Outside the ground the division was obvious: a large video screen accusing Massimo Cellino of a catalogue of errors at Leeds United, positioned within throwing distance of a banner bearing the message ‘In Massimo We Trust’. Elland Road lay in between.
Inside the ground there was more accord and Leeds’ largest home crowd of the season enjoyed common ground while the club cleared the way for a fourth successive league win.
Then came the second half and United fell apart as Huddersfield Town rectified a poor derby record with a 4-1 victory and three goals in eight minutes.
Steve Evans was forlorn in the aftermath and shocked to find himself explaining the concession of four goals so soon after drawing a line under a similar beating. “If I told you what I felt like doing with myself then it would be unprintable,” United’s head coach said. The riotous nature of Huddersfield’s win – the carefree resurrection of a struggling side – left others feeling the same.
Leeds and Cellino, United’s centre-of-attention owner, are in one of those ruts where each loss and backwards step prompts wounds to open, and Saturday was no different. If United’s run of three straight wins, their stoic response to a 4-0 defeat at Brighton, put the club’s state in a different light, the result against Huddersfield gave strength to the view that Leeds still have ingrained weaknesses.
It was, still, a strange game and a strange derby; highly compelling and the sort of derby that Huddersfield have almost forgotten. Town were on a run of four losses to Leeds before the weekend and at risk of a fifth with 40 minutes played and United leading through Stuart Dallas’ header but a goal from Mark Hudson before the interval was terminal.
Town waded into the second half with more purpose and direction, and when Karim Mantour followed up a Harry Bunn volley to put David Wagner’s side 3-1 up with 17 minutes to go, Elland Road emptied rapidly. An attendance of 29,311 was vastly diminished by full-time.
Wagner was visibly thrilled and played to the away end with his version of Steve Evans’ three-punch salute, the celebration adopted by Evans when Leeds produced his second win as head coach at the John Smith’s Stadium in November. “I never think it’s a 4-1 game,” Evans said. “It’s fine margins but they were better than us. It looked as if they wanted it more than we did, or much more than we did in certain areas.”
Leeds have swung recently from tension to fragile ambition but Saturday killed any appetite for talking about the play-offs, leaving Evans to concede that the club’s league position – 13th going into the season’s final international break – is not doing his squad down.
“When I joined the club, the job I got was to keep Leeds in the Championship,” he said, reminding everyone that United had been 18th when the club sacked Uwe Rosler in October. “That sometimes gets forgotten but we’ll do that and we’ll do that comfortably.
“We’ve become a mid-table side in my opinion. I never spoke about the top part of the table because it was never going to be happening after we had a run of games where we weren’t winning. We were never in my opinion going to get involved at the bottom end of the table.
“We’re a mid-table side for a reason – not good enough to get out of it, too good to go down. We’re not good enough to break into the top group and our failures are fairly evident to most people who watch us.”
Defensively Leeds were at sea throughout and prone to Huddersfield’s established penchant for counter-attacking. Whatever ever else he has at his disposal, Wagner has his plan. But an early chain of events in Evans’ favour made much of the first half comfortable.
Sol Bamba conceded a 13th-minute penalty when he ended Joe Lolley’s weaving run by swiping a leg at him but Marco Silvestri bested Nahki Wells with a superb low save, one-handed to his right. Leeds took that as a kick where it hurt and fought back, drawing first blood on 22 minutes when Liam Bridcutt picked up the pieces from Souleymane Doukara’s counter-attack. He crossed deep to Dallas who rose above Tom Smith and headed past Jed Steer before spilling into a packed Kop. His celebration earned him a booking.
Huddersfield treaded water until their equaliser four minutes before half-time, a soft goal conceded when Jamie Paterson’s corner evaded Phil Billing and found Hudson in front of Bamba, waiting to bounce a header into the net, but as telling was Wagner’s decision to remove Rajiv van La Parra at half-time. His debutant loanee had been anonymous. Van La Parra’s replacement, Harry Bunn, offered considerably more.
Before Town’s flurry of finishes began on 69 minutes, Leeds looked like a team in need of help from the bench. Lewis Cook – a midfielder rested by Evans – took to the field as United’s first substitute on 65 minutes. By the 79th, Leeds were 4-1 adrift.
Asked to explain his changes, and the decision to leave Cook and Toumani Diagouraga out of the starting line-up after a fine win at Blackburn Rovers, Evans said: “It’s the same as why I made changes after Bolton and Cardiff. But when you lose a game, especially a derby, people say ‘why the changes?’
“You’ve got a rough idea of when you want to introduce players and systems but when you concede three goals in the space of eight or nine minutes, it’s very difficult to introduce a system to win the game from there. There was nothing in the game at 1-1.”
The collapse began when Alex Mowatt sold Silvestri short with a back pass and Silvestri sliced his clearance behind. The corner which followed bounced out to Bunn who was unmarked on the edge of the box and cracked a volley in off Silvestri’s right-hand post. “If we defend like that we’ll always concede,” Evans said.
Four minutes later, with 73 on the clock, substitute Karim Matmour scored the simplest of goals as Wells took advantage of a stray pass from Giuseppe Bellusci, sprinted down the left and nudged the ball to within two yards of the goalline. As Leeds faced up to defeat and tried to limit the damage, Town ran through their defence again and Wells converted from 15 yards. But for Silvestri’s late effort in blocking James Husband’s one-on-one shot with his foot, the tally against Leeds would have run to five.
In the pre-match programme, Cook had described the Brighton debacle as “a one-off” and Huddersfield’s win felt different, but against a side who had been slogging to keep out of trouble at the bottom of the Championship, it felt just as brutal.
“The players got all the credit from me when we got the three wins,” Evans said, “but when it goes like this in a game like this, I’ll take the ultimate responsibility for that loss – for the changes and the performances of some.
“When we get through to the summer, I’ll take ultimate responsibility for making sure there’s a team on the pitch which is a Steve Evans’ Leeds United team. We’ve not seen that yet.” It is hard to believe the road ahead will be as flat or straight as Evans hopes.