Wolverhampton Wanderers are evidence of how quick the path to recovery can be. Destined for League One the last time Leeds United played at Molineux, the club invaded the Championship’s play-off positions by outlasting Leeds at their home ground yesterday.
Wolves were once infected by a crisis of authority and confidence but if Leeds needed proof of how swiftly hard times can fade away, the West Midlands club are one example. Few parallels could be drawn between the side who dug out victory for Kenny Jackett and the broken unit who nicked an injury-time point from United at Molineux in early 2013.
Leeds in their present state crave a sprinkling of what Wolves have: a relatively predictable hierarchy, the surety of a coach whose job looks as safe as most and a squad which, without exceeding every other in the Championship, has balance, potency and pace running through it. The trick in the tightest of professional divisions is often to learn from others who do well in it.
Leeds have had their moments in the past three months, impressive results and periods where green shoots broke through the ground, and they went down in a fit of drama in Wolverhampton but Wolves pressed them to breaking point, 48 hours on from after a hard, 10-man defeat to Blackburn Rovers.
The start at Molineux was ideal – an 11th-minute finish from Charlie Taylor, his first United goal courtesy of a defensive mistake – but Wolves were clinical in their reaction, stretching Leeds with aggressive running out wide.
Two goals from Nouha Dicko gave them a 2-1 advantage by half-time and Benik Afobe’s tap-in on 48 minutes was valuable insurance for Jackett. He relied on it and more as United rallied in the second half and created a contest, clawing the score back to 3-3 through a Danny Batth own goal and a flash of Alex Mowatt’s loveable left foot. With a draw on the cards, it took an 88th-minute header from Dave Edwards to keep Leeds down.
Defensively, Redfearn’s players gave Wolves all the help they wanted – albeit help which was reciprocated – and his midfield was diminished by the loss of Lewis Cook to ankle injury and Rodolph Austin to a three game ban. Those gaps tempted United’s head coach to blood a teenager he had been teeing up for a while.
Kalvin Phillips made his debut yesterday, rewarded for his patience in the past few months and trusted by Redfearn on an afternoon which was likely to be exacting and proved to be more difficult than that. A distinctive presence with a head of curly hair, Phillips turned 19 last December and made the jump from the academy without the need for a transfer on loan elsewhere. From United’s perspective, his inclusion in their starting line-up was an antidote to the poison of the past week.
It was hard, all the same, not to think of a previous scenario at Leeds; one where Neil Warnock handed a debut to Chris Dawson on an afternoon when Warnock knew his time as manager was up. Redfearn’s careful handling of the youngsters he once coached in the academy made the involvement of Phillips feel less risky or rash but he must have wondered if he’d get another chance to give Phillips the nod.
Redfearn’s other changes, comprising of three in all, were forthright; Giuseppe Bellusci losing his place to Liam Cooper on the back of his abysmal defending against Blackburn Rovers, and Mirco Antenucci preferred to Steve Morison in spite of Antenucci’s contractual situation. The striker had earned his chance, regardless of boardroom machinations.
But it was Dicko, Wanderers’ lone striker, who saw the first two opportunities, scuffing a 20-yard shot wide and nodding a difficult header over the crossbar inside the first 10 minutes.
But dire defending from Kevin McDonald in the 11th minute presented Taylor with a chance he couldn’t miss. McDonald was backed into a corner by Phillips and put Wolves in trouble by smacking a poor clearance against the body of Richard Stearman. Taylor had crept into the six-yard box in the meantime, looking for an error like that, and he was perfectly placed to slot the ball past Carl Ikeme.
The young left-back ran to celebrate in the scorching sunshine as Redfearn punched the air in the dug-out, leaving the rest of Molineux to rub their eyes and point the finger at McDonald. Bakary Sako almost levelled within five minutes, however, as Marco Silvestri held his volley on the goalline, and Dicko negated Taylor’s finish with Wolves’ next attack four minutes later.
The striker ghosted in behind Scott Wootton at the far post as Afobe attacked the right wing and dragged a shot across goal, and Dicko dispatched the ball with his left foot from the tightest of angles. Silvestri in no-man’s land could only watch it flash into his net.
The goalkeeper began to feel a weight of pressure at his end of the pitch and two saves denied James Henry before the half hour, the latter a classy diving parry after Dominic Iorfa ran free on the right. A Leeds defence prone to slips, mis-kicks and miscommunication found Wolves a permanent handful and they were found wanting again at the end of the 45th minute.
A chipped pass from Sako from inside his own half found an unmarked Dicko who advanced towards Silvestri and smashed a low shot in off the outside of a post, a confident finish from a lively forward. United needed the interval when it came.
Whatever Redfearn said did not work. Three minutes into the second half, after Mowatt had tested Ikeme from outside Wolves’ box, Leeds cracked under the pressure of a corner which came back into their area after Silvestri flicked it clear.
Batth’s goalbound shot struck one of his own players a couple of yards from goal but Afobe took the rebound in his stride and rifled it into the roof of the net. The same player could have scored again in the 54th minute, beating Silvestri’s far post by inches, but Wolves started to showboat and Batth led United back into contention on 66 minutes when he sliced a delivery from Mowatt past Ikeme. From a position of total confidence, Molineux descended into nervous tension and Mowatt rattled the stadium with a typical, trademark effort on 74 minutes, breaking from midway inside Wolves half and curling the ball beyond Ikeme’s right hand.
Redfearn’s players deserved that moment, for no reason other than the week they had suffered, but Edwards rescued Wolves two minutes from time with a pinpoint header from the penalty spot. It was their day. It might be their season.