting, much like the club itself.
Leeds have been here before and they will be here again, as night follows day and strife follows them.