The crowd voted with their feet last night but Lewis Cook worked some magic with his right one, saving Leeds United from defeat to Fulham and reminding the club of the way to goal.
Leeds find themselves at a low ebb, seemingly anxious for their season to end, and it took a spell-binding finish from Cook – his first in a league game and United’s first for almost six hours – to keep a lid on a potentially hard evening at Elland Road.
Fulham were a goal up on 38 minutes and threatening to run away with the game when Cook sized up Andy Lonergan from 30 yards and struck the sweet spot of the ball, rifling it under the goalkeeper’s crossbar. For Lonergan it was horribly reminiscent of the vicious strike by Adlene Guedioura which beat him on the night in 2012 when Nottingham Forest thrashed Leeds 7-3. For United it brought blessed and brilliant relief, five hours and 59 minutes after their last goal.
Tom Cairney had opened the scoring on 17 minutes, volleying home from the edge of the box as Fulham dictated the play and chipped away at Steve Evans’ defence, and Leeds were in danger of folding before their head coach had the chance to have his say at half-time.
Ross McCormack’s early effort struck the bar with the help of a touch from Sol Bamba and both McCormack and Luke Garbutt might have buried other chances before Cook took his. A crowd of 17,103 – the lowest for a league fixture at Elland Road for three years – were reticent as much as patient, concerned about the state of the game until Cook attacked Lonergan with all the force in his right boot.
The match ended in stalemate after a tight second half – Fulham finished with 10 men after Fernando Amorebieta’s handball earned him a last-gasp red card for a second booking – and Evans’ run in the Championship now shows one win from 10 fixtures. Leeds will be going some to work their way into trouble, with a very precious cushion over the Championship’s bottom three, but even Evans’ talk of a top-10 finish is starting to look hopeful. Reasons to stick with this campaign are hard to find and the numbers inside Elland Road bore that fact out. Nonetheless, Cook’s goal was worth the entrance fee alone.
If the negative reaction to Saturday’s FA Cup defeat at Watford annoyed Evans, that feeling showed in the changed line-up named by him. Liam Bridcutt was missing for personal reasons but Evans dropped Stuart Dallas and gave into the inevitable by replacing Scott Wootton with Lewie Coyle.
Evans had given Wootton forthright support in the matchday programme, calling for the club to “rally around him” after his decisive own goal at Vicarage Road, but pressure to field a recognised right-back at right-back was overwhelming. Wootton needed saving from himself and Coyle grafted diligently, run hard by a Fulham team who fancied their chances from the start.
Fulham’s attack was loaded with McCormack and Moussa Dembele, a pairing with 26 league goals between them, but it was another ex-Leeds player, left-back Garbutt, who should have opened the scoring in the sixth minute.
A quick counter-attack played McCormack into space on the right wing and his low cross slipped under the legs of Liam Cooper, running to Garbutt at the far post. With Marco Silvestri out of position, the defender’s low shot struck a leg and deflected a yard wide. Fulham’s first attack was that close to a goal.
They were closer again on 13 minutes when a volley from McCormack struck the crossbar with the help of a touch from Sol Bamba. Ryan Fredericks picked out the striker with a deep delivery and McCormack’s effort into the ground was bouncing inside Silvestri’s left-hand post until Bamba got his head to it and turned the ball onto the frame of the goal.
Evans’ formation – very fluid initially but settling eventually into a 4-1-3-2 set-up – proffered only the meekest of chances in response and Fulham were well worth their goal when it came on 17 minutes.
Cairney took it with a tidy piece of skill, bringing the ball down 20 yards out and lashing a volley low to Silvestri’s left before the goalkeeper could move, but the chance was made by Fulham toying with United around their own area.
Within seconds, Dan Burn played Garbutt in behind Coyle with a flighted pass and only a scuffed finish spared Leeds from a second concession. United took half an hour to give Lonergan a fright, threatening an equaliser when Liam Cooper flicked on Cook’s corner and found Bamba at close range. The centre-back controlled the ball down with a deft first touch but swung wildly with his second, smashing a shot high into the South Stand. Before long, Adeyemi threatened in similar fashion, meeting a long pass with a rising volley from a tight angle which sailed narrowly over Lonergan’s net.
In amongst those chances, the dearth of conviction in Leeds’ football was tangible. Coyle’s sliding intervention denied McCormack a certain tap-in and Silvestri met another Garbutt effort with a two-handed parry but from nothing, Cook took a grip of proceedings with a glorious finish.
The midfielder was 30 yards from goal with no options around him when he looked up, saw Lonergan at a distance and hammered an opportunistic finish into the top corner of the net. Elland Road needed it and after so long without a goal, Evans was desperate for it.
The momentum of the game turned immediately as Fulham rued their failure to put the contest out of sight. Lonergan saved with his feet from Souleymane Doukara as his defence lost track of the ball and Mirco Antenucci guided a free header straight into the keeper’s hands. Fulham were suddenly more grateful for the interval than Leeds.
The visitors’ threat on the counter did not diminish, however, and a fine sliding tackle from Bamba early in the second half dealt with a breakaway which Dembele was trying to finish off. Leeds were in the game but a lack of potency up front led Evans to withdraw the peripheral Antenucci on 69 minutes, giving Lee Erwin another opportunity.
Fulham continued to come but Cairney contrived to mis-hit the ball from point-blank range after McCormack picked him out 17 minutes from the end, and Bamba maintained his habit of appearing in the right place at the right time, whenever United needed him. The club’s captain turned in his best performance for some time. The team as a whole need more inspiration but victory should still have been theirs with 10 minutes to go. Set up by Cook moments after coming on as a substitute, an unmarked Dallas ghosted in 10 yards from goal but let Fulham off the hook by side-footing wide.