The smiles and hugs of all the yellow-shirted Latics players, the fist pumps, the dancing fans in fancy dress in the away end the players saluting them at the end – the scenes after a magnificent first victory for Malky Mackay were a superb reward for a performance that showed all the qualities that are going to be needed in the weeks and months ahead: one hundred per cent commitment, energy, desire and as illustrated by James McClean’s clinical late finish, great skill.
Latics were ahead early on through a strange own goal and for huge periods of the game, had to withstand long spells of pressure from the home side, who bombarded the Latics rearguard like an avalanche of white shirts. But to a man, Latics showed solidity and resilience and just as it looked like the home side would finally get their breakthrough in the second half, McClean struck to seal the points.
Mackay made four changes from the home defeat against Rotherham United. Leon Barnett’s absence through a hamstring injury was enforced, while to the bench went Emmerson Boyce, Shaun Maloney and Callum McManaman. In came Rob Kiernan and James Tavernier for their first appearances under Mackay, while there were also recalls for Ivan Ramis and Marc-Antoine Fortune.
Latics started with a new formation, Ramis’ anchoring a centre-half trio with two wingbacks and a front-two partnership of James McClean and Fortune and for the vast majority of the first half there was a solidity about Latics sadly lacking in recent games – the home side really only notching one significant effort on goal before the break.
Latics were first to show with Tavernier breaking through to fire on goal from just outside the box in the second minute but his shot cannoned off a Leeds leg.
The home side, roared on by the ferocious Elland Road noise, then got into their stride for a time and Latics were pegged back, but they made the breakthrough with a bizarre own goal on 11 minutes.
McClean had already just won a corner and looked dangerous drifting over to the left side when he whipped in a low cross to the near post having initially been found well by Fortune. Under no pressure, Leeds centre-half Liam Cooper stretched to reach the ball with his chest looking to divert it out for another corner. Instead he mistimed his intervention and the ball flew into the bottom corner of Marco Silvestri’s net with no Latics player near - would this be the stroke of good fortune Latics needed to turn their form around?
The goal gave Latics renewed impetus and McClean won another corner five minutes later. Ben Watson fired it in, Ramis got the slightest of flicks before Chris McCann dived but wasn’t able to get a good enough connection to head it goalwards. McCann did reach Andrew Taylor’s delivery from the left on 23 minutes, but his looping header at the far post hit the roof of the net as he put it back across goal.
Leeds tried to mount a head of steam in response and came close when Cooper almost redeemed himself, heading Mirco Antenucci’s cross onto Scott Carson’s crossbar on 28 minutes. Carson then had to be sharp to smother another Antenucci delivery from the left and Billy Sharp tried his luck from outside the box but the shot was always curling away.
Fortune had a chance to double Latics lead three minutes before the break, latching on to McClean’s flick to run clear and Silvestri had to stay strong to beat away his angled drive.
Leeds manager and former Latics midfielder Neil Redfearn felt the need to make two changes at the break, bringing in on the powerful duo of striker Steve Morrison and the experienced Rodolph Austin, and the home side came out of the blocks at full speed with a succession of long crosses. Kiernan in particular stood strong and was an absolute rock at the back for Latics - he even had the audacity to try a delicate chipped effort on goal at the other end as Latics broke, the ball curling just wide.
That was a rare respite from the white-shirted Leeds blizzard. Antenucci failed to convert Lewis Cook’s cross from the right, then Carson was at full stretch to tip over Giuseppe Bellusci’s long drive as Latics tried to stay strong.
Still Leeds came and Carson showed great handling, first when gathering up Cook’s drive from the edge of the box then an effort from Austin who had run half the length of the pitch.
At the other end, though, Latics had a chance too. Watson switched play quickly on the break to find Taylor on the left, McClean picked up his pass just inside the box, Silvestri parried the angled shot but there was no one to slot home the loose ball.
Roger Espinoza replaced Fortune for the final 20 minutes, presumably with a view to shoring up the midfield area – could Latics hold on?
Leeds continued to press, Ramis intercepting at the feet of Michael Tongue when he found space in the box, but then Latics broke away and Espinoza set up McClean, who waltzed past two defenders to shoot, Silvestri again parrying solidly with his feet from the angled drive.
Back came Leeds and Carson scooped Morrison’s header out for a corner, from which Byram headed over. Then Morrison put his effort well wide from the edge of the box, and was followed by Austin.
Espinoza could have doubled the lead in the 81st minute, sent clear brilliantly by McClean but he fired just wide. Agony, but a minute later and the yellow shirts were piled on top of each other in celebration, after Cowie’s superb through ball found McClean in the box and, this time on his stronger left side, he rifled an unstoppable bullet past Silvestri. Fantastic finish and the scenes at the end were a huge relief to all.