Leeds United swept safely into the second round of the League Cup on Tuesday night but the games that mattered were played out behind closed doors, buried in the thick of the transfer window.
Two Souleymane Doukara goals put the lid on any threat of an upset at Elland Road, leaving United free to devote their attention to the stack of business on Massimo Cellino’s desk.
Doukara’s first-half strikes – fine efforts on a wet evening –took care of a tie that Leeds had no intention of losing amid a concerted push for new signings before Middlesbrough provide sharper opposition on Saturday.
Middlesbrough was always the fixture of note this week: United’s first home game of the Championship season and a fairer measure of David Hockaday’s squad.
Found out at Millwall last weekend, the past 72 hours have seen a flurry of approaches for potential signings, one of whom joined United shortly before kick-off yesterday.
Giuseppe Bellusci, the Catania centre-back, signed on loan around 7pm and was in the ground to watch Doukara pick off Accrington Stanley with two classy finishes, both of which questioned the perceived wisdom that the Frenchman is a forward without many goals in him.
A 20-yard shot in the 20th minute was followed by a brilliant, instinctive goal eight minutes before half-time, killing the tie before Accrington had a chance to make much mischief. United’s football was slick and comprehensive until a wobble at the death coincided with a red card for Gaetano Berardi; largely what the club sought as negotiations over wages and fees went on in the background.
Leeds’ loss to Millwall on the first day of the season is said to have spooked Cellino in two respects: highlighting weaknesses in Hockaday’s squad and reminding United’s owner that he had less then three weeks to put it right before the transfer window shut.
He was worried too that another seven days or so would push Leeds into the period of August where nerves fray and prices go up.
The twang of urgency was shown by the players who Leeds moved to sign yesterday; two defenders who the club appeared to have given up on a fortnight ago and a striker who Cellino liked less than Hockaday.
Cellino’s interest in Bellusci became apparent as far back as June but the deal which he expected to close quickly came unstuck after a disagreement over wages. United’s owner told Bellusci to “stay in Italy” but rethought his position late last after falling out with Frederik Sorensen’s agent and writing off negotiations with the Juventus defender.
Cooper, too, looked like a lost cause towards the end of last month as negotiations with Chesterfield ground to a halt. United planned to stick with an offer of £475,000 with a view to reviving their interest in January but upped their bid yesterday, convincing Chesterfield to accept a fee which could rise to around £800,000.
Neither player was signed in time to play last night, though photos circulated of Bellusci signing his contract and he took part in the warm-up beforehand. Hockaday might have used him against Accrington given the chance.
There were six changes in all from the team beaten convincingly by Millwall.
That result also prompted a rethink about Billy Sharp, a proven striker who Cellino was cool on a week ago but now seems ready to sign.
Sharp, who is available from Southampton, appealed to Hockaday but, as a 28-year-old, was initially considered too old by Cellino.
Nevertheless, talks with the forward’s representatives took place yesterday after a goalless afternoon at The Den exposed another weakness in United’s squad.
Sharp is expected to have a medical today.
The alterations to Hockaday’s line-up did United good, bringing the passing ability of Tommaso Bianchi and Lewis Cook into the side and using Matt Smith’s height and strength up front. Leeds had the measure of Accrington from the start and kept both feet in the second round from the 20th minute onwards.
United picked James Beattie’s defence open for the first time with a simple but clinical attack, set up by the energetic Gaetano Berardi.
The right-back – making his debut following a move from Sampdoria last month – advanced up the wing and fed Doukara who turned away from his marker and beat goalkeeper Luke Simpson with a precise finish inside the far post.
Accrington offered the faintest of pressure in reply, producing half-hit efforts from Joss Windass and Piero Mingoia. The occasional cross unnerved
United’s defence – examples of why the call went out for Bellusci and Cooper – but Cook and Bianchi managed the game and Doukara’s finishing was sublime.
The forward scored again with half-time approaching, marauding through Accrington’s defence after Cook did the same to their midfield.
A neat trick with Doukara’s heel took the ball away from Dean Winnard and Simpson had no chance to stopping the curling effort which careered into his net.
Doukara looked in that blink of an eye like a goalscorer to die for.
Accrington fought on in the second half but looked unconvinced about the prospect of a fightback until James Gray’s shot went in off a post with five minutes to go.
Uncomfortable for the first time, Hockaday watched Gray missed a second chance by inches and then looked on in disbelief as Berardi incurred a straight red card with a wild challenge which led to a confrontation on the far touchline.
Full-time saved the show before long.