There was no victory but Massimo Cellino got the bounce he was seeking. Leeds United “had a go” and then some at Fulham and with Steve Evans’ lowest benchmark reached, his night’s sleep deserved to be sound.
Much about Leeds keeps the club’s employees awake and Evans learned early on at Craven Cottage why Cellino was looking around for a new head coach last weekend but his debut in the dug-out lacked only a winning goal. Evans’ players warmed to his input quickly and so, in the end, did a raucous away crowd.
Leeds had bite about them and more tempo than the football which Uwe Rosler served up and Cellino rejected after 12 games. There was potency up front with two strikers and the help of a tepid Fulham team who did not like United’s persistence. But news of defensive frailty at Leeds has not been exaggerated and the club paid for it early on.
Moussa Dembele’s 23rd-minute goal, Fulham’s first close range chance and one which Marco Silvestri might have saved, opened Evans’ eyes to the biggest problem facing Leeds, on the field at any rate. Rosler’s did not score enough goals or looking like scoring many but their habit of conceding them and conceding them cheaply has taken their season off the rails.
There are other factors at play at Elland Road and the events of this week - the change of head coach, the fresh suspension imposed on United’s owner by the Football League – are a reminder that first-team bosses at Leeds can only control so much but Evans succeeded last night in injecting direction and energy into the legs of his squad. A second-half penalty from Chris Wood earned a 1-1 draw and offered some reward for numerous chances and massive dominance.
Fulham were aggrieved to be on the end of a hiding when United visited Craven Cottage seven months ago – a time when Neil Redfearn was holding the managerial reins at Leeds – but they had far less of last night’s game and were chided by their own supporters as Evans’ side pushed the pace in both halves. Calls for a sacking were aimed exclusively at Kit Symons.
Evans got the tone of his introduction right this week, avoiding the risk of overstating his reputation, and the Scot made a low-key entry yesterday, walking past the away end without a grand gesture; perhaps accepting that these are delicate moments. At full-time he took warm applause and nods of respect.
It looked on Monday as if Rosler was leaving behind a riddled squad and a riddled defence, minus Charlie Taylor and Liam Cooper, but Cooper doubled as Lazarus in London and started at centre-back.
Evans, as he said he would, fielded two strikers and made three changes, the most significant of which saw Sam Byram named at right-back. It was not a dismantling of Rosler’s empire but the differences were pronounced and not at all negative. In the stands, Cellino looked on as his sixth boss in 18 months began the long climb.
None of Evans successors under Cellino had succeeded in winning their first game. Brian McDermott’s first after the Italian’s takeover in April 2014 ended in a feeble, resigned 3-0 loss at Watford. Evans promised victories in his introductory press conference and passion besides but passion came first from the away end with chants of ‘Massimo, time to go’ and ‘sell the club’. On Back to the Future day it felt like a return to mid-April and Cellino’s last suspension.
On the grass, Evans’ point of focus, the start was encouraging. Lewis Cook attacked one wing in the first minute and Byram cut open the other in the fourth and on both occasions Fulham’s defence was made to look twitchy. Ross McCormack was as quickly into the game, whipping a shot inches wide after 120 seconds.
McCormack and Matt Smith – two former Leeds strikers, the latter injured last night – had wasted chance after chance in this fixture last season, playing their part in Fulham’s 3-0 defeat in March and tighter lines of defence and midfield limited early efforts on Marco Silvestri’s goal. Byram’s advances in that period were not those of a player stripped of all confidence.
The first opportunity of note fell to Stuart Dallas with 19 minutes played. Fulham’s tentative passing caught up with them 18 yards out and Wood laid a loose ball off to the edge of the box, into Dallas’ path. The winger’s fierce strike drew an unconvincing parry from Joe Lewis but firm enough for Fulham to see Leeds off.
Another opportunity fell to Wood seconds later, coming from a high free-kick into the box, but Lewis closed the angles and blocked his shot from close-range. Rosler would have been happy enough on the back of three straight defeats. For Evans, the balance of the match was ideal.
Rosler’s sacking, however, had reasons behind it on 23 minutes Evans discovered one of the flaws with the squad of players taken on by him. McCormack drew Cooper out and slipped in Dembele who ran beyond Sol Bamba and drilled a shot under Silvestri. The ball struck the goalkeeper but bounced on into the net.
United’s impetus was naturally lost and the rest of the half ticked by tamely until the closing seconds. Gaetano Berardi drew Lewis into a diving save after Leeds broke the full length of the field and Dan Burn, the Fulham centre-back, was extremely lucky to escape without punishment when the ball hit his hand near Lewis’ penalty spot on 45 minutes. Those calls are another factor which United have been falling foul of this season.
There was another early in the second half as Lewis dived in on Adeyemi and referee Keith Hill awarded a goal kick but United’s pressure increased rapidly and started to look like an onslaught by the time Hill finally gave in and awarded a penalty on 63 minutes.
Ben Pringle was punished for a handling offence which seemed far less obvious than Burn’s and Wood forced the ball into the net, despite Lewis getting a firm hand to the ball. The equaliser was deserved and Fulham knew it, much as they argued the decision against them
Evans had provided an injection of pace by introducing Jordan Botaka and Will Buckley replaced Wood shortly after his goal.
Leeds pressed for a winner but Lewis dealt with the best of their remaining chances, tipping a curling effort from Dallas over his crossbar and another from Mirco Antenucci wide with 90 minutes played.
A decisive stroke was all Evans needed. What mattered more was the sight of his team getting their act together.