Strikers are often told that it is better to see and miss chances than it is to see no chances at all and Paul Heckingbottom’s persistence with Caleb Ekuban was an endorsement of his game.
It might be that Leeds United’s head coach saw Ekuban’s first Championship goal coming, despite the questions raised by his finishing.
Ekuban’s volley against Bolton Wanderers on Friday was an overdue start eight months after Leeds brought him to England and the wasted opportunities which followed told him not to dwell on that breakthrough for long, but Heckingbottom urged Ekuban to go home afterwards thinking about the shot which flew in rather than those which didn’t.
There were few players in United’s squad who needed a goal more.
The League Cup yielded one for Ekuban in the very first week of the season, but an 83rd-minute effort in an easy defeat of Port Vale was never going to buy him much time.
Before last month’s international break, Ekuban had twice failed to score against Sheffield Wednesday with only the goalkeeper to beat.
After finding a way past Bolton’s Ben Alnwick four minutes into Friday’s 2-1 win, that streak returned as Alnwick denied him twice one-on-one in situations where the forward should have found the net.
If those blemishes counted against Ekuban, his regular appearance on the end of good chances encouraged him and Heckingbottom to think that more goals are in the pipeline.
When Heckingbottom moved to reorganise his team amid a second-half fightback from Bolton, it was Pierre-Michel Lasogga who was sacrificed despite the fact that Lasogga’s finishing has been demonstrably sharper.
“As a striker we all know the more chances you have the more probability you have to score,” Ekuban said. “I’m getting my confidence and I’m really happy because my team-mates are backing me a lot.
“That’s the most important part of the game. The more chances I have the more goals I can have. We (Ekuban and the rest of the squad) are getting closer and knowing each other better now.
“They know how I run and I think they can pick me up a lot of times in the games. It’s all about learning. At the end of the day, the more games you have the more you learn about how teams defend, how they try to stop you.
“The more you play the more you become better in this league.”
That Ekuban’s first league goal was so long in coming was in part down to two foot injuries before Christmas, both fractures in one foot, which prevented him from establishing any rhythm.
He was new to the Championship last summer, a £500,000 purchase from Chievo, but required surgery after pulling up on his league debut in August.
As a result, under both Heckingbottom and Thomas Christiansen he dipped in and out of Leeds’ line-up.
Their meeting with Bolton marked only his seventh start in the Championship.
Ekuban’s wasteful efforts against Sheffield Wednesday appeared to hamper his performance in that derby but he showed a clearer head on Friday, stroking a volley across Alnwick after Pablo Hernandez deflected Lasogga’s cross towards him. With perfect timing, Ekuban’s brother had travelled from Italy to watch the game and became the target of the forward’s celebration.
“In the beginning I couldn’t find him (in the crowd),” Ekuban said. “I was a little like ‘where is he?’ But at the end I found him and sent him a kiss.
“I was so happy. I really enjoyed the moment. I could have had three of those moments but I’m really pleased with my first (league) goal of the season. I saw the ball coming towards me and I tried to strike it behind the goalkeeper. Fortunately it went in. It was a great goal, a fantastic goal. Call it every kind of goal you want but, for me, it was an amazing goal.”
Leeds and Heckingbottom needed a result as much as Ekuban needed his goal.
The club spent last week pushing season tickets for next term and their ‘bring-a-friend’ initiative for the meeting with Bolton yielded Elland Road’s biggest attendance of the term. The support has not been matched by United’s form.
Their sharp descent from the play-off positions led to sustained criticism, not least from owner Andrea Radrizzani who accused Heckingbottom’s squad of lacking ‘commitment, passion and spirit’ last month.
Ekuban accepted that opinion and said Heckingbottom was attempting to harden the resilience of his players.
“He’s trying to let us know that even if we are better than the other teams, we always have to compete because this league is very tough,” he said.
“If you shut off for one second they can beat you and take the points away. That’s what he’s trying to make us understand more: try not to switch off.”
Asked about Radrizzani’s comments, made in a radio interview, Ekuban said: “It’s always like that.
“A player always knows he has to prove something so let’s say it’s something that doesn’t come from the outside.
“You always have the motivation to show what you mean and that you want to stay here. We know the pressure is high but we’re footballers and we know that we can compete. We know we can play for Leeds.”
United’s struggle for form, with only three wins since Christmas, has allowed the top six to break away from them and a nine-point gap exists ahead of tomorrow’s trip to Fulham, the first of seven remaining games.
A disappointing campaign prompted calls for Radrizzani to conduct major surgery in the transfer market this summer but Ekuban said: “I’ve been here for nine months and I’ve already seen loads of teams. I think our team is a great team for this league.
“The problem is that we’ve had some bad moments. Those bad moments didn’t let us settle where we wanted to be at the start of the season. We just hope that next year will be another start.
“We have to have the right mindset to get back on it and to know that next year there are no mistakes.”