A dead rubber and a half-empty ground last night was a perfect example of why Leeds United are about to put season-ticket money on the line.
No-one at Elland Road wants this again next year; the apathy or the low attendances as games and interest run out.
Leeds have gambled on a finer performance in the 12 months ahead, to the tune of seven figures in cash if sales of season tickets go as the club would like this summer. It is a simple calculation – that if the play-offs prove beyond United in 2017, a sizeable percentage of money paid for season tickets will be automatically refunded.
It is novel and it is brave, an example in the Championship of payment by results. After so many mediocre campaigns, it might be the way to go.
The strategy is not without risk and it sets Leeds and their owner up for a significant liability at the end of next season. This is Massimo Cellino’s alternative to reducing prices per se and it seems logical that the cost of financing any repayment – assuming Cellino is here to shoulder it – would tempt him to attack the summer with gusto, ambition and joined-up plans for recruitment of players and staff. Yesterday’s announcement set the right tone and a crowd of under 18,000 last night underlined the strongest aspect of United’s season-ticket policy: the proactive and very healthy attempt to pull more Under-16s and Under-11s into Elland Road.
Crowds have been dropping here for a while, down 5,000 on average in the past five years, and Wolverhampton Wanderers’ visit to Leeds was an undeniably hard sell, even though it became a very eventful contest. Steve Evans continues to fight towards the Championship top 10 and his squad might get there yet but he does not need that finish to make his point. Leeds are already safe and safe by a long distance. What matters now from his perspective is a decision about his job and a decision on whether the gamble with season ticket cash will rest in part on his shoulders.
Cellino, whose challenge against the Football League disqualification imposed on him last October is now into its seventh month, has seen Evans and his players pick up impressively again in the past week and another compelling win was delivered yesterday, courtesy of two goals in four second-half minutes and a piece of theatre from Sol Bamba.
United’s captain, who Evans recalled after a bug, gave the game the lift it needed on the hour with a blistering 20-yard effort which found the corner of Carl Ikeme’s net. That finish in itself was worth three points but Toumani Diagouraga’s strike soon after put away a flat and limited Wolves side. Diagouraga has two in two games and three for the season in white. When he left Brentford in January, he had not found the net for almost three years. A late reply from George Saville did not spoil the night.
Illness in Evans’ camp affected more players than Bamba over the weekend and because of that his line-up looked slightly experimental. Lee Erwin made his first start, almost a year after joining Leeds, and fitted in without shining. Lewie Coyle stepped onto the right wing in place of an under-the-weather Stuart Dallas. Those changes took United below full strength and they missed a few early beats.
Wolves are slightly vulnerable these days, no longer blessed with the three-pronged attack of Nouha Dicko, Benik Afobe and Bakary Sako but they were still able still to carve out two good chances either side of Chris Wood striking a post on seven minutes.
Saville flashed Jeremy Helan’s cut-back narrowly wide from inside the box and James Henry bounced a criminal volley wide after Bjorn Sigurdarson’s cross found him at point-blank range with only Marco Silvestri to beat. Leeds were passive in those moments and lucky to come away unscathed.
Wood, however, was denied by the woodwork and missed it by inches again on 20 minutes when his free-kick from 30 yards, hit in the manner of Cristiano Ronaldo, whistled past Ikeme’s other post. After three goals in four games, the striker had an obvious spring in his step and looked a cut above every other player. He almost scored less intentionally when a cross from Lewis Cook flew off him and straight into Ikeme’s hands.
Ten minutes before half-time, a better opportunity presented itself when the forward worked his way into space 12 yards out and found himself face-to-face with Ikeme. The keeper was badly exposed but Wood’s attempt to find the top corner faded agonisingly wide. An annoyed clap of his hands said it all.
By half-time it felt like many minutes since Wolves had threatened and Kenny Jackett’s players tried to get at Leeds quickly after the interval. Luke Murphy’s stray pass allowed Sigurdarson to sprint through Evans’ defence but his finish was wayward and sailed into the South Stand. The game needed a goal and Jackett soon turned to substitute Adam Le Fondre.
Evans played his first card by bringing Dallas off the bench and Leeds found pressure and dominance easier to sustain. Dallas almost scored with his first sight of goal on the hour, hitting a volley which clipped the head of Matt Doherty and flew over, and Wolves’ escape was short-lived.
As Leeds turned the screw again on 61 minutes, Dallas lobbed a pass to Bamba who chested the ball down, let it bounce and then smashed a rising finish into the top corner of Ikeme’s net. There were double-takes all round as the ground watched Bamba peel away in delight.
With United’s next attack, Cook – watched last night by Bournemouth manager and long-time admirer Eddie Howe – picked up possession wide on the right and picked out Diagouraga’s run to the penalty spot. The midfielder made no mistake.
Football like that catches the imagination. Football like that sells season tickets. Evans drew praise from the crowd as the dust settled on Diagouraga’s goal and it seems that however this ends for him, he will leave with more appreciation than he was shown when he arrived.
With 16 minutes left, Saville replied with neat placement from the edge of the box but there was time for Dallas and fellow substitute Jordan Botaka to rattle Ikeme’s crossbar. Silvestri’s intervention with his feet after Mason got the wrong side of Bamba nine minutes from the end averted a draw and Leeds were better than that. They are shaping up to be better than many teams in the Championship.