Steve Evans could argue all day about how much difference Kyle Lafferty would have made to Leeds United’s season. All that can be said is that the striker made no difference last night; beaten with Birmingham City by the club and the head coach who talked so much about signing him.
Lafferty was the proposed transfer which Evans invested most energy in during the January transfer window – ultimately to no avail – but it was another Northern Ireland international, Stuart Dallas, who set Leeds up for a fine victory at St Andrew’s. As it did away at Burnley on Saturday, United’s performance in Birmingham called for fewer envious glances at the assets of other clubs.
It is late in the term with five games to go and neither of United’s last two fixtures have changed the tone of their season as a whole but they were impressive yesterday and they have not played well often enough to be blase about a creditable win. Evans’ side had nothing riding on the trip to St Andrew’s but attacked as if they did. Birmingham’s entire campaign hung on it but urgency and composure deserted them until the damage was done.
Dallas took all of 11 minutes to put Leeds in front, striking from long range with clinical accuracy, and having conceded after 59 seconds at Turf Moor, United allowed Marco Silvestri to see out all of the first half without making a difficult save. There was almost a sense of Leeds clicking last night, albeit 40 games too late.
Lafferty, who joined Birmingham from Norwich City last month, long after United’s interest in him waned, cut an isolated figure as much of the match went on around and behind him. Evans midfield were as dominant as they had been at Burnley but more incisive with the ball. City did not find their bearings until the seconds before half-time.
Five minutes after the restart they lost them again when Dallas outdid his earlier finish with a deadly volley from 20 yards, beating goalkeeper Adam Legzdins all ends up. Birmingham came alive with that and fought back with a scrambled effort from Clayton Donaldson but Leeds bailed water in the last half-hour to keep their advantage intact. An injury-time red card shown to Alex Mowatt for a late foul on Ryan Shotton came too late to spoil the evening.
Evans and his players needed a result last night, as much for personal pride as any long-term aims. Defeat at Burnley was a fourth straight match without a win – a run which centre-back Liam Cooper openly described as “not good enough” – and while relegation was no longer likely, a 21st-placed finish was altogether more probable than a climb to the the Championship’s top 10.
United’s head coach had promised to “freshen up” his team but Mirco Antenucci’s selection in place of Mustapha Carayol was the only change to a side which tested Burnley’s patience at Turf Moor on Saturday. Evans was as good as his word with Chris Wood, starting the striker despite his two glaring misses at the weekend. Both decisions paid off.
A small, subdued crowd at St Andrew’s created little atmosphere and did nothing to suggest that Birmingham had anything left to play for. The club’s manager, Gary Rowett, had spoken honestly about the odds before kick-off and admitted that anything but a win last night would mean another season in the Championship for City.
Their prospects were slender to begin with and slimmer again when Dallas made the most of a concerted start by Leeds to open the scoring on 11 minutes. The winger’s shot from 20 yards as space opened up was perfectly placed, low and to the left of Legzdins who had no chance of keeping it out of the bottom corner of his net.
The warnings signs had been there for Birmingham. For Leeds, their dominance in the first 10 minutes merely encouraged them to press forward repeatedly. Prior to Dallas’ goal, Antenucci had driven a long-range effort wide and Wood was inches from turning Berardi’s low cross home after Toumani Diagouraga and Antenucci burst through City’s off-the-pace midfield.
Shortly after the opener, Leeds pulled Birmingham open again and Charlie Taylor’s cross fell nicely to Lewis Cook 12 yards from goal. Cook’s side-footed finish would have tested Legzdins but the leg of a defender kept the ball from harm’s way. That chance quickly brought Rowett from his seat in the dug-out and brought murmurs of discontent from the crowd.
Birmingham’s performance before half-time was best summed up by Stephen Gleeson mis-hitting a clearance from the edge of their box over his own crossbar. Diagouraga headed the resulting corner over but Leeds’ control was such that a second goal would have been welcome. City did not enter Silvestri’s area in a meaningful way for half-an-hour and even then their chances were fleeting. Lafferty’s only sniff of a goal was a heavy cross from David Cotterill which skimmed off the top of his head.
Shotton saw a much better opportunity nine minutes before half-time when a Cotterill free-kick dropped to him but his side-footed shot bounced tamely wide. Shotton claimed for a penalty amid signs of a tug on his shirt but referee Chris Kavanagh fudged the issue by awarding a corner. Leeds had no difficulty in seeing that or other attacks before the interval off.
Cook, however, should have forced a 2-0 lead on 45 minutes when a lovely touch from Wood on halfway sent him clear down the right. The youngster looked up to see Antenucci unmarked in the box but smashed a shot against the body of Legzdins. Wood swung at the rebound but could not get his foot to it.
It seemed, nonetheless, that another goal was coming and Dallas produced it brilliantly in the 50th minute, driving an instinctive volley over Legzdins after bringing the ball down with a gentle touch of his right boot. Evans should have been able to relax at that moment but three minutes later, Birmingham pulled themselves back into content.
Silvestri was forced into a desperate parry by a well-hit Cotterill free-kick which seemed to fly through United’s wall and Donaldson popped up to bundle the rebound over the line. City found their appetite immediately but were kept at bay by bloody-minded defending, an awful point-blank miss from substitute Diego Fabbrini and Silvestri’s diving block from Lafferty with 17 minutes to go.
It was the only time when the striker looked like haunting Evans.