For Leeds United fans the S**t Sandwich has always been on the menu this season. You haven’t always had to eat it but it was always there. On Tuesday we came away from Reading and for the first time in a long time for this writer, the chef didn’t try and force it on us.
In its place was something that resembled a strategy with a foundation and a leader. More than that, there was a new type of striker, a commitment to youth, and a stiffening of the defence. OK, I’d been away for a month during which we’d won and drawn games, but I’d not seen us win live in five games - a period stretching as far back as Bournemouth away.
Simon Grayson once said that he likes to win the battle in the first sixty minutes and the war in the last half hour. Tuesday’s night sort of inverted that. If there was a struggle in the first half an hour of this game between two clubs who really shouldn’t be where they find themselves, then it was with the fans having to watch what was on offer.
If the first 30 minutes was a starter you’d have left the restaurant. Bianchi left the field injured and was replaced by Sloth, to me that was one ineffective player being replaced by another.
With Sharpe and Antenucci on the bench it seemed a poor substitution but Redfearn clearly wanted to keep his 4-5-1 formation. The half climaxed with Steve Morison continuing his goal drought as he clipped a shot round the keeper and onto the post. It’s almost as if he’s on a shoot to miss bonus. The substitution and the shot aside little else seemed to happen of consequence.
There were however small signs of something different about the team. Signs that began to flourish in the closing stages of the first-half and continued to gather pace in the second.
Most significantly I realised from the very opening minutes that there was someone in a urine coloured shirt actually showing leadership. Outwardly directing our performance with his words, with hand signals demanding calm and his style of play.
If you’ve not seen us in the last two weeks that man is ‘Le’ Bamba. It’s a surname guaranteed an epic chant and a few tried but it failed to take. From the off he was calming Bellusci and Wootton on either side of him with palm towards the floor settling gestures.
As a defender he took no prisoners, hitting the strikers with tough mauling legal tackles and coming out on top in nearly all of them. When he showed initiative to drop back and receive short goal kicks he set up a style of play that saw us building from the back and giving the young midfield time to move quickly into space and retain possession.
Bamba looks like the player we’ve needed on the pitch for years. It was telling that despite being on loan Redfearn had made him Captain.
The height of our defence now, has also given us a stronger appearance. At right-back Wootton was nervous to dive in and preferred to jockey his man hoping Byram would scurry back and put in a proper full-backs tackle.
However when it came to long balls onto his wing Wootton was heading them back every time.
On the other flank young Taylor looked confident streaking forward, twice taking the ball into a decent crossing position. Importantly he spent most of the game defending neatly, confidently playing possession triangles with his former youth team mates ahead of him in midfield.
A message that might have been missed at the start of Cellino’s Circus came from short term classroom assistant Benito Carbone when he said the aim was to have five academy players in the first team.
Well right now we have four and you’ve only to look at the likes of Milner, Delph and even Woodgate still playing well way above us in the leagues to wonder how many other good LUFC juniors never got a chance because of the amount of average journeymen bent or risk-averse managers have bought into the club before now. As a policy it works for fans, academy and wage bill alike.
To have Byram, Cook and Mowatt from the academy pumping the energy and attitude into the middle of the park is truly thrilling to see. Add a resurgent Luke Murphy who is finally becoming the match winning midfielder we’ve also lacking since Howson and Snoddy departed and we have a very young and talented midfield. Who wouldn’t want to see a young team grow together than a load of odd-job men like Warnock assembled.
Murphy still occasionally tries to control high balls whilst surrounded by opposition players when a hoof would be safer but his tackling, passing and shooting have come on leaps and bounds since he returned from a prolonged demotion beyond even the bench.
If confidence is infectious I was pleased to be proven wrong when I started moaning about Sloth’s arrival. In the second-half he moved some dangerous balls around, chased down well, even put in strong winning tackles and impressed when nothing was expected of him. He had much more impact than Bianchi does. Simple as that.
I can say the same for Morison. I left Reading saying ‘I like Morison now’. I have never said that before, in the past I’ve always thought there’ve been ‘More Reasons to Moan at Morison’. He is effectively boxing like a man who can’t deliver a knockout punch but knows if he wears the opposition down with hard work and physical pursuit of the ball he might create the space for one of the kids behind him to nip in and win it for us.
Morison is a new type of striker, a striker who doesn’t expect to score but who doesn’t let it dent his enthusiasm or commitment. He worked hard, hit he post and made the assist for Byram after he’d had his own shot saved. Far better strikers than him would have lashed the returning ball into the side netting.
This was a game that warmed up and over-heated only once when Wootton, with a mighty fine impression of Stuart Pearce, went through a Reading player like a wayward car through an unsuspecting pedestrian on a CCTV Vine.
With the clubs around us at the bottom of the table regularly picking up points it’s been a vital if cautious resurgence that’s been taking place under Redfearn. The reshaping of the defence has certainly helped. Only Bellusci and Silvestre remain from the players being picked in December.
Cellino being out of the way seems to be good for proceedings, he should keep a lower profile all round. Looking back over the season the Darko appointment on the back of Redfearn’s excellent month as caretaker feels like it robbed us of six results. More so than Hockaday which I can only put down to a sort of Beginners Madness on Cellino’s part or, possibly, an attempt to destabilise the higher earning pros and get them to reduce the wage bill of their own accord.
Either way, this week’s victory was celebrated by the travelling fans like VE day. I don’t think I’ve seen an explosion of joy like that since we beat Southampton 4-3 after coming back from 3-0 behind away. My mate I went with though said, “It was like this when Sharpe scored the other week at Huddersfield.”
Let’s hope it explosive joy becomes a habit for Leeds fans once again.