Having spent all week banging the drum about the sale of season tickets, it seemed necessary for Leeds United to keep up their side of the bargain.
Results like yesterday’s are coming too late for those who coughed up for this term but a win over Bolton Wanderers at least showed that the club still have it in them.
It was shaping up to be the most comprehensive afternoon of Paul Heckingbottom’s short time as head coach when Pablo Hernandez established a 2-0 lead early in the second half but Elland Road is condemned to be a den of tension for as long as this season goes on.
Adam Le Fondre’s quick reply prompted 30 minutes of hanging in which Leeds negotiated with the customary amount of stress.
Frayed nerves are the legacy of a year which promised everything after Bolton were beaten by Leeds on their own ground way back in August.
A win was a win nonetheless and Heckingbottom, with only two in nine matches, has not felt that sensation enough since the embers of Leeds’ play-off bid passed to him two months ago.
There were better moments yesterday, including a first league goal for Caleb Ekuban, and Hernandez’s close-range finish strengthened his arm in negotiations over a new contract which Leeds will surely bring to an agreeable end.
Leeds are far beyond the trouble that Bolton find themselves in and there were shades of confidence returning until Le Fondre guided in a header in the 54th minute.
United played with fire for a few minutes afterwards, fortunate to see their old loanee Will Buckley nod a gift of a chance wide, but the arrival of Samuel Saiz as a substitute changed the flow of the game again and stopped Bolton’s pressure from reaching an overwhelming level.
Ekuban and Matthew Pennington should have put Bolton away in the closing minutes and there were opportunities enough for Leeds to score at will.
It reminded Heckingbottom that his squad is not without talent, much as it needs a serious lick of paint.
Leeds spent the days before the game pushing season tickets before the renewal deadline and the club tried to dangle a carrot by issuing free tickets to lapsed supporters for the Trotters’ visit.
Results, as managing director Angus Kinnear admitted in his programme column, have been driving disillusionment at the time of the year where loyalty is always tested but the initiative produced a season-high attendance of over 35,000.
Heckingbottom’s introduction at the start of last month did little more than continue what had gone before and his Good Friday squad was indicative of the way in which Leeds have clawed their way through the second half of the term: Adam Forshaw injured, unavailable and stuck with a record of having never won in a Leeds shirt; Saiz fit after a hamstring strain but limited to a seat on the bench.
Gaetano Berardi took another turn at left-back after Tom Pearce’s debut against Sheffield Wednesday before the international break.
The changes to Heckingbottom’s line-up stopped at two but the shift to a two-man attack of Ekuban and Pierre-Michel Lasogga was another stab at a workable formula. The club have been rearranging the deckchairs for weeks, without consistent improvement.
Bolton, for their part, have fought a sinking feeling since Leeds turned them over at the Macron Stadium on the season’s opening weekend and they were shaken by Heckingbottom’s players tearing into them.
Anxiety in Bolton’s defence was evident immediately when Andrew Taylor undercooked a simple backpass which Gjanni Alioski curled beyond an exposed goal but the cracks were there again in the fourth minute and Ekuban took advantage.
Lasogga picked up the scraps from a corner and crossed to Hernandez whose attempt to score deflected the ball into Ekuban’s path.
The striker atoned for two poor misses against Sheffield Wednesday by stroking a clean volley into the far corner of Ben Alnwick’s net.
The aggression of Leeds’ start was the tone which Heckingbottom had been trying to set since his appointment and it exposed Bolton’s colours: those of a side whose concessions away from home are already over 30. That brittle trait is why relegation is not out of the question with seven games to play.
In spite of that, they refused to go quietly after Ekuban’s opener. Jan Kirchhoff, their German centre-back, glanced a free header wide from a Sammy Ameobi corner and Leeds were backed up for a while by Bolton spreading possession around outside their box.
But minus Gary Madine, the forward sold to Cardiff City for £6m in January, it was easy to understand why Parkinson’s side do so little damage on the road.
Bailey Peacock-Farrell saw out the first half without making a save.
At Alnwick’s end, there were hints of more confusion to come. Ekuban was denied by a sliding tackle from Mark Beevers inside Bolton’s box on 23 minutes and Eunan O’Kane almost punished a dithering defence by gathering the rebound, only to be met by the sliding frame of Alnwick. Bolton’s patches of dominance amounted to nothing where it mattered and Alioski should have increased United’s lead when Hernandez’s clever reverse pass began a foot race with Taylor which Alioski won. The winger’s low strike from outside the box whistled past Alnwick’s left-hand post.
Lasogga might also have made more of a Hernandez corner which Bolton’s goalkeeper misjudged and after Beevers narrowly avoided turning an O’Kane cross into his own net in first half injury-time, Pontus Jansson met the resulting corner with a finish which smashed off the crossbar.
Bolton’s resistance inspired little confidence and while Alnwick denied Hernandez with an alert, one-handed save two minute into the second half, he was helpless when the Spaniard struck three minutes later.
Alioski forced the opening with a strike which Alnwick pushed into the air and Hernandez bustled through Bolton’s bedraggled backline to poke the dropping ball home.
A sense of comfort settled on Elland Road but Le Fondre shattered it in the 54th minute with a clinical header, guiding Sammy Ameobi’s free-kick past Peacock-Farrell in typical Le Fondre fashion.
Bolton perked up, Leeds began to panic and within moments, Ameobi and Will Buckley sent good chances wide amid a sudden onslaught.
Heckingbottom moved quickly to involve Saiz and the midfielder’s poise brought some fresh composure to United’s football.
Ekuban should have killed the contest in the 69th minute but saw Alnwick deny him one-on-one with his foot and then thwart him in similar fashion when Saiz sent him bursting away in the last minute. Pennington also wasted a glaring chance from close range but Bolton’s attempt to start a bombardment by adding Aaron Wilbraham to their attack was flawed.
Time ran out on them, as it might yet this season. Leeds have the comfort of knowing they are long since safe.
After the game, Heckingbottom said Forshaw will be out for “a while” with the same calf injury he was carrying when he joined in January.
Forshaw has made seven starts for Leeds, but aggravated the problem in the defeat against Sheffield Wednesday and is thought to be facing at least two weeks out.
Heckingbottom said captain Liam Cooper is also facing a further spell on the sidelines with a tear in his thigh having only recently returned to training after recovering from a dead leg.
Heckingbottom said: “He’s looking at a few weeks, we’ll have to see how he responds.”