There is no-one at Leeds United can say for certain what tomorrow will bring and Steve Evans has learned not to guess.
“Brian McDermott told me I’d wake up most days and read things that surprise me,” Evans said after a win over Hull City which few saw coming. “I woke up this morning and there was another one.”
Last week went that way for United’s head coach. On Thursday he was responding to – and refuting – claims that the club’s owner, Massimo Cellino, had invited offers for his entire squad. By Saturday he was dismissing out of hand reports that Cellino ordered a change of tactics midway through a 1-0 defeat at Queens Park Rangers the previous weekend.
That choice speculation fell on top of undeniable issues: the contentious “pie tax” imposed on South Stand tickets for Saturday’s game and the decision by Sam Byram to reject a new contract and all but confirm that he is in the final throes of his career at Elland Road. It hardly laid the ground for a victory against Hull but Leeds are nothing if not unpredictable. Evans might chalk Saturday down as one of his more pleasing results.
He has discovered in his short time in charge that managing United is an emotional minefield but the irony of a complicated week was that he and the club found peace at the end of it. A mooted walk-out in protest against the ‘pie tax’ – a £5 levy put in place on tickets in exchange for a food-and-drink voucher – fell apart and Evans’ players were as accomplished as they have been in his care.
His tactics worked. A change of formation worked. Very little went wrong and by the end, Hull manager Steve Bruce was apologising to City’s supporters and talking about a first half which was “arguably the worst of my reign.” Hull will go further than Leeds in the Championship this season but Evans’ squad turned up at the moment where their campaign was threatening to hit a rapid descent. “In the first half we were pathetic,” Bruce moaned.
Leeds were 2-0 up at the interval and could have scored a third goal when Alex Mowatt shook the crossbar. “The level of the intensity in our performance deserved the three points,” Evans said. “The first 45 minutes were very special for me. We got it right. There was no one player who didn’t play well.”
Tactics were his saving grace on Saturday. Liam Bridcutt’s presence in front of United’s defence prevented Hull from playing until the second half. Tom Adeyemi’s recall brought energy to the midfield and a crucial goal just before half-time. Up front, alone, Chris Wood proved that the absence of another striker needn’t result in sorry isolation. His influence has rarely been more notable, save only in a 2-2 draw at Bristol City in August.
The system and approach was more akin to Uwe Rosler’s methods but Evans took the credit for cooking them up. He was vehement in denying suggestions that Cellino, who did not attend the win over Hull, had attempted to dictate his strategy by entering the dressing room after 45 minutes of United’s visit to QPR and asking him to re-organise an under-performing team.
“Mr Cellino didn’t say anything at half-time last week,” Evans said. “It simply never happened. If it did, I’d be getting a taxi home. I’ve got too much pride. Mr Cellino’s a good man for me because he’s letting me get on with it. If I’m going to fail here then I need to fail – and not fail by picking somebody else’s teams, shapes or systems.
“With previous chairmen I would always discuss teams, shapes and systems. I did it with Tony Stewart for three-and-a-half years (at Rotherham United). But he would never say a word about what I should do and neither has Mr Cellino. It’s innuendo but I can’t stop that.”
Evans’ team played on Saturday like a side who were sick of the nonsense. Hull were crippled up front by the absence of Abel Hernandez and weak at the back without Michael Dawson but the game was won in the centre of midfield. Passes went astray as Leeds snapped at Hull. With half-an-hour gone, United underlined the feeling that they were starting to settle. Lewis Cook slipped a beautiful pass down the right wing, taking out three Hull players and feeding Stuart Dallas who reacted in typical fashion. His low cut-back ran to Wood who, after weeks of barbs about his finishing and contribution, flicked the ball past Allan McGregor.
“It’s great for Chris,” Evans said. “He has his knockers but you see what the goal meant to the him. He was exceptional, the man-of-the-match for me.
“A little tweak in formation and there was more quality to our front player. Joe Jordan could have led the line at QPR and he wouldn’t have won a header because the ball was 250 feet in the air and 40 yards ahead of him.”
Hull, in Evans’ view, were “rocking by then”. Mowatt rattled the bar with a sweet stroke of his left foot after nervous defending gave him space to shoot and in the 45th minute, Adeyemi beat McGregor with his second chance of the match after the goalkeeper parried Lewis Cook’s volley out into City’s six yard box.
“We’ve dominated for the large part a good team and rightfully turned in 2-0 up,” Evans said. “But you’re always wary. They’ve got a manager like myself, Steve Bruce, and he was going to rattle a few of his players.”
Hull woke up and pulled a goal back six minutes into the second half. Evans claimed for a foul as Ahmed Elmohamady rose above Charlie Taylor and headed beyond Marco Silvestri but the effort stood. Leeds dropped deep, inviting Hull to come at them, but Harry Maguire got away with a risky pull on Cook inside Hull’s box. “If we don’t get a penalty for that, I don’t think we’ll ever get one,” Evans said.
Byram appeared from the bench towards the end, to much applause. It was Evans’ way of showing that the defender has not been immediately blackballed after turning down a new contract. Robert Snodgrass, the former Leeds captain, received a bigger ovation after appearing for the last nine minutes. The crowd would have been far less appreciative had Chuba Akpom headed home his perfect cross at the death, instead of glancing a sitter wide.
The South Stand was still packed at that stage, as it was at the beginning. A few isolated departures, the odd pie on the pitch and brief chants about Cellino were the only signs of underlying discontent. In a nice touch, United’s players took a moment at full-time to carry their physio, Harvey Sharman, around the pitch. He leaves now for a job in Major League Baseball after 14 years with the club.
Sharman, like so many supporters, has seen it all in his time here. Evans asked the crowd to stay with him on Saturday, in spite of everything, and the crowd did.
“We’ve given them a couple of poor weekends,” Evans said. “You have to make sure you give them a performance that gives them a reason to support the boys.
“The difference between this week and last week was black and white. The ground was united and it was Leeds United who won today. On and off the pitch we were good.”