Nothing matters more than results in the Championship and Leeds United are starting to put teams away. With Christmas upon them the depression is lifting and the worst parts of their season begin to look like blips.
There were times when United were in genuine trouble – unsettled internally and hunting for points – but their 1-0 win over Preston North End is part of a concerted upturn. Three wins in four games, five in eight and 16 points from the last 24 the club have played for; in a league where all but the top five blow hot and cold, it constitutes genuine form.
Leeds and their head coach will be more interested in the size of the gap to the play-offs – five points with 23 games gone – and a difficult season is no longer the aimless campaign it appeared to be a month ago. No-shows and missed opportunities were denying United any momentum but they are ticking over steadily for the first time since the end of August.
Yesterday’s game was on a plate from the half-hour onwards after Preston lost goalkeeper Jordan Pickford to a red card for handball outside his box. North End’s defence has kept them in business this season but Leeds’ former manager, Simon Grayson, found himself in dire straits with only a 17-year-old debutant, Matt Hudson, on the bench.
Hudson made it to the interval safely but was beaten less than a minute into the second half as Alan Browne, the North End midfielder, smashed a clearing header into his own net. With so much in their favour, Steve Evans would have liked to have seen the scoreline run to three or four but Preston were allowed to stay in touch and Leeds found themselves making hard work of an ideal situation. Spectacular the performance was not; sufficient it certainly was.
Grayson looked on with faint hope as the second half passed without much promise until Neil Kilkenny, the ex-Leeds midfielder, drew two late saves from Marco Silvestri. Preston’s boss has had better afternoons at Elland Road. Evans, in contrast, cannot have felt happier at any stage of his short reign.
Grayson was and still is the only manager who found a way to thrive at Leeds in the aftermath of United’s relegation from the Premiership. His demise in 2012 was sadly unceremonious, as sackings usually are, but appreciation for his work has not diminished in the seasons since. Elland Road gave him a warm reception and the reception he was hoping for.
At the peak of his tenure, Leeds attacked the Championship with panache and abandon. The accusation Grayson always faced was that he failed to build a satisfactory defence. Preston have been different; as tight defensively as any side beneath the top four and generating clean sheets in abundance. Grayson joked that the record was “something the Leeds fans probably can’t believe.”
Evans’ answer to it was a delicate call. Souleymane Doukara had been responsible for turning Thursday night’s game at Wolverhampton Wanderers, emerging from what seemed to be a permanent state of mediocrity and forcing his head coach to decide if that performance had been a one-off. Doukara was impressive enough to merit another go but Evans held back from giving him his first league start in 12 months. Luke Murphy got the nod as Tom Adeyemi stayed away with a virus.
Grayson, meanwhile, was familiar enough with Elland Road to know the value of the opening goal and Marco Silvestri prevented Preston from claiming it at the end of their first attack, diving to meet a Paul Gallagher free-kick with a strong hand on his goalline. The Italian’s save in the ninth minute was a better reaction again.
Joe Garner caught United’s defence ball-watching with a flick of his boot and found the run of Will Keane into the box. Silvestri spread himself quickly and parried Keane’s first attempt, allowing Leeds to pack their area and stop the striker from making anything of the rebound.
By the 11th minute, when Silvestri was at full stretch and turning a curling effort from Garner around his far post, Grayson must have liked his chances, unaware of the fate awaiting Pickford. Leeds tried to match Preston punch for punch but Liam Bridcutt’s wayward volley was all that came of periods of pressure and a sequence of corners in the first 20 minutes.
Three minutes later, North End opened up as their midfield went missing and Liam Bridcutt drove straight though it. His pass to Chris Wood was perfectly weighted but Pickford anticipated it and made himself big as Wood tried to lift a finish over him. In a parallel universe, Leeds’ number nine would be far into double figures for the season by now.
Pickford won that exchange but lost the contest with Wood which mattered. The game had moved past the half-hour when Liam Cooper launched a clearance into the path of Wood who got his head to the ball as Pickford sprinted out of his box. The goalkeeper stopped it with his arm and sensed immediately that referee Gavin Ward might send him off. Grayson turned helplessly to second-choice Hudson, a teenager whose senior appearances stood at nil before yesterday.
Giuseppe Bellusci almost ruined Hudson’s debut by pinging the resulting free-kick inches over his crossbar and Leeds tried to squeeze North End before half-time. Preston made it that far but shot themselves in the foot again less than 60 seconds into the second half with a cheap own goal.
Dallas’ cross into the area was read by Browne who attempted to nod it away but succeeded only in smashing a header into Hudson’s net from close range.
The concession condemned Preston and condemned Hudson to the sort of exposure and ridicule which Elland Road does so well.
Leeds, still, were unable to pepper him and Preston saw more of the game than they should have done.
Silvestri defended United’s lead by palming a shot from Kilkenny which almost caught him out and then dived to meet the midfielder’s glancing header with his fingertips three minutes from the end.
All in all it might have been easier but Evans knows better than to expect that.
Grayson would tell him.