Steve Evans ran into trouble on the subject of players’ contracts last week, but Mirco Antenucci’s future is something he can’t ignore.
Antenucci is the only senior player out of contract in June; the only player who Leeds United are under short-term pressure to think about.
It could hardly be said, by Evans or anyone else at Elland Road, that the fate of next season depends on the fate of the Italian striker, but it is true, all the same, that Leeds keep going back to Antenucci for goals. He is averaging one from every two starts this year and with Chris Wood in the throes of a slow comeback, he could finish the season as United’s top scorer.
Wood should be among the substitutes away at Blackburn Rovers tomorrow, returning from the hamstring injury which Leeds have treated with kid-gloves for weeks, but Antenucci was made immoveable by three goals in their last two games. Those finishes – his first since November – and an assist for Souleymane Doukara in a 2-0 win at Cardiff City on Tuesday night, reminded everyone not only of his presence but of the fact that his contract is running down. They might also have helped to salvage Evans’ job as head coach.
Antenucci has had high points and problematic points in his two seasons in England. He was United’s top scorer last season but limited in appearances by a clause in his deal which the club were anxious not to activate. He was also one of the six foreign players controversially declared injured ahead of a 2-1 defeat at Charlton in April, the penultimate month of Neil Redfearn’s reign as head coach.
The forward drew interest and offers from Italy in January, but Leeds were unwilling to lose him and his contribution in the past week against Bolton Wanderers and Cardiff – games United and Evans had to win – vindicated that decision, at least in the shorter term. It remains to be seen if Leeds, Evans or owner Massimo Cellino think the forward has any more to offer next season at a price the are willing to pay.
Antenucci will start away at Blackburn and Evans does not appear in any rush to see the striker leave
“No-one disputes that Mirco is a very talented player,” Evans said. “When you’ve got a focused Mirco, you’ve got a player who you know defenders won’t want to face.
“The way he moved the ball for the first goal at Cardiff really impressed me and you only have to look at the absolute professionalism and aplomb with which Mirco took the second goal. He goes 60 yards up the pitch, perhaps thinking defenders would come from nowhere, but they don’t, the goalkeeper doesn’t come, and he makes the hardest job in football look like the easiest when he passes the ball into the far corner. When he plays like that you’ve got a real player on your hands.”
Evans backed himself into a corner recently by claiming that contract talks had begun with Alex Mowatt, Charlie Taylor and Lewis Cook, a claim which was contradicted by one of the players’ agents. Evans, whose own deal as head coach runs until June, said he would leave Antenucci’s situation for “others to focus on” but insisted: “Of course I have a say in the players. If I didn’t want him there wouldn’t be a contract there. That’s my role.
“But I just want Mirco to focus on his performances and on getting a lot more goals. I had a chat with him prior to Bolton and said ‘your time’s arrived, go and score goals. Produce performances that make you sought-after internally and externally’.
“If he continues to score goals then he puts himself in a wonderful position and he gives this club every opportunity to want to have that kid around for another 12 months or two years.
“A good future lies in front of him, wherever it is, but that decision lies with other people.”
Evans commented more than once on Antenucci’s “focus” but said he was not questioning the striker’s attitude.
“I’ve not seen that (a lack of focus) personally,” Evans said. “I see a kid who’s hurt when I’ve not played him. I’ve seen him hurt to a lesser degree when I’ve taken him off in matches.
“He was reminding me today that in Italy he scored a lot of his goals late in games because in football, as a rule, defenders get tired and have lapses in concentration. Antenucci’s incredibly fit and when he’s in the frame of mind he’s in at the moment, I wouldn’t want my team to play against him.”
The chances given to Antenucci are craved as much by Tom Adeyemi, the midfielder who Leeds took on a season-long loan from Cardiff last summer.
Adeyemi was ineligible against his parent club on Tuesday and played in an Under-21 fixture the previous night instead, but he has started 17 games for United and looks unlikely to make a permanent transfer when the summer comes.
On Monday Adeyemi said he was “staying positive” but admitted to being “massively frustrated” about his involvement at Elland Road. He said he was “not too sure” if his Under-21 outing would make any difference in Evans’ eyes.
Evans said: “The most important thing in all this is Tom himself. Tom has had, I would say, a good number of starts under myself. At times we’ve felt he’s been the best player on the pitch and at others we’ve felt he’s not been as good as he can be.
“But, at the minute, we have to make sure we give people a chance. If Tom has a strong end to the season there’s nothing to say that, come the end of the season, he won’t be part of it here.”