The name of Wembley was in the air as the Macron Stadium emptied on Saturday. Optimism at Leeds United is never far removed from sarcasm but the club are entitled to dream. They do too little of that, despite their eminence.
An appearance in round five of the FA Cup is modest territory on the scale of ambition but as Steve Evans pointed out, the past five-and-a-half years have offered nothing more.
Leeds’ promotion from League One in 2010 was the club’s most recent shot in the arm; since then, no promotions, no play-off appearances and only fleeting performances in cup competitions.
They last made the FA Cup’s last 16 in 2013 and were routed by Manchester City, a defeat which started the countdown to Neil Warnock’s sacking as manager. Evans is not at the stage of shouting the odds yet but his team progressed through round four on Saturday by beating Bolton Wanderers with a performance which the Scot would like to bottle. Allowing for an inevitable period of tension, created by Darren Pratley’s 80th-minute goal, Leeds have rarely played better this season. They have not played better under their incumbent head coach.
Evans had the rare satisfaction of watching a game where almost everything clicked. Souleymane Doukara scored again, this time with a genuine flash of skill, and Toumani Diagouraga simply scored, a notable event for a midfielder who last produced a goal three years ago. Evans’ tactics fell into place as Lewis Cook played freely at number 10 and Diagouraga and Liam Bridcutt knitted tidily in front of United’s defence. Leeds were 2-0 up at half-time and driving Neil Lennon to distraction. “We were way too passive,” said Bolton’s manager. “Our reaction to going a goal down wasn’t good.”
That goal took eight minutes to materialise, scored when Doukara anticipated a pass from Stuart Dallas, peeled off his marker and created enough room to drill the ball at Ben Amos. Bolton’s goalkeeper should have beaten the shot away but allowed it to spin over his legs and into the net.
Leeds had chipped away effectively on the counter-attack before then and played the same way throughout the first half. Bolton were repeatedly caught high up the pitch and Amos had already pulled off a diving save from Mirco Antenucci when, with 39 minutes played, the Italian burst down the right, waited for Doukara to draw a group of defenders and picked out the run of Diagouraga from deep. Diagouraga’s goals were so scarce at Brentford that their supporters took to shouting for him to shoot from any distance.
On Saturday, on his full debut, he could not miss from 12 yards out.
“Our performance was outstanding for 80 minutes,” Evans said, “but when you play as well as we played in the first half – as stunning as that – the only concern you’ve got going down the tunnel is ‘this should be done. This should be four or five’. That would have been justice to the performance.
“Our supporters deserve something special in a season. They’ve not had a lot of great highlights. Getting out of League One...Simon Grayson did a wonderful job but it’s not a highlight to a Leeds supporter, looking at Leeds getting out of League One.
“I’ve been to Wembley before and it was a special result. I’ve only been there once and people know the result.”
Evans took Rotherham United to the stadium in the League One play-offs and he is two ties away from doing the same with Leeds in the last four of the FA Cup; a short distance in some senses but a huge leap in others. Saturday mattered to him, partly because the Championship is trapping United in mid-table but also because the club took 6,630 supporters to the Macron Stadium, more than a third of the total crowd. That turnout by Leeds’ standards is not unusual – a similar number attended September’s win at MK Dons – but the club have been guilty in the past of failing to rise to a following so big. There were thoughts beforehand of Blackburn Rovers away in November 2013 when 6,800 made the trip to Ewood Park and United’s players failed to show up.
“This is a big win, especially when you bring that support,” Evans said. “I’m blessed and very fortunate to be head coach of Leeds United. I don’t for one minute sit here like others have and say something different, that it was their destiny and all that nonsense.
“The thing I’ll give the supporters back is a team who play with passion. There might be a lack of ability or a lack of know-how at times but they’ll never play with a lack of passion. If we won games based on fanbase, we’d be top of the Premier League.”
It was unfair on Saturday to say that Evans had stumbled upon a good formation. The signing of Diagouraga from Brentford last week allowed for two deep-lying midfielders and afforded Evans the freedom to play a number 10. In that role, Cook found himself again on Saturday at the end of an unconvincing month. “Everyone who’s come here will know just why half the Premier League want to sign him for multi-millions,” Evans said. “He was simply sensational.”
Bolton’s grind in the first half yielded no more than a chance for Gary Madine which the striker contrived to slice over the crossbar from point-blank range but the second half saw a change in the wind, amongst fierce showers of hail. Leeds continued to look dangerous and Scott Wootton should have scored a third goal when he side-footed a shot over the bar but Bolton began to respond with more interest.
Giuseppe Bellusci was in the right place to block a Darren Pratley shot after Sol Bamba mishit a clearance into his own six-yard box but when the game reached the 80th minute, United’s defence failed to clear a corner and Pratley met the loose ball with a shot into the roof of the net. From a position of comfort Leeds strayed suddenly into trouble. They were spared a replay a minute from the end of normal time when Silvestri parried Pratley’s curling shot and watched Madine stab the ball against the outside of a post.
Was Evans worried? “No, never,” he said. “I wouldn’t have feared a replay either. When we play like that we’re a decent side.” Lennon put the result into context soon after, speaking as the manager of another club who need their rays of sunshine. “We were never going to win the FA Cup,” the Bolton boss said, “but it would have been nice to have been in the draw.”