There was nothing so startling in Leeds United’s victory on Saturday as a funeral procession or an aerial fly-by but perhaps it was better that way.
Steve Evans witnessed the circus in full flow last week and a calm, conservative win was all the club’s head coach wanted.
It grew nervous towards the end as Bolton Wanderers scored and cut a 2-0 lead established by Mirco Antenucci’s brace but at full-time Evans was happy to take the result and quite content to leave the dramatics to others. When focused turned away from Massimo Cellino, the past seven days had been all about him.
Monday’s 4-0 defeat at Brighton looked like curtains for Evans, four months after he took on the Football League’s most incendiary job. There was a general view, despite his own insistence to the contrary, that defeat to an almost relegated Bolton side would sound the death knell that same night. “We’ve come here with the most pressure I’ve ever experienced at Elland Road in the lead-up to a game,” he said. Evans can be prone to exaggeration but in that respect he was right.
At Elland Road it is always going on. The recent protests against Cellino evolved further before kick-off on Saturday as a group of fans opposed to Italian arranged for a coffin in Leeds United colours to be laid outside the East Stand, signifying what they said was the “death of the club we fell in love with”. A plane flew overhead trailing a banner reading ‘Time to go, Massimo’. Sky-high protests of that nature have long been fair game and strikingly effective. In contrast, the mock funeral drew accusations of bad taste.
Inside the stadium, and throughout a Championship game which was typical of teams in Leeds’ and Bolton’s positions, the mood was less aggressive and more forgiving. Evans took four days to apologise for the fiasco at Brighton but when he did, United’s boss did not try to shift the blame. Writing in the matchday programme, captain Sol Bamba called the performance at the Amex “completely unacceptable”. If the win over Bolton did not redeem it, it drew a line beneath it.
“We didn’t come out of Brighton and look to apportion blame,” Evans said. “We spoke about what it would take in this game because we actually think that this is a Bolton side full of good players with a good coach.
“We spoke about how important the three points were, as opposed to individually someone playing well, and I’m really proud of my players and staff. It’s been a tough week. To the people who turned up, we’re very grateful. We possibly didn’t deserve support, especially from the fans who went down to the south coast on Monday. But we were really hurting and we’ve got a fine win.”
Antenucci earned it with the sort of finishing which has characterised him in his better periods but deserted him recently. His volley on the turn after 39 minutes, set up when Liam Cooper nodded Mustapha Carayol’s corner towards him, was – according to Evans – an orchestrated, training-ground routine. The striker’s curling effort in the 62nd minute was sublime, reminiscent of his opening-day goal against Burnley with the opposite foot and from a slightly closer range.
The irony of his second goal was that it came instinctively, a reaction by Antenucci to his failure to lay-on an easy tap-in for Souleymane Doukara as Leeds counter-attacked. Evans said: “With the second goal, you think ‘why’s he not rolled Doukara in?’ But I was fortunate to be right behind it and the minute it left his foot, I knew it was in.”
Paul Rachubka, back at the end of the field where his Leeds career ended in savage destruction in 2011, could do nothing to stop it.
Bolton had seen chances in the first half – a dinked shot from Liam Feeney which Marco Silvestri kept out with a strong hand and a scrambled header from Derik just before half-time which Cooper hooked off the line. That intervention came at the price of a pulled hamstring, forcing Evans to replace Cooper with Sol Bamba at the start of the second half. Like many on Saturday, Bamba cleared his head after the shambles of Brighton and dug in well.
By then, Evans had already lost Lewie Coyle to a crunching tackle with Jay Spearing, a collision which saw the young right-back stretchered from the pitch. “We had to make those changes which meant late in the game, Bolton could bring three offensive players on who had more energy to give,” Evans said. “It would have been nice if we could have brought on the likes of (Luke) Murphy, (Tom) Adeyemi or Alex Mowatt but when you get knocks as early as we did then you have to deal with that.”
The game reflected that and Bolton had the better of the last half-hour, pulling a goal back on 74 minutes when Dean Moxey’s driven cross was brilliantly controlled by substitute Kaiyne Woolery who smashed a volley into the net. Leeds were invited to collapse but saw Bolton off. “In the last five minutes it got a little bit nervous,” Evans said, “but I didn’t think we were going to concede because people were defending properly.”
The result, a second win in 12 league games, mattered. It mattered to Evans because of the strain on him and to Leeds because of the glut of teams picking up points beneath them. Rotherham United won away at Sheffield Wednesday and MK Dons beat Queens Park Rangers. Charlton Athletic’s victory at Brentford dropped Neil Lennon’s Bolton to the bottom of the Championship. With 11 games to go, the hole is too deep for Lennon’s men to climb out of.
“I’ve no interest in any result elsewhere,” Evans said. “We’re good enough to take of ourselves and we will take care of ourselves. When you sit inside Leeds United, what you learn is that nobody is going to give you anything.”
Bolton have more problems than Leeds, stuck in the middle of a takeover, but United’s have not vanished. The friction between Cellino and sections of the crowd is unmistakable and Evans finds himself caught in the middle. Did he think the focus on his job in the past week had been excessive? “Possibly,” he said. “When you come in at Leeds United, people prepare you for what might happen and what the reaction might be on certain occasions. You think you’re prepared and then you realise you’re not.
“But I don’t go to bed worrying about losing my job. I go to bed worrying about failing. I didn’t arrive at Elland Road on a nice straight path. I didn’t get handed the job because I played in the Premier League. As I said to Neil Lennon in a little joke, you played at the top level. I played at a worse level. Everything I’ve had I’ve had to fight for and I’m not going to give up the opportunity to be here.
“It’s been a tough week which will finish nicely because I can have a glass of red wine and break every rule of my diet!” It sounded like a quip but the weight is genuinely dropping off Evans. Managing Leeds has that effect. And yet at full-time he was talking again about finishing 10th, with eight points the gap to Preston North End. “There are people now looking for a straightjacket but that’s still our aim,” he said.
Football is nothing if not a funny old game.