Three goals in four games for Souleymane Doukara, a forward who as recently as last month could not have banked on playing four games.
He has found himself a purple patch, tempered only by the feeling that Leeds United are crying out for something more.
Doukara, as Steve Evans said himself, has routinely been seen as the club’s “last resort” and before his revival at Molineux on December 17, he fitted that description; always a substitute, often third off the bench and used in the absence of sharper alternatives. Yet since the turn of the year Leeds have found themselves looking to him for goals.
Booed off at half-time by a hostile crowd, they needed one from somewhere on Saturday. Evans compared the first 45 minutes against Bristol City to “being at the dentist” and patience was wearing thin when a cross on the hour from Stuart Dallas bounced off Chris Wood and sat up nicely for Doukara to prod it into the net. The right place at the right time for a striker who has been in the habit of looking lost.
It settled United’s meeting with the Robins, a team in the Championship’s relegation positions, and Evans was grateful for his intervention. After losses away to Sheffield Wednesday and Ipswich Town, where Doukara scored after just 12 seconds, the club’s season was fading off course.
“Good teams don’t normally lose three games in a row,” Evans said.
“If you lose three games in a row then you’ve got issues. Good teams do lose games back-to-back, especially if they’re tough, but they always manage to nick a win or a draw in the third one. We did that.”
His side did not look like a good team on Saturday and Evans’ conceded that afterwards but the Championship from top to bottom is no work of art. Doukara’s goal dug out a 1-0 victory, keeping Leeds in the area of the table they know best. The risk over the weekend was that a poor result made Evans and his squad start thinking again about the clubs beneath them in the table.
Doukara drew praise from his head coach afterwards, no longer the misfit he once was. The Frenchman’s presence on the pitch did not aid United’s fluency or imagination, and the scope for improvement in that area of the field is glaring, but his goal was their only shot on target. No-one else looked like beating him to it.
“Doukara’s a boy who needs you to love him,” Evans said. “If you tell someone they’re not very good every day then soon enough they’ll not be very good. I’m sure we’d all endorse that. He was the one plus point in the first half in terms of working with real discipline.
“I think he’s needed to feel a bit valued and to feel that if he worked hard a head coach would put him in; that he wouldn’t just be a last resort. We’ve got him on track and he’s doing well but he has to improve and do better if he wants to be at Leeds United because our aims are to be much better than we are at present.”
It was the overriding feeling at full-time; that Evans has the justification he needs for seeking to change his pool of players and push Leeds over the threshold of mid-table. Doukara’s goal settled a gruelling match but the difference was made by Chris Wood, introduced five minutes into the second half after recovering from a hamstring strain. With that, Leeds began to press City back and the ball began to stick. The football was more guided than it had been in a first half summed up by a long, searching pass from Scott Wootton which smacked Doukara on the back of the head.
Evans wants more strikers, as any head coach in charge of his squad would. The struggle to overrun City – beaten 14 times already this season after conceding 47 goals – also explained why the presence of countless midfielders at Elland Road did not dissuade him from lining up a deal to take Toumani Diagouraga from Brentford. Diagouraga was in the crowd on Saturday having undergone a medical. His transfer on a two-and-a-half year deal should go through today, in time for him to return to Griffin Park for his debut tomorrow night.
Evans said new strikers remained a priority for him. “Absolutely,” he admitted. “You never have enough strikers and I’m not saying we can run with eight or nine but do I feel we need to strengthen the spine of the team centrally at the back and centrally at the top? Yes I do.”
Where Bristol City are concerned, their caretaker John Pemberton, the former Leeds midfielder, has done them a favour by abandoning Steve Cotterill’s persistence with three at the back. They defended deeply and in numbers, much as Birmingham City had at Elland Road in October, but lacked the class to make their counter-attacks work.
In a slow first half, Jonathan Kodjia went closest with a header which flew past Marco Silvestri’s left-hand post and a close-range toe-poke which Silvestri parried but those 45 minutes looked goalless from the outset. A crowd of around 20,000 – reduced, no doubt, by the decision to make the fixture a Category A game – were scathing at the break, booing Evans’ players from the field and goading them with chants of ‘what the f****** hell was that?’
“I thought I was at the dentist,” Evans said of the first half. “How would the crowd feel if they went to the dentist? Not many people like it. We didn’t play at all.
“We were a yard off and it wasn’t about Bristol City dominating. Our supporters were disappointed with our quality. I can’t repeat the words I said at half-time and I’ve not had to do that too often with this group. It was pretty fierce but only for a minute. After that we looked at how we could go on and win the game. We had to find a moment of magic. But entertainment was short.”
Amid the dissatisfaction, Leeds pressed methodically and Wood stepped off the bench early in the second half, despite Evans planning to use him for no more than half-an-hour.
“We needed him sooner,” United’s boss said, and as the hour mark arrived, Luke Ayling dithered over an easy clearance and played City into trouble by hacking the ball straight to Dallas.
The Northern Ireland international attacked the right wing and curled a cross towards the penalty spot, forcing a ricochet off Wood which dropped perfectly for Doukara.
“Any time you introduce Wood to a team in the Championship you’re adding real quality,” Evans said. “The big fella was disappointed when he realised he wasn’t going to be starting but it’s my job to take the information from the medical guys. He came on, held the ball up well, won some corners and made himself a nuisance for the goal. Big Souley stuck it in well.”
City should have equalised in the last 10 minutes when centre-back Aden Flint nodded Luke Freeman’s floating cross wide from six yards, much like the late chance missed by Hull City’s Chuba Akpom at Elland Road last month.
“I was waiting for the net to move,” said Pemberton. “I couldn’t believed it when it went wide. They’ve had one chance and they’ve scored it but that’s what happens when you are where we are.”
It was that sort of contest and Doukara’s low strike was the difference. Evans was frank about the performance but philosophical.
“It’s a sign of what the top teams do,” he said. “There’s many times I’ve seen the top teams in this league be average on the night but come away with a 1-0 win because they’ve kicked it off the line a few times. You have to be able to play with fluency, win games and score goals, part one.
“Part two, you have to be dogged and get wins when you’re not at your best. We weren’t at our best but apart from one header in the second half, I don’t think we had many anxious moments.”