Failings on the inside, interference from the outside; the Leeds United way. At Hillsborough on Saturday it came from both directions, nailing the club in a combination of self-inflicted wounds and official incompetence.
Wasted chances and two goals conceded early in the second half, scored by Gary Hooper and enough to give Sheffield Wednesday a 2-0 victory, represented the internal inadequacies that Leeds are living with week after week. Steve Evans spotted them and criticised them, as he has before and will doubtless do again before this laboured season is out.
The shambolic events of the 79th minute, when referee Anthony Taylor awarded a Leeds goal before quickly disallowing it in a fit of confusion and embarrassment, represented the injustice that Leeds identify in much of what happens at their expense. Evans thought that moment had reignited a derby which two mistakes sold down the river. He went for a toilet break as the ball nestled in the net but returned to find Wednesday’s 2-0 lead intact.
Taylor, a Select Group official who took charge at short notice after Kevin Friend was taken ill, ran into trouble after awarding a free-kick for a trip by Daniel Pudil on Souleymane Doukara. Wednesday used the break in the game to substitute Fernando Forestieri and replace him with Lucas Joao.
Forestieri, in Evans’ words, “took four days to come off” with the clock working against Leeds. As the Italian walked towards the touchline and Joao waited to tap hands with him, Taylor waved play on and Liam Cooper met Alex Mowatt’s free-kick with a close-range prod. Wednesday’s last defender could only smash the ball into the roof of the net.
There was no question that Taylor had allowed the game to restart or that he awarded a goal. There was no question either that the substitution was incomplete. The Football Association will not enjoy the replays any more than him. Evans took the finish as his cue to quickly answer a sudden call of nature and disappeared down the tunnel. In his absence and with protests raging, Taylor consulted the fourth official and ruled the goal out.
“Forestieri got his deckchair out and took four days to come off,” Evans argued. “The referee in my opinion overruled that. He clearly whistled to restart play. I’ve been to see him and he accepts that. He shouts to my players ‘play’.
“We score, he gives the goal, I go for a leak, a little break, and I come back and he’s chalked it off. He says in law he’s got it right because it should be disallowed but I’ve never seen that, ever. It’s an horrendous decision. If you restart the play the game’s live. Simple.
“He’s a Premier League referee who’s stepped down to take charge of a big derby. He should be with the under-nines on a park pitch in his next game because you cannot make a mistake of that magnitude in a game which means so much. He’s apologised but we’ll see where he referees next Saturday. Probably Chelsea-Arsenal or something.”
Taylor blundered initially by allowing Mowatt to deliver the free-kick while Forestieri traipsed off the pitch. It seemed that the official had simply lost track of proceedings. Carlos Carvalhal, Wednesday’s head coach, said it was “clear that he must cancel the goal because the game was stopped”. Evans, nonetheless, felt Wednesday had been spared a period of hard examination in the last 10 minutes. Leeds almost scored from the retaken free-kick but Daniel Pudil – lucky not to receive a second yellow card for the original foul – appeared on the line to clear a header from Scott Wootton which was a replica of Cooper’s. Time ticked away.
Hard questions might come Taylor’s way – even though the laws suggest his final judgement was correct – but there were lessons for Leeds on Saturday too; lessons given so often this season they no longer offer much enlightenment. Evans’ side should have scored twice in the first half and contrived to miss from positions within touching distance of the goalline. Lewis Cook and Mustapha Carayol mis-kicked with point-blank free hits during one first-half attack and both Cook and Doukara failed to pounce after a Stuart Dallas shot slipped off the body of goalkeeper Lewis Price on 14 minutes. Cook’s effort was blocked by frantic defending and Doukara drove the second rebound straight at Price.
Price is Wednesday’s third-choice keeper and in front of him, a second-choice centre-back pairing gave Leeds encouragement. Without Chris Wood, Leeds were too forgiving. “We were fantastic in the first half and at half-time you’re turning at 0-0 when you should be 3-0 up,” Evans said. “You have to take those chances. You have to go in front.
“Then we get a couple of individual errors at the start of the second half and we find ourselves 2-0 down. It brings back the reality that it counts in both boxes.”
In Hooper, Wednesday had something Leeds have long lacked: a forward with a natural taste for finishing.
Hooper’s loan from Norwich City ended on Saturday but he rounded it off with six goals in his final six appearances.
Wednesday threw money at a player whose wage exceeds £30,000 a week and he edged them into the play-off positions for the first time on Saturday. Leeds brought in two loanees in the first week of the January window but Sam Byram is on his way out and United continue to look like a half-cocked Championship squad. There is no telling if Massimo Cellino will inject it with meaningful strength in this window.
Evans said Byram had asked to be omitted at Hillsborough and Byram was, but with a £3.7million move to Everton pending, an appearance by the 22-year-old would have been highly irregular.
Hooper’s goals – scored on 46 and 49 minutes – undid all of Leeds’ better work, negating their periods of control and dominance. Marco Silvestri had a hand in the first, pushing away a shot from Forestieri which appeared to be bouncing wide anyway. From the corner that followed, Forestieri wrestled to the byline and cut the ball into the middle, leaving Hooper with a tap-in.
Before long, a Forestieri shot from 20 yards – a scenario afforded to him too often – slipped from Silvestri’s grasp and invited Hooper to bundle the ricochet under him. “I go away disappointed with individuals in terms of mistakes in both boxes,” Evans said, “but I can palate Wednesday taking advantage of our two mistakes. What I can’t palate is our goal being chalked off.”
Wednesday made a pretence of going to town but Leeds found a way to settle again. Even before Cooper’s disallowed finish, Doukara clipped the outside of the post with a fierce low drive but Evans delayed on making substitutions, giving the impression again that he thinks little of his bench. It is the reality of the situation at Elland Road: misfortune in amongst issues which lie closer to home, including the sore reality of another gifted academy product lost to the Premier League. Hillsborough was better than Ipswich by some distance but the nature of Tuesday’s defeat to Ipswich set a poor tone for a critical week.
“I thought my team had a real energy, a real commitment to passing and moving,” Evans said as the dust settled. “At times we were far superior but at this stage of the season it’s about winning games. We’ve lost, they’ve won. Good luck to them.” Thirteen points back from the play-offs and distant yet again, luck – like Evans – can only take so much of the blame.