Leeds United: Evans adding goals to the Cook menu

Lewis Cook celebrates his goal against Fulham.
Lewis Cook celebrates his goal against Fulham.
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With goals few and far between from Leeds United’s strikers this season, a heavy weight of hope and expectancy has hung around the rest of the team including Lewis Cook. Phil Hay reports.

Leeds United’s attacking record is such that Lewis Cook’s finish against Fulham on Tuesday is already a shoe-in for goal of the season. The club are unlikely to score bundles in what remains of this term, let alone score any better.

The irony of Cook’s moment of brilliance was that his first league goal of the campaign – his first as a senior Leeds player on his 71st appearance for the club – was spectacular enough to put him in line for an end-of-season award. “It was a good one to be fair,” Cook said. “We’ll see what happens with that.”

Appreciation of a solitary strike, a beautiful hit from 30 yards which flew into the top corner of Fulham’s net, will matter less to him than the thought that he is addressing a perceived weakness in his game: the ability to create goals and score them. The 19-year-old is aware of that shortcoming and United head coach Steve Evans said after Tuesday’s 1-1 draw that he had attempted to coach Cook out of a spell in which the England youth international was looking “fairly predictable.”

The technique behind Cook’s goal had shades of Cristiano Ronaldo’s trademark; a right foot through the centre of the ball, catching the sweet spot and producing enough power to beat goalkeeper Andy Lonergan all ends up. Cook has scored once before for Leeds, a close-range finish in August’s Capital One Cup defeat to Doncaster Rovers, but his effort against Fulham naturally ranked as the best he has produced to date.

“I’ve scored a few in training but I haven’t scored any better than that,” he said. “It was a different technique when I struck the ball so I’m happy it went in.

“I turned and had a lot of space and thought I’d give it a go. In training I’ve been working on my shooting – maybe not from that far off but on a lot of shooting so I’m happy to have got one. I’ll probably get a video of it and save it somewhere but obviously it would have been nice if I had scored a few more.”

That is true of United’s squad as a whole, rather than Cook alone, and the mitigation for him in a gruelling season is that Leeds have placed a heavy weight on his obvious talent. Evans’ side struggled in periods of Tuesday’s match, falling behind to an early Tom Cairney volley and in danger of conceding a second when Cook forced a 1-1 draw with an effort from nothing in the 38th minute. Evans said that goal was “the best I’ve ever seen from a player in a game I’ve been involved in live.”

Ross McCormack, the former Leeds captain who joined Fulham in acrimonious circumstances in 2014, was hovering in the background as Cook spoke after full-time at Elland Road on Tuesday. McCormack came within one goal of 30 in his final season at United and has 18 for Fulham this term. “Maybe I can learn a few things from him,” Cook joked.

“Ever since I have played football I’ve been a central midfielder. Not deep or in the hole, just in the middle. But I’ve been playing in the hole recently and getting a few more goals in that role would add another string to my bow. I think I can play there and improve.”

Cook’s switch between various positions is symptomatic of Evans’ attempt to find and retain an effective system, against a backdrop of injuries and a dearth of options. Leeds have lost only 10 games this season but have won just eight and Tuesday’s result increased their tally of draws to 14, the highest in the division alongside Queens Park Rangers. They are on a run of one win in 10 league games and have grasped for form since Evans was shortlisted for December’s manager-of-the-month award in December.

With an 11-point gap over Rotherham United, the club appear in no danger of relegation. They lie further away from the top six and are in the process of closing out an unremarkable season, currently 10 points short of Evans’ target of a top-10 finish. Cook’s strike against Fulham ended a period of five hours and 59 minutes without a goal, underlining again the area of the field where Leeds are lacking.

There was encouragement for Evans in aspects of the contest: a strong league debut from young right-back Lewie Coyle and Sol Bamba’s most convincing display in months.

United’s captain retained his place after Giuseppe Bellusci incurred a two-match ban during Saturday’s FA Cup tie against Watford.

“We just want to start winning some games,” Cook said. “Unfortunately we didn’t get the win (against Fulham) but you’ve got to play well and I think we’re playing okay.

“We need to find the end product, start firing some goals and get some results.

“We need to try and win as many games as we can, produce some positive play and see how far we can go. We really need to end on a positive.

“It was a better performance from the team and defensively sound.

“Coops (Liam Cooper) and Sol Bamba were back together and really good. I thought Coyle should have been the man-of-the-match. If I hadn’t scored like that, he would have been there.”

Leeds have a six-day break before Monday’s clash with Brighton, a side who routed Bristol City 4-0 on Tuesday and who remain in the hunt for automatic promotion.

“It’ll be a big test,” Cook said, “but I think we always do well against the form sides. For some reason we seem to do that. It’s a good one for us and anyone can beat anyone in this league.”