With much at Elland Road falling apart, Massimo Cellino has taken control of the stadium’s pre-match music. He sent Leeds United out last night to the sound of D:Ream’s Things Can Only Get Better. Not before they get worse.
Within five minutes of kick-off, United were two goals down to Blackburn Rovers and an evening which Steve Evans imagined as the “pinnacle” of his career went the way of most things at Leeds. It was for Evans an introduction to and from hell but others must carry the can before him.
This was his team and his responsibility by virtue of his appointment as head coach last week but even Evans’ most severe critic would acknowledge that something above him is rotten. The squad’s confidence is shot and the crowd’s was gone long before 19,666 turned up last night. The fingers of blame point to the top of the club and point squarely at Cellino.
The question of whether United’s owner can sort this crisis out is one thing. The question of whether he will be here to sort it out, with another Football League ban hanging over him, is a separate issue altogether. If Leeds are devoid of leadership and direction then their defeat to Blackburn told that story. The match was desperate. The club are starting to look desperate.
Empty blue seats were everywhere, in no small part because of Sky’s insistence of televising the game on a Thursday, but the broadcaster was left alone until the second half as attention and annoyance focused elsewhere. There were 17 seconds on the clock when Blackburn’s Craig Conway first scored. Five had gone when Jordan Rhodes struck again, knotting the stomach of every player in white.
Evans described Rhodes as “sensational” on Wednesday but there was no need for him to be that impressive yesterday. Blackburn were allowed to cruise as Leeds displayed a lack of backbone which will only encourage Evans to tap into the loan market. A fly on the wall in the dressing room at half-time would have expected to be deafened, though Evans said he kept his voice down. At full-time he was understandably rattled.
United’s woeful run at home continues to stumble forward – 12 straight games without a win – and performances like this will never end it. Grainy footage of the last time Leeds ended a sequence so bad can be found on the Internet; Gary Hamson and Kevin Hird scoring in the last 10 minutes and an ageless Eddie Gray pulling the strings to salvage a win against Brighton in May of 1982. The club were relegated that season and their form before last night was bad enough to focus United’s attention on keeping out of harm’s way. Rovers’ position – without an away win since visiting Elland Road in April – was no better and their attitude no different.
Evans was still happy to leave his team unchanged, despite Jordan Botaka’s recovery from a virus and despite United’s head coach talking up Alex Mowatt ahead of the game. He might as well have fielded no-one. In his worst dreams, the Scot could not have envisaged the pathetic way in which his side fell apart inside 18 seconds.
Blackburn pushed down the right wing and Ben Marshall drilled a cross at Sol Bamba who allowed the ball to skim off his head. Conway was waiting at the far post and took it down before rifling a volley into the turf and past Silvestri. United’s defending was everything that Blackburn had been told to expect, and more.
Four minutes later, Leeds capitulated again. Tom Lawrence broke from deep, danced around Liam Cooper before cut the ball back to Rhodes. Rhodes had defenders around him but found enough room to dispatch a low effort inside Silvestri’s far post. Elland Road was stunned for a second before the vitriol came. Chants of “what the f*** is going on?” echoed, a regular refrain at a stadium which is sadly used to this sort of shambles.
For a while after that there were no straws to clutch. Every Rovers break found Leeds outnumbered and panicking. Lawrence lashed a shot over the bar in the 13th minute after steaming forward and leaving Evans’ midfield trailing, and every moment like that prompted catcalls and boos. By the time Lewis Cook turned and shot straight into the midriff of Jason Steele on 17 minutes, United were simply happy to feel like they were taking part.
Blackburn did not have the first half all to themselves but nor were they regularly stretched. Steele almost caused a problem by dithering before diving to pluck a chance away from Mirco Antenucci’s feet, and it bewildered Evans to watch Leeds make an out-of-form Blackburn side look good. Gary Bowyer would choose Elland Road as a venue every week. In the 34th minute, Antenucci came within inches of turning the tide, meeting Stuart Dallas’ looped pass with a crisp volley which slipped off the side-netting.
Tom Adeyemi was more unfortunate again when his glancing header on 40 minutes struck the face of a post and dropped unkindly for Bamba as it flew back into the box. The near-misses reminded Leeds that before the first whistle, this fixture had been asking to be won.
Evans held off from making changes at the interval but accepted after five minutes of the second half that United’s predictability was endemic. Botaka offered a possible solution but saw the ball too infrequently to make a swift impact. Souleymane Doukara was as ineffective as usual. Expecting nothing and all patience gone, the crowd turned on Sky, then Cellino and Sky again. Those close to Cellino said he took his leave of the stadium early. He is running short of people who would happily welcome him back.
Leeds United: Silvestri, Byram, Cooper, Bamba, Berardi, Dallas, Adeyemi (Botaka 51), Murphy, Cook (Mowatt 85), Antenucci, Wood (Doukara 68). Subs (not used): Horton, Bellusci, Wootton, Buckley.
Blackburn Rovers: Steele, Marshall, Duffy, Hanley (Kilgallon 75), Olsson, Taylor (O’Sullivan 87), Evans, Akpan, Conway, Lawrence (Delfouneso 84), Rhodes. Subs (not used): Raya, Henley, Spurr, Williamson.
Referee: Tim Robinson