The irony of Alex Mowatt’s season is that he spent the first month of it kicking his heels. Leeds United were lost in his absence back then and the club would be nowhere without him now; nowhere except the same hole as Wigan Athletic.
This will not be remembered as Mowatt’s year – not in the single-handed way that last season belonged to Ross McCormack – but his goals are driving Leeds towards the end of it.
Again on Saturday, the 20-year-old’s knack of knowing when to shoot and where the net is got the better of Wigan and their pitiful pitch.
Either side of his 51st-minute goal the chewed-up surface at the DW Stadium got the game it deserved.
Wigan are tying their own noose with turf so bad and they are on their way out of the Championship after defeat to Leeds coincided with a precious win for Rotherham United at Huddersfield Town.
“The pitch is shocking,” said Neil Redfearn, United’s head coach, after his side’s 1-0 win. “It’s a poor surface to play on. I actually feel a bit sorry for Wigan because you’ve got to force the running at home and get after teams with quality football. It must be tough for them.”
It was difficult all round on Saturday and Mowatt’s strike – a blistering hit from the edge of the box – was, in Redfearn’s estimation, the only piece of brilliance all afternoon.
The midfielder sized up the ball after it struck the back of his former team-mate, Jason Pearce, and lashed it past Scott Carson without thinking twice. Finishes of that nature are coming naturally to a player who spoke last week about the hours he devotes to perfecting his shooting after training at Thorp Arch.
“When situations happen in and around the box, when everything’s happening so quickly, Alex does things instinctively,” Redfearn said. “That’s borne out of practice. What happens with practice is that it all becomes permanent.
“His goal was worthy of winning any game – a bit of quality and brilliance that wasn’t really in keeping with the rest of the game.”
Mowatt has eight goals to his name this season and he has his mind set on reaching 10. It’s a personal aim which says something about Redfearn’s entire squad insofar as no other player at Leeds looks like getting there.
Mirco Antenucci has eight goals too but he registered his last more than three months ago. Billy Sharp stands on five and Steve Morison has failed to score at all.
Morison made his own impression at Wigan, slogging at both ends with all the energy he could find, but United’s squad is largely devoid of reliable finishers. It is unfathomable that David Hockaday – United’s first head coach this term – saw Mowatt as a player he could overlook.
“I want to keep playing well, I want to keep scoring and I want to get to double figures for the season,” Mowatt said. “Like I said, I’ve been practising in training and when the ball came to me I just hit it.” Carson got nowhere near it.
Wigan needed someone with Mowatt’s instinct and for their onslaught from 51 minutes onwards, they deserved a point.
The crowd lost count of the number of times Malky Mackay’s players worked themselves in behind United’s defence, only to slip a pass across goal and find no-one there to tap the ball in. Wigan have had their moments in the sun – far more than Leeds in the past 10 years – but they are stumbling into very hard times.
Their meetings with Leeds at the DW Stadium have a tendency to be memorable for off-field issues.
A year ago, Massimo Cellino’s takeover of Leeds went through as the teams were leaving the field. On Saturday, Wigan’s heartbeat and outgoing chairman, Dave Whelan, risked his polished shoes in the mud by taking to the pitch to address the crowd before kick-off.
United’s away crowd, just short of 5,000, chanted throughout his speech and Whelan showed a sense of humour and a loose grasp of history by reminding that end of the ground that while Wigan lifted the FA Cup in 2013, “Leeds haven’t won it for 25 years.”
You took his point but nonetheless he takes his leave of Wigan’s boardroom with the club headed for League One. On Saturday, they and Leeds were muddling towards a goalless draw throughout the first half.
A firm header from Sol Bamba which Carson held and a Morison volley hacked high over the crossbar were the best of United’s chances. Wigan had even less to enthuse about at the interval. Leeds, however, were short-changed by referee Geoff Eltringham when Gaetan Bong went through the back of Sharp inside Wigan’s box. “It was a blatant penalty,” Redfearn said. “Again, we don’t seem to be getting these decisions.”
The start of a second half brought a discernible rise in intensity and James McClean almost scored immediately when his shot on the turn forced Marco Silvestri to claw the ball wide with one hand. Four minutes later, Leeds attacked down the left wing and created the havoc in which the ball sat up nicely for Mowatt to score. That window was decisive even though an onslaught from Wigan followed.
As Mackay admitted afterwards, the ball simply wouldn’t drop for them.
Marc-Antoine Fortune’s cross slid inches in front of an unmarked McClean and Sheyi Ojo’s cut-back rolled between everyone.
Fortune seemed to hesitate when another Ojo pass ran past him inches from the goalline on 75 minutes and McClean’s volley into the side-netting fooled the crowd into thinking the dam had burst.
Bamba was in the way throughout, a magnet for crosses into Silvestri’s box.
Seven minutes of injury-time gave Wigan time for a desperate reprieve but when McClean allowed the ball to spill into touch and then slammed it into the ground in anger, Wigan looked beaten in more respects than one.
They were four points worse off than Leeds at the end of December. The gap has grown to 16.
The trick for Redfearn has been an astounding average of more than two points a fixture in 2015.
It is ever more difficult to argue with credibility that Leeds need someone else in his job next season.
He had selection problems again on Saturday, deprived of the injured Sam Byram and Liam Cooper.
Gaetano Berardi was faultless at left-back.
“I see myself as part of this, as part of the set-up,” Redfearn said.
“You don’t lift your head and look at your own gains. You look at what we’re doing as a group and a club.
“It’s not just about me, it’s about the players too. Particularly the players.”