It seems a world away now but on August 11 2012, when the signing of El Hadji Diouf was announced by Leeds United, the feeling between the clubs fans was completely divided. Fast forward two months and inexplicably, Diouf has become a cult hero.
Arriving on non-contract terms, having rejected offers elsewhere, Diouf had much to prove, not least to the manager, Neil Warnock who once branded him a ‘sewer rat’ the impact has been somewhat surprising in its manner and even more so in the turnaround on the terraces.
I don’t profess to be a fan of Diouf, far from it but even for the unmoved masses, it is unexpected. Such are the misdemeanours and frankly rather despicable acts which litter his controversial past, one couldn’t have comprehended the regard in which he is now held in by many Leeds fans.
Not least because of his run-ins with Warnock but at Bolton on Tuesday night, the redemption appeared to have come full circle as he was handed the captains armband as a mark of respect for his four years at The Reebok. It appears that since his arrival, when he was a signing of convenience that he is now central to Warnocks plans in the short term at least. His agent, Willie McKay is already touting him around other clubs and if Leeds fail to match his form with a more suitable, longer term contract, that Diouf will surely be on his way.
It was however, no surprise that Diouf played a central role in Leeds robbing Bolton of a deserved victory on a miserable evening in Lancashire which kept Leeds’ good run of form in tact and piled more pressure on Bolton boss Own Coyle.
From the outset, it was once again clear that Leeds were going to struggle against an outfit with Premier League quality and experience but that wasn’t the only top-flight experience. From the outset, referee Phil Dowd appeared to intend on being the centre of attention, even without the watching cameras. Such was the ferocity with which he awarded freekicks, you would’ve at least hoped he could’ve got the decisions right but time after time, he was awarding the softest of challenges with freekicks, constant dressing downs and then yellow cards.
Michael Brown had his card marked straight away while Bolton were making the best of the generosity afforded by Leeds’ slack marking and Dowd’s ridiculous decision making.
Warnock admitted post match that the decision to leave Austin to mark Kevin Davis was a poor one and it was the unfortunate Jamaican who was twice caught napping as the Bolton skipper grabbed a brace.
With 14 minutes gone, Bolton were causing Leeds all sorts of problems, Chris Eagles in particular was leading the charge with pace to burn; Leeds’ midfield just couldn’t keep up but it was a set piece that Bolton made their inevitable breakthrough. Eagles corner catching Leeds’ defence out completely from their relatively simple job of marking and Davis had a free header.
There was no sense of irony lost when Warnock said Austin knew little about Davis; especially his knack of scoring from set pieces.
Eagles continued to torment Leeds and should’ve put them further ahead but his thundering 25 yard strike came back off the upright and away to safety while Benik Afobe inexplicably prodded wide with only Paddy Kenny to beat.
Bolton were made to pay though, their profligacy all the more painful as Dioufs floated freekick was flicked in by Sam Byram; Leeds had grabbed the most unlikely of equalisers which was utterly undeserved but it gave them momentum which went straight into the second half.
Diouf and Byram were then involved in Leeds’ second, just five minutes into the second half; the former found Byram whose surging run was halted rather clumsily by Stephen Warnock in the box which had Dowd racing and pointing dramatically towards the penalty spot. In truth, the contact was minimal and with Dowd’s form on the night, it was no surprise to see it given and even less so to hear Coyle lament the decision.
Little did it matter though as Leeds seized their moment; after his spot kick against Hull, Luciano Becchio stepped up to confidently send Adam Bogdan the wrong way to score, surely putting to bed the demons of his misses in previous seasons.
The match became a desperate affair in the large part, scrappy football plagued by the constant interruption of Dowds whistle punctuated Bolton’s attacks and despite their lead, it felt somewhat inevitable that with ever set piece conceded, a goal would soon follow.
Bolton threw on Martin Petrov in an effort to salvage a goal and sure enough, it was the Bulgarian who put a corner on a plate for Davis who again escaped Austin to head Bolton level.
It was no less than Bolton deserved. They had dominated without being spectacular but had been profligate when it mattered most but where Leeds have been able to rely on grit and determination to win a game, Bolton can rely on a seasoned forward to provide a consistent threat to drag them through this league, even at the ripe old age of 34.
Notwithstanding Diouf’s superb curling effort at the death which clipped the crossbar, Leeds were grateful to have taken anything from the match, even given the much improved second half. Unbeaten in four, the matches are still coming thick and fast but even as Warnock is down to the bare bones, he is patching his threadbare squad by ramming square pegs into round holes. Michael Tonge is no left winger and despite his lack of ball time, his presence and calmness was invaluable at Bolton.
Byram continues to stand head and shoulders above the rest, such was his control and composure which belie his young years that it is surprising to hear that no one seems to know how he ever got in the first team. No one seemed to have heard of him and even Warnock admitted he just threw him in because he was there.
Even when Austin looked like a lost child and when Brown looked off the pace, Leeds remained resolute at times, shaky at others but determined throughout. Diouf’s captaincy was beyond symbolic, it was clear he had taken it upon himself to lead from the front and carry out his role, instead of just wearing it.
The match was nothing to shout about, even the result is a talking point behind what can be said about the work Warnock continues to do under the continued speculation of the longest running takeover in the history of the universe. His outburst towards Dowd with less than ten minutes on the clock was typical of a man who has football running through his veins, be it Championship or Sunday league.
Leeds have some very winnable fixtures on the horizon, on current form at least and injuries aside. Consistency is the key….