Steve Evans says his transfer plans depend on the play-offs and that hopeful target might yet come into range.
An astonishing win at Wolverhampton Wanderers last night trimmed the gap to eight points with Leeds United’s season about to turn for home.
The club have been chasing a deficit since August but their head coach had it in his head that United would be top 10 by January and prominent enough to make investment a no-brainer. A fightback in which Souleymane Doukara turned the game and Sam Byram raised a brilliant, overdue smile kept Evans’ dream alive.
Leeds are clinging on to the top half of the Championship and they clung on at Molineux as Wolves made the most of an opening half-hour in which United barely made the effort to stand and fight but the arrival of Doukara as substitute on 31 minutes saw Kenny Jackett’s side torn to shreds as Byram scored either side of Stuart Dallas to remind Leeds what they might be losing next month.
The 22-year-old’s contract is dwindling – due to expire in June – and Leeds do not intend to go back to him with an improvement on the offer he rejected a fortnight ago. Byram has been bothered by the uncertainty, often out of the team and clearly out of the form, but he emerged from his shell with crucial goals in both halves.
His first, scored on 44 minutes and 35 after Benik Afobe put Wolves ahead, was a taken from 10 yards and payback for Evans’ decision to play Byram in an advanced role. His second – the sort of hanging header which comes naturally to United’s former player-of-the-year – arrived on the hour, 10 minutes after Dallas smashed a raking shot under Carl Ikeme. Having owned their pitch for so much of the first half, Wolves looked shellshocked at 3-1 down.
Nathan Byrne’s volley halved the lead nine minutes from time but the win was comfortably the finest under Evans. It was a result his side needed with their 23rd league game coming on Sunday. Scorelines across the Championship earlier in the week cut Leeds 11 points adrift of sixth place; too far, realistically, for owner Massimo Cellino to think that promotion would be worth throwing cash at. Whether Byram’s performance last night draws another contract offer remains to be seen but the youngster seemed to enjoy the novelty of allowing his football to talk.
Evans has spent the past week dealing with questions about who at Leeds is picking his team and his selection of Byram was as good a way as any of drawing a line under that issue.
Byram was a field away from his preferred position – used as a right winger as Stuart Dallas replaced Alex Mowatt on the left – but the 22-year-old’s inclusion vindicated Evans’ claim that he was free to do as he pleased with his squad, even with a player who has rejected a new contract and who Leeds are likely to sell in January.
Scott Wootton remained at right-back, the contentious position in Evans’ line-up, but United’s boss was unapologetic in saying that he would not allow public opinion to dictate his plans anymore than he would Massimo Cellino. Byram was not only chosen ahead of Jordan Botaka but Botaka was omitted from the squad completely.
Evans had voiced concern about defensive weaknesses in Botaka’s game and Wolves were set up to feed Jordan Graham and James Henry out wide. It was clear from the opening 10 minutes that two teams with 15 draws between them were not interested in playing for a 16th.
United were first to shoot in anger with a brilliant volley from Stuart Dallas which exploited a knockdown from Chris Wood and smashed off Ikeme’s right-hand post in the seventh minute. The goalkeeper – a player looked at by Evans during the emergency loan window – barely moved. Afobe, however, wasted an equally good chance moments later by thinking too long about a strike which trickled wide and that near-miss was a warning for the goal which followed on 11 minutes.
A high ball towards the edge of Leeds’ box was headed past Liam Cooper and to the feet of an unmarked Afobe who drew Silvestri out before slipping a low shot beyond his left hand. Replays appeared to show the striker straying close to an offside position but the goal stood and Evans was more inclined to moan about the defending than he was the absence of a flag.
Wolves tried to force a second while the going was rough and Afobe failed to plant his head on an inviting cross after Cooper slipped and lost the ball inside United’s box. Cooper’s sliding tackle then kept the ball away from Wanderers’ lone striker as Jordan Graham pinched possession from Liam Bridcutt and tore down the left wing.
Afobe came within inches of another goal on 27 minutes, turning and shooting wide when Wolves worked a long ball from Iorfa to him around the penalty spot, and Evans gathered some of his players in a group on the touchline soon after, barking instructions in an attempt to stem the flow of pressure.
Shortly after, and with his team struggling, he replaced Tom Adeyemi with Doukara. Adeyemi had received treatment on an injury earlier but it was not an obvious change and not entirely obvious if the substitution was enforced or tactical. It switched Leeds to a 4-4-2 system and after Graham tested Silvestri with a shot from 20 yards, Evans’ players found a way of turning the tide.
They had half-chances initially, with Chris Wood failing to bring the ball under control when it fell to him in Wolves box and Byram’s low effort hitting the legs of McDonald after Doukara picked out his surging run. But Kenny Jackett’s defence were posted missing when Cook produced a flash of skill to leave Byram in space 10 yards out. With a cool head and a cool finish, Byram slotted the ball to Ikeme’s right.
Two minutes into the second half Wood had the opportunity to redress the scoreline completely but Ikeme closed the angles and dived at his feet after Doukara drew Danny Batth and slipped a pass into space. Confidence, however, had seeped from Wolves’ performance and in the 50th minute, Dallas advanced down the right before smashing a shot under Ikeme with no opposition around him.
Under the cosh and beginning to panic, Wolves almost buckled again when Ikeme met Wood’s header with a parry on his goalline. Doukara could not sink the rebound but with 59 minutes gone, Ikeme was beaten again. The keeper could do nothing as Charlie Taylor’s deep cross picked out Byram whose towering finish – one of his strengths – floated beautifully into the far corner of the net. There was no doubt that the right-back needed that. So did Evans and so did the club, and Byrne’s back-post finish on 81 minutes did not spoil the night.