Having failed to buy more of what he wanted in January, Steve Evans is now in the difficult business of trying to sell his vision.
Progress in the FA Cup gave Leeds United a short-term focus and a necessary distraction in the absence of any Championship prospects.
Defeat in the fifth round at Watford on Saturday left Evans promising jam tomorrow.
It was not that Leeds expected much of the FA Cup, a competition in which the club rarely scratch the surface and have not made the quarter-finals for 13 years, but a run to the last 16 diverted attention from the manner and the speed in which this season went to bed. With hindsight it might have been over before it began. A 1-0 loss at Vicarage Road means it is certainly over now.
Better teams than Leeds lose away at Watford, even if Watford tend to play better than they did at the weekend, and the result itself was not the issue. Scott Wootton inflicted it with a desperate own goal – an error which led him to stand outside the dressing room, apologising to Evans’ players as they walked in at full-time – but the tie succeeded in aggravating the issues which have come to epitomise the club’s campaign.
“It’s a particularly cruel way to go out,” Evans said, and he was right. Leeds had enough of Saturday’s tie, especially the first half, to require Watford to at least rely on the weaponry in Quique Flores’ squad but United were found wanting in the departments where they are usually found wanting: defensively and more crucially at the other end of the pitch.
“Sometimes you have to remember who you’re playing against,” Evans said. “Watford are signing players for millions. We’ve signed a couple of players and I don’t think there were many better midfielders out there than Liam Bridcutt or (Toumani) Diagouraga but we’ve got our main striker (Chris Wood) sitting in the stand injured. He’s been there more weeks than he should be compared to other players in the league. You need your top players. But allowing for that, we know where we need to strengthen. We know we have to strengthen in offensive areas.”
Leeds know that but in January the club declined to do so to any great extent. For various reasons outlined by Evans, players slipped away and United chose to keep their powder dry until the summer. It is a reasoned strategy in principle but Evans was requiring a lot by asking the club’s crowd to trust that he, or more specifically owner Massimo Cellino, will do at the end of this season what they declined to do last month.
“The target now would be to finish in 10th,” Evans said, weighing up the rest of a dead Championship dead. The club are being drawn like a magnet to 15th, their standard league position.
Evans sounded satisfied with the balance of play at Watford, willing to excuse Wootton’s mistake as a freak and happy to see Leeds compete with a side who are ninth in the Premier League, but he warned afterwards that members of his squad were “playing to be part of next season” in what remains of this term. With a contract which contains the option of a second year as head coach, presumably Evans is too. And the same appears true of Cellino, with his 223-day Football League ban in the ether, pending and at the mercy of a seemingly open-ended appeals process.
Watford, under different Italian ownership, have none of that to worry about. Three and a half years on from the Pozzos’ takeover, they have a top-half Premier League finish to aim for, an FA Cup quarter-final to go at and a stadium which has been raised to the standards expected of a top-flight club. There was little between the teams on Saturday, much as Watford operated in a low gear throughout. As a club, they currently live on a different planet.
“Watford started well and we had 10 minutes where we couldn’t touch the ball but from then to half-time we were the better side,” Evans said. Bridcutt and Diagouraga took a hold of the midfield in that spell. “We had the better passages of play and the better passing and moving. You go in at half-time and you’re pleased with what you’ve seen.
“I don’t think we got back to those levels in the second half. Watford have got some outstanding players who stepped up and started to perform but I genuinely thought from standing on the sideline, it was a day when Watford were never going to score. I didn’t see them make a lot of chances. When they came we were dealing with them.”
The same was true in reverse and a deflected shot from Stuart Dallas shortly before half-time was Leeds’ best effort before Wootton’s blunder, deflected a yard wide of Watford’s goal. The clubs traded corner after corner and United dictated the pace in the lead up to the interval.
“I don’t think anyone with a Watford scarf was sat there thinking ‘that’s all right’ at half-time,” Evans said. “They’d been outplayed.”
The second half was similarly balanced until Wootton contrived to toss Watford a pass into the last eight on 53 minutes. A corner came out to Ben Watson who whipped a cross through United’s box, unnerving Marco Silvestri and tempting the keeper to stray from his line. Wootton attempted at the last minute to hack the ball behind but scuffed it with his knee and found Silvestri’s net.
“As you can imagine, Scott was distraught,” Evans said. “He was standing by the door shaking hands and apologising to every player and member of staff. There’s nothing anyone will say to Scott that will make the kid sleep for a day or two. I really feel for him.
“If he gets that 100 times he deals with it 99 times. It’s a mistake, an error, and no player means to go out and do that. But he doesn’t need a shout. A shout helps but he should still deal it.”
Wootton, like the absence of a goalscorer up front, is another point of scrutiny for Evans; a centre-back moonlighting at right-back who, in and amongst some solid outings, is permanently at risk of being hung out to dry. Sections of United’s crowd began getting at the defender after his error, chanting for Evans to “give us a sub.” Alex Mowatt came on for Dallas and Lee Erwin replaced Mirco Antenucci, looking more like a centre-forward than the Italian but failing to give Watford goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon a problem. Jordan Botaka’s late arrival was a case of Evans having his hand forced by the loss of Mustapha Carayol to injury ahead of the game.
Evans pulled no punches with Botaka and came close to throwing him under the bus. “He’s very fortunate to be on the pitch today,” United’s head coach said. “His performances aren’t on the level we need them to be. I’m not talking about effort or passion – he’s got huge heart but he has to deliver performances. I didn’t have any other options for the bench.”
That sentence, a brutal appraisal of Botaka, said it all; that Leeds through injuries and their own inactivity are threadbare in terms of numbers and ability. There was no humiliation at Vicarage Road, Wootton apart, and no disgrace in the scoreline but there is no guessing either what comes next, beyond 15 inconsequential league games.
Evans was bullish, claiming that with the right support from Cellino he could “put the kettle on” for a promotion push next season. Jam tomorrow, in other words. The trouble for him is that many a Leeds manager has been heard making those noises at this time of year.