So much grief and unrest this season yet Leeds United lie 12th in the Championship. The emblem of crisis and mismanagement in the division are somehow outperforming half of it, much as that is damning with faint praise.
The table as a whole contains more telling numbers – 31 points off the top of it, 15 short of the play-offs and no guarantee of safety until after Saturday’s win over Reading, Leeds’ fifth-last game of the term – but the fact that Steve Evans’ push for a top-10 finish is not dead in the water begs the question of what the club could reach for without the strife which holds them back.
That strife is there in the foreground and background, displayed at the weekend by the sight of several hundred supporters marching from the city centre to Elland Road in protest against owner Massimo Cellino, but the gravest destruction in the Championship has taken place elsewhere; at Bolton Wanderers and Charlton Athletic. In spite of everything, Leeds are still on for their highest finish since in five years.
Brian McDermott, who took Leeds to 15th in 2014 before Cellino removed him as manager, was back at Elland Road on Saturday and is one of the coaches trailing behind Evans in the league. Reading do not smell of disarray but they are nowhere of note in the Championship and can only count the cost of 12 losses away from home this season. It was put to McDermott that their record on the road is a problem. “I think that’s an understatement,” he said. “I’m looking forward to getting into pre-season.”
There are many like him in the same mindset, and Evans is no different. Leeds as a club should be no different. Cellino has a monumental amount to resolve, even without touching on his own authority as owner. Evans’ future is an unavoidable topic now, with the club mathematically certain of another year in the Championship, but the news last week that goalkeeping coach Richard Hartis will move on next month adds another vacancy to a choice list. Infrastructure is not United’s strength.
In terms of the squad alone, Evans was clear about where Leeds are: as good as a large swathe of teams in the division, and capable of breaking down a side like Reading, but detached from the sharp end. “There’s a divide in the league from the three or four boys at the top,” he said. “They’ve got some real quality and the consistency of maybe not playing well every week but, like we did here in the second half, grinding results out.
“There’s no disputing that we have some top-class footballers but we do need three or four quality players to supplement them. Then we’ll be ready. In the summer it’ll be about the quality of the player who arrives. That’ll be the difference between a team who can finish top-10 and a team who can be in the top four or five.”
It is implausible to think that the solution could be so simple, that a handful of signings is all that is needed for Cellino’s tenure to find peace, but quality was half of the battle against Reading; quality on one hand, mistakes on the other. That applied to both teams and Leeds shaded a five-goal game to record a 3-2 win.
Evans said his squad had been affected by a virus beforehand and Sol Bamba and Tom Adeyemi were ruled out by illness. Several others were struggling, Liam Cooper worst of all. Evans felt a first half in which Reading scored the only goal had been indicative of that bug.
“If I’m being honest, the first half looked like an ill performance,” United’s head coach said. “It wasn’t full of the things we’re good at. But at half-time we spoke about putting that behind us and having a real go. I had players running on empty at the end so they did have a good go.”
Until the break, Leeds found Reading’s pace an issue in between the odd chance of their own. Mirco Antenucci sliced an early shot wide when Chris Wood picked up on Michael Hector’s error and fed the Italian on the edge of the box but United’s defence were constantly at sea beneath Reading’s corners and pushed their luck too far in the 39th minute.
A deep free-kick found Hector running in at the back post, free and with time to side-foot the ball past Silvestri. The centre-back needlessly goaded the South Stand as he celebrated but by the end of the afternoon, the joke was on him. Hector’s finish notwithstanding, errors and lax passes did not make him look like a player loaned to the Championship by Chelsea. Leeds regrouped at half-time and were level in the 48th minute, brought to life by a tactical shift which moved Lewis Cook into the middle of the pitch. Anonymous in the first half and lost on the right, Cook showed up in the second and was part of the attack which ended with Toumani Diagouraga nodding home Gaetano Berardi’s full-blooded cross.
United’s precision in that part of the field has been picked apart all season but Charlie Taylor had already found Wood with one inviting delivery, a delivery which the striker nodded wide, when Wood converted another by the skin of its teeth on 69 minutes. His headed finish was far from clean and goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi punched it away from under his crossbar but the assistant in front of the West Stand awarded a goal. “We were all waiting for the ball to nestle in the net but I’ve looked at it back and it’s well in,” Evans said. Replays showed that the ball had crossed the line. “How they go in is irrelevant when you’re a striker.
“We’ve worked on service so long and so hard but it’s very difficult if you’ve not got a fit Chris Wood. I maintained that when he came back from injury, fitter and sharper, he’d get goals. Of course he’ll miss chances like every striker in the world but if you service Chris Wood, he’ll get you goals and give you a great season.”
That effort gave Leeds a 2-1 advantage and took Wood into double figures for the season, a psychological milestone for a player who has not always look comfortable as the focus of attention or United’s number one forward. There was nothing in Reading’s second-half display which threatened a reply – “we didn’t come out as well as we should have done”, McDermott admitted – but a contentious equaliser nine minutes from time had Evans raging.
Ola John chanced his arm by grabbing the ball with his hands as it bounced towards one touchline and the linesman responsible for allowing Wood’s goal flagged for a free-kick. Referee Jeremy Wilson thought differently and awarded Reading a throw-in.
“The assistant clearly shouts ‘the ball’s out’ and it’s a white throw-in,” Evans said. “The referee, from behind eight or nine players, can’t see anything and gives it the other way. They score from it.” Reading attacked and Simon Cox rattled the crossbar with a rising shot. When the rebound dropped to substitute Deniss Rakels, he stuck it neatly into the net.
Evans, his assistant Paul Raynor and several players pursued the officials for answers but on 85 minutes the matter was rendered irrelevant. Reading tied themselves in knots at the back, gave possession away to Wood and watched the forward advance on Al-Habsi before slipping the ball under him.
“Chris’ second finish is fantastic,” Evans said. “Any striker will tell you that the worst ones to put in the net, or the hardest ones, are the ones where you’ve got time. It was justified that we got the winner in the end. We comfortably deserved to win the game.”
Leeds have crossed that line sporadically this season but often enough under Evans to be safe with four games to go. Relegation has not felt like a serious threat since the club’s run of seven matches without defeat in December and it was at this stage, the point of mathematical safety, where Evans promised to knock on Cellino’s door and ask for a new contract.
“I’ll repeat what I’ve be saying since I came in,” a confident Evans said. “If I’m here and I get supported, this club will challenge. It’s as simple as that. I’ve said it many times and I’ve been laughed at for saying it but the supporters can put the kettle on for that.” He waits now to see if Cellino will flick the switch.