For coaches and players at Leeds United, the club’s home record is hard to explain. What they all accept is that the worst run in over 90 years at Elland Road is impossible to defend.
Liam Cooper, United’s centre-back, can think of a few reasons: the regular concession of early goals, the waste of gift-wrapped chances and, from time to time, a stroke of bad luck. “But to be honest, I don’t really know,” Cooper said. “We’ve just got to find a way to get over this. It’s a matter of time before it clicks and it will. Hopefully it clicks tonight.”
Cooper played in Leeds’ last home win, a 2-1 defeat of Ipswich Town on March 4. Even that relied on Daryl Murphy’s failure to convert a late penalty. Seven-and-a-half months and 11 successive games is, statistically, United’s longest drought at Elland Road. Steve Evans, their new head coach, pulled no punches by describing it as a “disgrace”.
There are plenty of supporters who would agree with that. Cooper does too. “The fans have a right to have an opinion on this,” Cooper said. “Leeds United should never fail to win a game at home in 11 games or seven months. It shouldn’t be happening.
“You can cover things up as much as you like or look for excuses but on the whole it probably comes down to us and our performances. There were games where we didn’t play well but there were games where we should have won. Somehow we have to come up with a way of getting a result.
“I don’t think we’re miles off but what has made it hard is conceding first and being on the back foot. I don’t know if it’s down to concentration or rub of the green but we’re as disappointed about it as anyone. We’ve got to get through it.”
Evans said on Saturday that he wanted Elland Road “bouncing” at the end of tonight’s game against Blackburn Rovers; a team who, bizarrely, have not won away from home this season and have not won away from home since visiting Leeds in April and routing United 3-0.
It seemed likely that Evans would hammer the issue into his players during training at Thorp Arch this week but Cooper said conversations about the home record were brief.
“He hasn’t really mentioned it,” Cooper said. “Genuinely he hasn’t. But I saw him say in the press that it’s a disgrace and I think we all agree with him. No-one should like coming to Elland Road or seeing it as an easy game. That’s wrong.”
Evans is a manager who tends to speak his mind; moreso, to judge by his persona, than Uwe Rosler, the head coach he replaced at Leeds last week.
United’s squad were forced to adapt to the change of management quickly, arriving at Thorp Arch on Monday, October 19 to find Evans where Rosler was expected to be. Rosler was appointed in the summer as Cellino’s long-term plan. In the end he survived for 12 games, only twice as many as David Hockaday.
Cooper joined Leeds from Chesterfield while Hockaday was in charge in August 2014. Evans is already his fifth head coach at Elland Road.
“I don’t think it’s ever ideal,” Cooper said. “It’s not nice when you’ve built relationships with people and players do build relationships with managers.
“But that’s football and you learn about it early on in your career. You have to deal with it and move on because you’ve got another manager to work with. It might not sound nice but the quicker the players get over it, the better it is for the team.”
Were there problems during Rosler’s tenure? “We were happy,” Cooper said. “I’m not going to pretend that I wasn’t. But like I said, that’s football. The lads have been good at sticking together with all this going on.”
Evans’ impact was noticeable away at Fulham and Bolton Wanderers last week, in terms of the performances if not the results. United’s tempo was quicker. Their chances were more plentiful.
“There’s definitely been a bit of a difference in our energy levels,” Cooper said. “We’re having a go and I do feel like we’re leaving everything on the pitch.
“You always give yourself a chance when you play like that and it’s something the manager (Evans) has been onto us about from the start. He’s telling us to get at teams and we’re trying to do that. It’s clear to see.”
Cooper has been as impressive as any other centre-back at United this season but is slightly surprised to be in the thick of it still. He was not alone in thinking that the knee injury he suffered in Rosler’s final game, a 2-1 defeat at home to Brighton, would rule him out for weeks or months. It was a shock to him to be part of United’s line-up for Evans’ first match at Craven Cottage four days later.
“I was no different to anyone else,” Cooper said. “I thought it was bad and I was booked in for a scan on the Monday.
“But I’d been on the ice machine, I woke up Sunday feeling a bit better and on Monday I felt great. We had to do the scan anyway but there was nothing in there – an old meniscus tear but nothing new. I was told ‘it’s down to you now’ and I said ‘if there’s a chance, I want to play.’
“The manager pulled me in and said ‘I need you 100 per cent’ but he was basically asking me to try and make it for Fulham. So I told him it felt great. I’m someone who wants to be playing.”
Cooper goes further than that by saying he’s a player who wants to play at Elland Road. As the run without a home win grows longer, it might seem from a distance that United’s squad are happier at other grounds; free of statistics and minus the pressure of a crowd who can hardly remember the last victory there.
“I don’t feel like that at all,” Cooper said. “I’ve always tried to take every game as if it’s my last. I was brought up to play that way so I’d never be reluctant.
“There are simple things we can do – for one thing, stay in games for longer without conceding. That’s something we’ve worked on a lot in training. But we have to be ruthless at the other end too. We haven’t been good at that and all of us would hold our hands up. But when those chances start going in, who says we can’t start winning by two or three a game? We can really bury someone. That’s the way to look at it.”