Back-to-back wins were followed by back-to-back defeats for Leeds United and manager Steve Evans knows a win against Hull is crucial to rebuild morale and keep Leeds away from danger. Phil Hay reports.
Leeds United’s head coach was a picture of calm a fortnight ago, sat on successive victories over Cardiff and Huddersfield and anticipating a third-in-a-row over Rotherham, but he is starting to count the days to January after hitting a bump in the road.
The 53-year-old has previously described the winter transfer window as “massive” but it is no more pivotal for United’s season than the six league fixtures scheduled before then. Noel Whelan, the ex-Leeds striker, warned yesterday that the club are “in a relegation battle because the table doesn’t lie.” Evans himself conceded on Saturday that a top-10 finish – the aim of his predecessor, Uwe Rosler – would not be realistic with his current squad.
Around this time last season, United were in a similar state of anxiety. Unexpectedly, Derby County – in-form, fancied and top of the Championship table – came to Elland Road and suffered a comprehensive defeat. Leeds are desperate for similar inspiration ahead of Hull’s visit to Leeds this Saturday.
City lost to Derby last Friday night but they are part of the Championship’s competitive and consistent top five. Hull’s victories are already into double figures and their defence is the best in the division.
Liam Cooper, the former Hull defender who is captaining Leeds in the absence of Sol Bamba, said the Elland Road club had “nothing to lose” in a Yorkshire derby which they badly need to take something from.
“This is the Championship,” Cooper said. “We’re at home, we’ve got the home advantage and we’re looking forward to it as much as they are.
“We’ve got nothing to lose and we know what performances we’re capable of.”
The last two performances pushed Evans to the point where he was warning on Saturday that some of United’s players might find themselves surplus to requirements in January.
On the basis of Leeds’ recent history and the track record of owner Massimo Cellino, Evans cannot count on avoiding the same judgement from above if the club’s form fails to improve.
The 1-0 defeat at Loftus Road was his seventh game as head coach, four fewer than Rosler was given by Cellino. Rosler targeted a place inside the top 10 but was sacked with the club in 18th. United have climbed only one place since then and lost the impetus gained from two wins before the international break.
“We need to get back to the disciplined performances we delivered against Cardiff and Huddersfield,” Evans said. “We need to turn fine margins and play with a bit of purpose.
“At the start of the season I think Uwe was targeting top 10. I’m not too sure that’ll be happening. I need to get some tools in my toolbox to make that happen. January’s a tough market but there’s freedom to sign players permanently then.
“The aim when I walked in was to make sure Leeds United stayed in the Championship. That was the concern at board level – that the club could be dragged into it.
“But from eighth or ninth down to about 17th, it’s going to be about who can win a couple of times back-to-back. We were in that position not long ago, looking to bounce into the top 10, and we’ve got 11 or 12 players very capable of winning matches. But we need to add some quality.”
Evans signed one player in the emergency loan market, recruiting Liam Bridcutt from Sunderland until January. Bridcutt made a full debut at QPR but a yellow card after 11 minutes put his afternoon on edge and he struggled in a midfield which was out-worked and outplayed.
“We’ve added quality with Bridcutt,” Evans said. “He was rusty and overran it a couple of times but I was pleased with some parts of what he did. There’s no disputing in my mind that he’ll improve us significantly.”
The United boss accepted scathing criticism of him and his players from an angry away crowd at Loftus Road, saying the supporters were right “not to pull any punches”, and asked what his message to the fans was, Cooper said: “Stick behind us. I know they always will.
“Things aren’t always going to go our way.
“We’re trying our best, giving our all. I can only speak for myself and the team but that’s what we’re doing.
“We’re wanting to put things right.”
The biggest encouragement for Evans in London was the return of Charlie Taylor from glandular fever.
The left-back played for the first time since October 3 and looked excellent defensively.
“He was immense considering he’s not played for a while,” Evans said.
“When you get poor performances, you break them down and you question who should be in the team. But there won’t many disputing that Charlie should stay in.”
Cooper also singled out Taylor at full-time, saying: “Charlie’s performances at the start of the season were brilliant. He’s come back in and not looked like he’s been out for that long. It’s amazing. He’s not even had any football.”