If criticism of Leeds United’s performance this season has sounded disproportionate at any stage, it is telling that the club’s players are largely accepting of it.
A creditable win over Birmingham City on Tuesday, sealed by two lovely goals from Stuart Dallas, showed the squad at Elland Road in a positive light but even Dallas was reluctant to make too much of it. Asked about next season and United’s potential on the basis of Tuesday’s display, the winger warned about “getting too far ahead of ourselves.”
There is, as defender Liam Cooper said over the weekend, so much to happen before the start of the next Championship term. Even before touching on transfers, the future of United’s head coach or the perennial doubt about Massimo Cellino’s position as owner, Dallas – a Northern Ireland international – has Euro 2016 to look forward to. He will head into that tournament knowing that this season, his first as a Leeds player, hit a low benchmark.
The club are effectively safe from relegation, even though Steve Evans refused to say as much after their victory at Birmingham, and that realisation offered a chance for reflection. Leeds have played well sporadically and, on Tuesday, they out-worked a Birmingham side who were clinging to a faint chance of reaching the play-offs, but 12 wins from 41 games is one of several reasons why Evans’ squad were never truly in the running themselves.
“There’s a lot of you can look at but at the end of the day it comes down to the fact that we haven’t performed well enough on a consistent basis,” Dallas said.
“We’ve shown that when we come up against teams at the top of the table, we’re able to perform against them. We just haven’t done it enough. We’ve dropped too many points, from winning positions or going from getting a point to not getting nothing. It affects you but you have to pick yourself up and go again.
“We can’t really look ahead to next season yet. I think we’d be getting too far ahead of ourselves because we’ve shown that we can put in a good performance and then go again on Saturday and put in a terrible performance.
“We’ve got to just finish the season off as best we can. I’m sure the club will bring in a few new players in the summer and we’ll go again but we’ve got to concentrate on the end of this season, finish it off and give the fans something to cheer about. At times they’ve suffered. We haven’t given them enough to cheer about.
“I love it here but it’s been tough this season. It’s always tough, no matter where you play, if you’re not winning.”
Tuesday night at St Andrews was different; an evening when Leeds took the game by the throat for the best part of an hour, striking through Dallas on 11 minutes and again five minutes into the second half. Clayton Donaldson’s quick reply, bringing the score back to 2-1, provoked an onslaught from Birmingham but United’s defence – an area of the team often criticised during the past eight months – held out gamely.
Dallas said the performance of the team and his individual display had been tactical successes. The 24-year-old, one of Leeds’ major signings last summer, was fielded on the left wing but scored both of his goals from a central position 20 yards out; the first a sharp, low finish into the corner of the net and the second a brilliant volley after an equally deft first touch.
Dallas said: “Sometimes as a winger you want to stay out wide and I’m sure if you’re a supporter watching us you’re wondering why we keep coming inside. But that’s what the manager wants us to do. It was effective and I was able to get two goals.
“I think the first half was as well as we’ve played all season. We showed how good we can be and we played with a high intensity. We didn’t let Birmingham play and that’s what we’d worked on. On Monday in training, whenever the opposition got the ball, we had a 10-second fury to try and get it back.
“If we can keep putting in performances like we did in the first half then we’ll be in a good place. But we haven’t done that enough this season.”
Dallas’ brace took him to four goals for the season, a tally which Evans admitted the winger should improve on. “I think he can do more of that,” Evans said. Dallas’ finishing and influence was in contrast to that of Kyle Lafferty, the other Northern Ireland international on the pitch and a player who Evans fought without success to sign on loan from Norwich City earlier in the year.
Dallas and Lafferty are close friends and will travel to this summer’s European Championship together. Lafferty teased Dallas about his finishes after Tuesday’s game but admitted later on Twitter that the winger’s strikes had deserved to settle the match.
“I was getting a bit of stick from him,” Dallas said. “He said the ball was bouncing off me but I’m sure he would be happy if they bounced off him like that!
“I’d have loved it if we’d have had Kyle at Leeds but Coops (Liam Cooper) and Sol (Bamba) were magnificent. They didn’t let him play. He’s a dangerous player and if you let him play he can be lethal.
“My first goal was a good phase of play, six or seven passes and I popped up in the hole. The second one I was able to control and hit it. Sometimes they go in, sometimes they don’t but you know if you’ve caught it well. As soon as I hit it I thought ‘it’s close’.”