THEY need talk no more of George McCluskey and 1984.
Leeds United won in Cardiff on Tuesday night, a phrase that has not been used for three decades and more. If Steve Evans was not surprised by that result then the record books undoubtedly were.
Cardiff City, eighth in the Championship, are nothing like a veritable scalp but Leeds had a complex where Cardiff were concerned, going back to the days of Ninian Park and Eddie Gray’s first stint as manager. United have tried and failed to win in the Welsh capital since February 1984 but goals from Souleymane Doukara and Mirco Antenucci did what McCluskey’s had done all those years ago.
Doukara’s strike towards the end of the first half was as economical as football gets as Leeds drew blood with one of few chances of note before the interval. United gave Cardiff licence to dictate the game but packed their half of the field with discipline and City were posted missing when Mirco Antenucci led a counter-attack on 38 minutes, inviting Doukara to score.
The kitchen sink was thrown by City as the second half wore on but tired and toiling, Antenucci picked them off in the depths of injury-time. His finish was enough to seal a result of some note: a very rare win away at Cardiff and the sort of victory which Leeds under Evans have struggled to produce for a while. United’s head coach had spoken about producing a scoreline which made the Championship take note and Antenucci’s eighth goal of the season nailed it. Clubs competing with Cardiff for the division’s last play-off place will be intensely grateful for it.
This time last week, Leeds were licking their wounds from a 4-0 defeat away at Brighton, a night which Evans described as “the worst of my life.” A 2-1 win over Bolton on Saturday settled the club’s constitution after that appalling outing but, produced against the Championship’s bottom side, it barely compared to the compelling success recorded on Tuesday night.
City defender Fabio did his bit to help by incurring a brainless red card soon after the hour. Marco Silvestri did likewise with a series of brilliant saves, in between Cardiff hitting the post and the crossbar.
History was weighted heavily against Leeds, so much so that the old ground where McCluskey scrambled a winner for Gray is now a modern housing scheme, replaced by a the more soulless Cardiff CIty Stadium, but in the space of four days United have brought a bowing season under control.
Evans never encouraged talk of relegation but he is virtually at the point of feeling safe with the league’s bottom three still nine points back and games running out. The rest of the campaign is there for him and his players to see out quietly.
Evans’ faint promise of Chris Wood on the bench did not materialise and the wait for the striker’s return goes on, projected to end at Blackburn Rovers this weekend. Fifteen games have gone by since Wood last completed 90 minutes and a season which was undeniably alive when hamstring problems took him is tailing off as Leeds await his slow return.
His influence might have been fleeting in any case on an evening of minimal chances for United either side of Doukara’s opener. Cardiff were more in need of a result than Leeds, at least in the context of the Championship table, but their stadium stood half empty as the game kicked off and they were tentative in their approach until the latter stages, apparently unmoved by United’s painful hammering at Brighton.
Leeds were content at the outset to allow Cardiff to come onto them, waiting for space to appear in behind their midfield. One attack by Evans’ players in the 10th minute drew the game’s first booking as Doukara fought off Peter Whittingham and sprinted past Matthew Connolly, forcing Connolly to clip his ankles before the striker could cause trouble in behind him.
From the resulting free-kick, Giuseppe Bellusci’s header gave Sol Bamba an opportunity which United’s captain volleyed over from close range.
Cardiff saw more of the ball but no better openings than that. Anthony Pilkington smashed a 20-yard effort over the bar after Bamba lost possession inside his own half and Stuart O’Keefe scraped the side-netting with a strike which Silvestri had covered.
Evans used Luke Murphy as a pivot, in front of Leeds’ defence on his first start since the end of January, and the midfielder was put under pressure by a yellow card on 25 minutes, incurred for a pull on Tom Lawrence as Lawrence appeared on the wrong side of him. The free-kick was at Peter Whittingham’s preferred range but Silvestri anticipated his curling effort, palming it wide with a fine reaction.
In all, the attempts were hints of a goal rather than promises and the game badly needed one when Doukara delivered on 38 minutes. Even without it Evans might have been satisfied enough. At the same stage at Brighton eight days earlier, Leeds had been four goals adrift and at risk of a hideous rout. Cardiff showed nothing like the same intent or precision and United were purposeful in leaving numbers at the back, denying City space and preventing any desperate backtracking.
Cook had already wasted one good position on the counter, squaring a pass straight to Whittingham on the edge of Cardiff’s box, when Antenucci found himself one-on-one with Scott Malone on the right wing. Malone refused to commit and gave Antenucci time to slip an inside pass to Doukara who steadied himself and drilled a low shot past Marshall. One shot on target was all it took.
Silvestri denied Lawrence and Pilkington in the seconds before the break but Cardiff were lucky to be in the game after the early minutes of the second half.
Antenucci let Russell Slade’s side off the hook with a weak hit at Bruno Manga after Marshall gifted the ball to Doukara inside his box and the goalkeeper redeemed himself immediately with a desperate save from Liam Bridcutt’s volley.
If Cardiff hoped for a reprieve, they were handicapped further when right-back Fabio - the former Manchester United youngster - contrived to pick up two yellow cards with near identical fouls in the space of seven minutes. His second on 64 minutes, committed 40 yards up field, was the sort of dull lunge which has managers tearing their hair out.
Cardiff went for broke from then on and Lex Immers came closest to levelling the game by clipping the outside of a post with only Silvestri to beat. The Italian keeper was as relieved to see Manga smash an inviting header over the bar 10 minutes from time but his brilliant reaction to a late free-kick from substitute Craig Noone capped an immense individual performance.
Even then there was time for Kenneth Zohore to rattled the bar from point-blank range but with Cardiff risking everything, Antenucci was left alone in injury-time to cover 40 yards and slip the ball beyond Marshall’s left hand. It wasn’t easy.
But then Cardiff away never is.