It was undeniably tongue-in-cheek but Leeds United’s victory at Blackburn Rovers reignited talk of the play-offs. A week is a long time in football. It is a longer still when it yields three wins.
Steve Evans is long enough in the tooth to know that time is too short for his squad to chase the impossible and honest enough to accept that one good flurry does not compensate for a brittle season but his trademark, three-punch salute returned at Ewood Park; a hard-earned moment of satisfaction for a boss who has ridden the storm.
A fortnight ago United’s head coach was virtually out of his feet. Many who saw him in the wake of a 4-0 defeat away at Brighton thought he would soon be out of a job. Through victories over Bolton Wanderers, Cardiff City and Blackburn – the latter achieved by a performance as complete as any other this season – Evans held his ground as his players reacted to a situation in which many a manager has been hanged. At this rate Leeds will finish inside the top 10, whatever that position is actually worth.
Evans was cautious at the end of the win over Blackburn; careful not to make too much of an excellent passage of results when so much of the campaign has fallen flat. “We’ve had a good week,” he said, “but we don’t want a good week. We want a good season.” At Ewood Park, United played like a side who should have had one.
Some honesty in that respect would benefit the club when they wind down in May and prepare for a close-season which needs as much organisation as Leeds displayed last summer. United have had consistent runs under Evans but fallow periods too, including their recent sequence of one victory from 11 games. They were too strong and organised for Blackburn, too aggressive and energetic in midfield, but have not been so clinical on enough occasions. In short, there is something to work on at Elland Road. Saturday’s result was evidence of that.
Evans, who watched Sol Bamba and Mirco Antenucci seal the win, was pushed to say whether Leeds had sold themselves short by sitting in mid-table; an interesting question given that nine days ago he was under pressure to keep the Championship’s bottom three at arm’s length. “In a moment of reflection you may sit and think that,” he said. “We’ve got a good group. Talented players.
“We all know that with the matches we drew in the 11-game run where we won once, we should have won a few more of them. If we had, we’d be sitting in a different position.” It would have helped if injuries had not bitten too and it might not be coincidental that the return of Gaetano Berardi’s attitude and bite has come in a run of three successive wins. “The bench today was the strongest it’s been in my time here,” Evans said.
Blackburn’s manager, Paul Lambert, complained about fixture congestion afterwards, describing the visit of Leeds as “maybe a step too far” in the middle of a run of 11 games in 36 days. It was a valid gripe but aside from a strong start and a disjointed onslaught in injury-time, prompted by Simeon Jackson’s 89th-minute strike, his team were bullied by a Leeds midfield neatly balanced by the recall of Toumani Diagouraga and the sight of Alex Mowatt probing as he can. Liam Bridcutt’s tireless tackling had Blackburn fishing for scraps.
Rovers dictated the pace initially – “bossed it”, as Evans put it – but Marco Silvestri’s low save from Danny Graham was crucial, denying the striker one-on-one a short time before United scored on 34 minutes. A whipped corner from Mowatt, who had drawn a fine save from Jason Steele with an earlier free-kick, found Bamba steaming into the six-yard box. The centre-back met the ball cleanly and smashed it into the roof of the net.
“I’d accept that in the first 10 or 15 minutes Blackburn bossed it, went long into Danny Graham and gave us a fight,” Evans said. “But then we were on the front foot and from the minute we got the goal it was a wonderful performance. Our one and two-touch passing around the pitch was fantastic.” It continued to half-time and into the second half, forcing a second goal in the 69th minute.
The strike was a replica of United’s injury-time goal at Cardiff last Tuesday, scored in the same way and by the same player.
Silvestri flapped unconvincingly at a Blackburn free-kick, causing momentary panic in his box, but a clearance ran kindly to Mowatt who had the presence of mind to see Blackburn short of defenders and Antenucci running clean through.
The forward covered 50 yards, drew Steele from his line and dinked a precise shot into the far side of the goalkeeper’s net, a fourth goal in three games and another instance which crystallised the debate about whether Antenucci is worth a new contract this summer. “When you see him go through in that fashion I only think he’s going to score,” Evans said. “I’ve said many times that he’s a wonderful finisher. He’s often the difference between winning and losing.”
Blackburn were stumped by United’s approach until the penultimate minute when a high ball into the box bounced up in the six-yard box, giving substitute Jackson an opportunity which he dispatched with an acrobatic volley. With yellow cards flying around, referee Keith Stroud awarded six minutes. To Evans’ annoyance, he played almost nine. Craig Conway was inches away from equalising with a header at the death but that chance – created by a long, desperate ball from far outside the box – was typical of Blackburn’s uninspired approach.
Even allowing for the late angst, Evans had not seen his team play better. At full-time the away end were treated to his familiar, three-punch celebration after egging the Scot on. “It was only because they tempted me,” Evans joked.
“I think we all knew we were deserving of criticism after Brighton. If we’d lost by the odd goal then there would have been no reflection. We’d have said ‘we lost by the odd goal to a team chasing promotion.’ We wouldn’t have had the team meeting we did.
“The way we lost, how we lost – it needed a reaction. If you don’t do something about it then you’re doing nothing. We had to do something collectively and the big part of that comes on the pitch.
“This group is capable of winning matches but we still have to improve. We have to get better. One day we have to be good enough to play for that support.”