Leeds United are going out with the bit between their teeth. To what end, no-one can tell. Their encouraging form, compelling as it is, counts for little in the context of this season. It might count for nothing if the club send the head coach behind it packing.
Where the media are concerned, Steve Evans has the patience of a saint. The same questions game after game, followed by the same non-combative answers. It was no different on Saturday after Stuart Dallas’ late equaliser forced a 2-2 draw at Hull City. Is Evans’ making it impossible for Massimo Cellino to push him aside? “I genuinely want to deliver a promotion team,” he replied. “And 100 per cent I believe I’m the person to do it.”
His statements of positivity carry increasingly credibility. Hull, one of the Championship clubs who will think that the play-offs as less than they should have aspired to, had much of Saturday’s game but discovered that Evans’ players are still to switch off mentally for their summer escape. Dallas’ 88th-minute goal was symptomatic of a squad who are playing for something with nothing to be won.
That is, with the exception of a new contract for Evans. He is in Cellino’s hands, as Leeds are, but this is not quite the one-sided scenario it seemed to be a month ago. Evans, it appears, is drawing attention from elsewhere. “He (Cellino) is well aware that there’s interest,” the Scot said. On top of that, he has results on his side; 20 points from the last 11 games. And a groundswell of opinion says Cellino could easily stumble on a worse option than the current incumbent. United’s owner has stumbled on a few in the past.
The club have come through some volatile periods this season and none worse than the day that Evans was appointed. Six months later, and in better times, there is glaring risk involved in ripping up the best of the work. “If I’m not chosen then there’s a big task for someone in the summer,” Evans said. “It does take you six or seven months to know what you’re managing here.”
He and Cellino spoke on Friday; at length, according to Evans. United’s boss said the issue of a deal which expires in June was not discussed, raising eyebrows. “We agreed many months ago that when he was ready to have the conversation we’d have the conversation,” Evans said.
“When you shake hands and say you’ll keep the focus on the football, I’m alright with that. Every time we win a match it gives me a better chance of staying – or of another employer in future.”
At this stage he has no choice but to think like that. “You don’t want to stay if you’re not wanted,” Evans admitted. “You have to be wanted.” The managers who finished United’s last two seasons, Neil Redfearn and Brian McDermott, left soon after amid almost complete silence from Cellino but Evans does not expect to learn his fate third-hand. “I don’t think I’ll have to chase him. My relationship with the president is renowned for being strong.”
In an environment like Saturday’s, in the heat of matchday, Leeds look like a collected club. Their away following bounced through an absorbing derby and Evans’ side rode the blow of two quick concessions in first-half injury-time and Chris Wood’s missed penalty early in the second half.
Wood had earlier drawn first blood, volleying home Charlie Taylor’s pin-point cross on 15 minutes as Hull tried to attack at will. It was a rare foray forward and Evans did not pretend otherwise. City chipped and chipped without success – “their fans went quiet because there was no penetration,” Evans said – until Leeds gave in in the first minute of added time.
The equaliser was forced by Robert Snodgrass, a winger whose game and talent is exactly as United remember it. In his time at Elland Road, t-shirts were made bearing the slogan ‘keep calm and pass to Snodgrass.’ Hull are not quite that dependent but everything good went through him and Taylor’s season peaked in difficulty in the face of his running. When Snodgrass appeared one time too many on Leeds’ byline, his low centre gave Abel Hernandez a gift of an equaliser.
Two minutes later, and with 48 on the clock, Tom Huddlestone struck again with a fine finish from 20 yards, into the bottom corner. “I said to the players at half-time and again at the end of the game, if you have suicidal defending then you’re going to concede, especially against a higher level of opposition,” Evans said. “Give Hull the opportunity to to take a chance and they’ll normally take it.”
That air of confidence was not so apparent in Hull themselves. City are comprehensively assured of a play-off place but all does not feel well at the KC Stadium. A half-time announcement about the club’s controversial and unpopular season-ticket scheme was drowned out by jeering, a few days after Leeds’ new prices earned them some deserved praise. On the pitch, Steve Bruce’s side made hard work of seeing the game out. Two minutes into the second half, Taylor fronted up to Snodgrass, skipped by him on the left wing and drew Moses Odubajo into a reckless tackle inside City’s box. Wood took the penalty but was denied by Alan McGregor low to his left. Evans did not feel the need to be critical of the finish. “Penalties are scored and penalties are missed,” he said. He was more annoyed that Odubajo avoided a yellow card and was able to take a caution for a bad foul on Dallas later in the game. Sol Bamba, however, was also lucky to dodge a second caution towards the end.
“Hull got a lift from the penalty (save),” Evans said, and they tried to nick a third goal before Leeds could threaten again. Chuba Akpom drilled a free header straight at Marco Silvestri when either side of the goalkeeper would have done, and Leeds were beset by the loss of Gaetano Berardi to an ankle injury. The right-back was abused by the home end as he was carried towards the tunnel on a stretcher and had an object thrown at him. “I didn’t see that,” Evans said diplomatically.
If Evans had not intended to replace Berardi, Lewie Coyle proved an excellent stand-in. The youngster took risks going forward, deliberately leaving United short at the back, and when he and Lewis Cook worked the ball out of one corner with two minutes to go, substitute Jordan Botaka - on as a half-time replacement for Lee Erwin - seized the moment and cut open a huge hole in Steve Bruce’s defence. Dallas accepted his lay off and rifled a shot into the bottom corner from the edge of the box.
The goal belonged to Dallas but the move drew more attention to Botaka, a winger who Evans has largely shunned throughout his time as head coach, as much because of attitude as ability. In two games against Wolves and Hull last week, Botaka stepped out of the shadows and has looked like enough of a player for Evans to think he will feature next season. “I’m not sure I would have been saying that two months ago,” Evans said, “but he’s done well and he’s ready to have a good little finish to the season.”
Leeds as a team are having a good end to the season. It is simply not clear if Evans, like Botaka, will be given the chance to carry this flurry forward. Was it not strange that he and Cellino spent so much time talking on Friday without touching on his future? “We both agreed at the start of the conversation that the full focus was Hull City,” Evans insisted. “That’s where it should be. If you’re not focused against a Steve Bruce team, you just get beat. But I’m ready and eager to speak to the president when he’s ready.”