If Sam Byram is on his way from Leeds United then the youngster is going out with a bang. Another sweet finish, his third in two weeks, averted defeat away at Nottingham Forest and kept his reputation in full view with the January transfer window looming.
The recent goals from Byram, Leeds’ former player of the year, feel ever more like parting shots but at least it is possible that he and the club will go their separate ways with a healthier relationship than they had until recently. As they prepare to look for offers for the 22-year-old next month, Leeds know they owe him a debt. Strike by strike, Byram has made his point.
His brace at Wolverhampton Wanderers on December 17 settled that fixture. A 20-yard bullet in the 80th minute yesterday, buried with precision at a stage where Leeds looked incapable of scoring, did not have the same effect but it prevented a loss which Steve Evans knew his players could not afford in the context of keeping in touch with the Championship play-offs.
United were on the verge of suffering it before Byram’s brilliant intervention, despite having enough of a stodgy match to beat a limited Nottingham Forest side, who will not be helped by a Financial Fair Play transfer embargo in the January window. Reams of possession with little at the end of it compounded an opening goal which Leeds handed to Forest in gift-wrapping.
Dougie Freedman’s players had barely been within touching distance of Marco Silvestri when confusion between United’s goalkeeper and centre-back Giuseppe Bellusci in the 18th minute gave Portuguese forward Nelson Oliveira the time he needed to round Silvestri and guide the ball into an empty net. Christmas came two days late at The City Ground.
Evans had been moved to single out Silvestri and Bellusci on account of compelling displays earlier this month, but multiple misjudgements in the face of one simple punt towards Oliveira brought the worst out of both of them and brought Forest into a game in which they had been treading water.
Leeds continued to see ample amounts of the ball but minutes slipped away and the match toiled until Byram’s effort provoked a breathless finish in which Leeds should twice have forced a winner and Forest hit the frame of Silvestri’s goal. Belatedly, Sky Sports had an event on their hands.
The battle with the broadcaster rages on and there is merit in United’s gripes about television scheduling. The only televised game in the country yesterday was a bone of contention in a much broader argument and the away crowd made their feelings heard in Nottingham, with more choice chants for Sky’s benefit.
Sky’s interest in the fixture was obvious, despite it shaping up as 13th in the Championship versus 15th: large viewing figures, predominantly, but a meeting between two clubs who once had a foot on the rest of English football and were European Cup finalists at their respective peaks.
Frustrated though Evans has been by United’s schedule, yesterday’s game was not a problem in isolation and tomorrow’s meeting with Derby will put far greater strain on his squad. Leeds were unchanged at the City Ground, both in terms of personnel and formation, having settled into the system which Evans turned to at the beginning of this month.
The first half of December kept United in the running for the play-offs but the rearrangement of both of their post-Christmas games increased the pressure for results. A five-point gap to sixth place became eight on Boxing Day as Leeds twiddled their fingers and Ipswich Town nicked an injury-time winner at home to Queens Park Rangers. Evans needed a good outcome in Nottingham and a draw was the least he had hoped for.
There was no issue at all with United’s intent, amply demonstrated by two useful attacks in the first two minutes.
Stuart Dallas’ strike across goal and wide of Dorus De Vries’ right-hand post was no more than a warning shot but United looked fresher than they had in a laboured win over Preston North End. That fact underlined Evans’ point about the recovery time on offer to his players.
As Liam Bridcutt took an early grip of the midfield – demonstrating again why Evans wants to extend his loan from Sunderland – Forest took a while to get hold of the ball. Chris Wood’s 11th-minute header was a better chance than Dallas’ but Ryan Mendes appeared in the right place to clear the ball away from De Vries’ goalline after Wood lost his marker from a corner. Away from home, once again, the football felt in tune. Evans was happy with the start, or happy with everything other than a yellow card shown to Sam Byram for diving as Matt Mills tried to tackle him six yards from goal, but on 18 minutes Forest were given an ugly leg-up by United’s defence.
Bellusci misread a high ball from inside Forest’s half and failed with an attempt to clear it with an overhead kick. Oliveira ran in behind him and found Silvestri standing on the edge of his area, stranded and in no position to stop the on-loan Benfica forward rounding him and slotting the ball into the net. Bellusci recovered a few seconds too late to stop it sliding over the line.
It was, to Evans’ extreme frustration, Forest’s only moment of note in a half which his players controlled. Oliveira’s left-foot shot from an unfavourable angle on 28 minutes – shepherded wide by Silvestri – spoke volumes about how difficult chances were to come by. At the other end of the field, the hosts were grateful that Leeds wasted patient approach play with poor final balls.
There were blocked shots from Dallas and Luke Murphy, the latter seen off by Eric Lichaj as it flew at De Vries, and another header from Wood which sailed high into the home end. Leeds needed their football to click, much as it had at Wolverhampton Wanderers a week-and-a-half earlier, and Evans’ only concern was Forest’s attempt to catch his side high up the pitch and short of numbers at the back.
Leeds’ trick in their 3-2 win at Molineux was to level the game at 1-1 before half-time. Byram, who produced the equaliser that night, almost did the same at the City Ground when Dallas led a counter-attack and slipped him into the box in the 39th minute. Byram attempted to turn and get the ball on his stronger right foot, giving Forest an opportunity to scramble and rob him.
The balance of the contest after the break continued to give Leeds the impression that the game was there to be won but it suited Forest to see proceedings stretch. Mills was denied a killer goal when his header from a corner found Luke Murphy waiting to meet it at the near post and Evans was tempted into his first substitution shortly after the hour, withdrawing Lewis Cook and sending on Souleymane Doukara. Mirco Antenucci arrived 15 minutes later.
As full-time drew closer, the greater threat began to come at Silvestri’s end of the pitch. Forest were repeatedly guilty of over-hitting and misplacing passes with Leeds backpedalling and Silvestri denied Jamie Ward 15 minutes from time by tipping his rising shot over the bar. But five minutes later Byram produced the afternoon’s moment of inspiration when he sized up De Vries from 20 yards out and beat the keeper with a lovely effort into his bottom right-hand corner.
With that, a mundane affair broke loose. Antenucci failed to convert a wonderful chance set up by Scott Wootton, allowing the ball to slide off his boot, and Wood miscontrolled with only De Vries to beat. In a flash, Forest attacked and substitute Oliver Burke rattled a post with a stinging volley from the corner of Silvestri’s box.
By that stage, in injury-time, Sky had a game on their hands and when the dust settled neither manager was quite certain of who deserved what.