Leeds moved out of the Premier League relegation zone as Junior Firpo’s second-half goal gave them a crucial 1-0 victory over bottom club Southampton in Javi Gracia’s first game as manager.
In a tense and frantic match, left-back Firpo found himself in space in the box after Jack Harrison’s flick to slot home under Gavin Bazunu and send Elland Road into raptures – and his team towards a priceless three points.
Prior to that the game had been balanced on a knife-edge, played out in front of an anxious crowd and between two sides knowing a single costly error could see them staring into the abyss.
Leeds were the more proactive side throughout without fashioning clear-cut chances. The lively Brenden Aaronson pulled one shot wide, with Jack Harrison curling another off target.
The one true piece of attacking verve came from Firpo, whose adventurous run and shot gives Leeds a first win in the league since 6 November and takes them to 22 points, a point and a position above 18th-placed Everton.
Defeat for Saints – their first under caretaker boss Ruben Selles – means they stay bottom, four points from safety.
Firpo stakes his claim for cult status
The stakes going into this game were high – 19th against 20th, and the winner could end the day outside the division’s relegation zone and hopeful of climbing higher, the loser mired to the bottom of it.
It played out as you would imagine on the pitch, in frantic, nervy fashion between two low-quality sides fearful and lacking in confidence.
The list of clear chances is short – a handful for Leeds, even fewer for Southampton, who managed just two shots on target, with only a fluffed header from Armel Bella-Kotchap late on causing real panic in the home defence.
It was no less tense off it, with each misplaced pass prompting angst among fanbases so desperate for their respective side to offer them the reason for hope in a season that has offered so little.
Such contests tend to be settled by single moments of inspiration and Firpo’s winner was certainly that – an inventive flick from Harrison to the full-back who seized his moment for glory.
The player from the Dominican Republic has been much-maligned since joining from Barcelona in the summer of 2021, viewed as the latest in a long line of failed attempts to solve the club’s issue at left-back.
In recent weeks, though, he has shown signs of the player Leeds thought they were getting and on Saturday, given the backing of new boss Gracia, he staked his claim for cult status.
Gracia could well get there himself if he rescues Leeds from the drop, with this an encouraging first step that leant more into the setup and style he inherited than one he may look to introduce.
He certainly has the players he needs at his disposal, with the workrate and anticipation of midfield duo Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie a solid platform before the exciting Aaronson, Harrison, Wilfried Gnonto and Crysencio Summerville.
These remain very early days, though, with bigger and yet more stressful challenges to come, as the man in the opposite dugout will tell him.
Last weekend, Selles and Saints were buoyant after beating Leeds’ next league opponents Chelsea in his first game in charge. Tonight, he faces a big challenge to dust off his players and lift their mood for the challenge ahead.
Leicester are up next for Saints in another battle near the bottom.