Some at Elland Road are losing their heads. In their midst, Steve Evans is living the dream.
It looks hard, the life of a Leeds United coach, but Evans had found himself a new addiction.
He has no way of knowing how long it will last – “I’m being told from above that I’ll be here for a long period,” he said on Saturday – but the presumed threat of dismissal seems only to tickle his sense of humour. “I keep telling everyone my contract’s to Friday,” he joked after high-end finishing nailed Huddersfield Town to the floor. “Which Friday, I don’t know.”
Not this one coming or the following Friday either. For the time being, Evans has a foot in the door. It was he who admitted that a “straw poll from here to China” would not have named him as United’s saving grace but Evans is confounding anyone who thought that he and the club were an awkward marriage; a partnership doomed from the start. Saturday’s derby finished with the Scot throwing Leeds salutes and punching the air as the rain blew in his face.
An away crowd of 4,000 at Huddersfield lapped his patter up. “We’ve won,” a philosophical Evans said. “It’s easy (to keep people happy) when you’ve won.” That’s as maybe, but Leeds are not exactly in the habit. Evans promised “winning football” – a mark of the form before he took charge – and the club have had it in the past week. From the perspective of their support it must be pleasing to see someone delivering on promises. Something about Evans speaks of a man who knows there is really no time like the present.
“I wouldn’t have been the choice when I first came in,” he said, “but Yorkshire people are very similar to Glasgow people. A spade’s a spade with them. It’s not a shovel.
“People give people a chance and I hope I can give them more days like this. I put everything into my jobs. I absorb my whole life into it.”
Leeds will give him a chance for as long as his team deliver or deliver as they have twice in a week. It could not be said that Evans has conjured champagne football in his first three weeks but this was never advertised as a revolution in the manner of Jurgen Klopp. Eight points from five games is three fewer than Rosler took from 12. More telling again in the past seven days has been the quality of United’s goals.
Alex Mowatt dealt with Cardiff on Tuesday with an unerring hit from 25 yards. Huddersfield suffered in the same fashion on Saturday, beaten irrevocably when Mowatt put Leeds 3-0 up in the second half but unseated earlier in the game by United’s ability to create something from nothing.
There were subplots to this derby – Huddersfield’s sacking of Chris Powell, their appointment of David Wagner to replace him and the presence of an old hand, Mark Lillis, in Town’s dug-out as caretaker while Wagner sat in the stands behind him – but the first half was almost a wash-out.
Two incidents in it proved pivotal. The first – an early head injury suffered by Liam Cooper after he and Scott Wootton ran into each other – created eight minutes of injury-time in which Leeds scored twice. The second, a tackle by Wootton on Emyr Huws, should have resulted in a red card.
Wootton had already been booked for hacking down Harry Bunn when he went through Huws in the middle of the pitch in the second minute of stoppage time. Referee Graham Scott came under pressure from numerous Huddersfield players but allowed Wootton to talk away with a lenient word in his ear.
Lillis felt the decision spoke for itself and made little comment afterwards. Evans did not deny that Wootton had been lucky. “One of our players gave the ball away and Scott lunges into the challenge,” he said. “I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d got a second yellow. But I won’t be surprised if Huddersfield get reported for eight players running around the referee.” Town’s Mark Hudson was no less fortunate after crunching into Luke Murphy later in the match.
Before Huddersfield could allow Scott’s judgement to lie, they were two goals down. The first, four minutes into injury-time, was beautifully created by Stuart Dallas who exchanged passes with Chris Wood before outrunning Jason Davidson on the right wing. His cross was perfect and Mirco Antenucci met it with a low volley past goalkeeper Joe Murphy.
Evans would have taken that as a huge bonus but two minutes and 10 seconds later, Leeds scored again. A pass from Luke Murphy fizzed past Town’s right-back, Martin Crainie, and found Antenucci lurking in behind. The striker drew Joe Murphy, edged towards the byline and laid the ball off for Chris Wood who, even in light of his recent finishing, could not miss an open goal from six yards. “I wasn’t happy with the first 35 minutes,” Evans said. “We looked a yard off it and we weren’t passing the ball properly. To be fair to Huddersfield, they started on the front foot.
“The first bit of quality in the game created the first goal. I don’t know how quick the second goal was. But the team talk didn’t change at half-time. We lowered the decibels a bit but the goals didn’t change the content. The players knew I was unhappy but they weren’t happy either and that’s a good sign. They walked in not happy, despite being 2-0 up. Today we’re pleased with the final bit – the end product.”
That among other things was a problem a month ago.
Lillis is a stalwart at Huddersfield, a former player who now works as academy manager, and his approach before kick-off was to incite ambitious football in a way which Powell, apparently, had failed to do. It amounted to nothing and images of Wagner’s poker face on Sky became less and less convincing. He was gone from his seat before the end. “I feel like I’ve let the supporters down,” Lillis said. “I’m gutted for them.”
Huddersfield were sharper before half-time but created nothing more than a low shot from Harry Bunn which Marco Silvestri held. To Lillis’ credit, his players tried to draw blood early in the second half but were picked off again on 54 minutes when Mowatt surged into his favourite pocket of space and smashed a sensational shot from long range into the top corner of Murphy’s net, with all the nonchalance of player who knew it was going in.
“It was another special goal from a special player,” Evans said. “He does that every day in training. When I first arrived the kid was down and he might have been down for the whole season. I just tried to remind him of the good days last year.”
Huddersfield’s finishing continued to draw a depressing comparison, partly because of Silvestri. The keeper’s one-handed parry from substitute James Vaughan’s was as good as his one-handed save from Harry Bunn, the livewire in a demoralised Town team. It would have been in tune with the whole afternoon had Joe Murphy not managed to get his fingertips to a late, goalbound shot from Dallas’ replacement, Jordan Botaka. Leeds have had their way at Huddersfield before but Billy Sharp’s winner last season, a last-gasp header, was typical of a club who rarely have the luxury of crossing the line comfortably. Evans was saluting the away end several minutes before full-time. The world’s most belligerent groundsman would not have kept him off the pitch at the final whistle.
A week has made a big difference for him and the club. Whatever their problems, they no longer look like relegation material; like a team destined to hang around in 19th all season.
“There’s no question we’re better than that,” Evans said. “But it doesn’t matter how much talent you have. If you don’t turn up and put in everything, you’ll not get what you deserve. You’ll never be prepared to win matches in the Championship. Because winning and losing are fine lines.”