Sam Byram’s frequent absence has hung like a spectre over Leeds United’s season, but last night his presence proved decisive as he scored twice in this victory.
Either side of half-time, and a strike by Stuart Dallas, he made up for lost time.
His first goal was what Leeds needed. They had been incredibly poor, falling behind to Benik Afobe’s opener and looking likely to concede more.
This assumption dissolved when excellent work between Byram and Chris Wood in the box gave the defender-cum-winger a chance to dance around a baffled Wolves defender.
After tangoing with his partner before ditching him, Byram fired the ball past Carl Ikeme.
It gave Leeds the momentum they needed and they came out after the break looking like a completely different side. Dallas put the Whites into the lead before Byram extended it, rising to meet Charlie Taylor’s cross and heading past Ikeme.
Leeds manager Steve Evans now hopes Byram will sign a new deal with the club.
“I have always been a manager to make a decision. I am not a manager afraid to make a decision,” he said. “Young Sam has been good on the training ground for the last two weeks and I said to him that his chance is coming. But he is so good in attacking areas.
“He has to sign a contract. We can’t just sit there and say the player controls the football club. We love the kid to bits and I have said before that if he comes home with my daughter I will be quite proud!
“He is such a nice kid that you want him to do well but we want him to commit to his future. As a manager you have to be true to yourself and my eyes were telling me to pick him.
“I want Sam to be at Leeds United more than anything. That is an issue for the boardroom and I am glad he has got a couple of goals tonight.
“He has played really well and everyone in the dressing room is really pleased for him.
“When I told the owner (Massimo Cellino) the team at tea-time today he actually messaged me back and said he hopes Sam Byram gets two goals and is the man of the match.”
The decision to play Byram came after a week in which president Massimo Cellino’s presumed influence over first-team affairs at Elland Road has come under great scrutiny.
Cellino may have been in the changing room during half-time at both Charlton and QPR, but manager Evans emphatically denied the Italian tried to shape any decisions.
Cellino has been at odds with Byram since the player refused to sign a new deal on reduced terms a year ago, publicly criticising the 22-year-old and telling the media he was “deeply offended” by the decision.
Evans made a huge statement by picking him and Byram replaced Alex Mowatt, the one change from the game at The Valley on Saturday.
Playing Byram meant Dallas was moved over to the left. He had the first clear opportunity of the game after a long ball was knocked down by Wood to the Northern Ireland international, who moved from the wing to support the striker. Dallas chested the ball into the air before volleying but – with Ikeme beaten – the ball rebounded off a post before flying out for a throw-in.
Within two minutes, those inches seemed like they might make the difference on the night.
Twice Afobe was played in beyond the Leeds defence.
He fluffed his lines the first time after a slaloming run by Jordan Graham, putting the ball wide. On the second occasion there was no such mistake, Afobe cutting back on to his right foot after a similar run before placing the ball past Marco Silvestri.
Undeterred by his goal and his constant threat, the Leeds defence continued to give Afobe the freedom of the box.
He was allowed to turn in the area on the 22nd minute, but the former Arsenal man could only fire the ball past a post.
Leeds were so dramatically below par that Evans decided a change was necessary with less than 30 minutes on the clock.
He sent on Souleymane Doukara for Tom Adeyemi, switching to 4-4-2 from a 4-5-1 formation in the process.
The substitution worked just before half-time, the Whites increasing the pressure on the Wolves back-line before making it collapse.
Byram profited, firing a shot beneath Ikeme after Wood set him up. It was not a goal Leeds deserved, but one they were happy to accept.
Buoyed by the equaliser, Leeds could easily have been in front within seconds of the restart.
Doukara won the ball in Wolves’ half before feeding it to Wood, who struggled to find the right angle and saw his shot saved by Ikeme.
Within five minutes of that miss Leeds had the lead.
Dallas picked up the ball from Silvestri after the goalkeeper chose to roll it out. He then ran the length of the pitch, playing a neatly crafted one-two with Doukara along the way before firing a shot low and hard past Ikeme.
Doukara’s introduction had made the difference, and by the hour mark Leeds were further ahead.
Wood sprung the offside trap but saw his cross blocked. The ball fell to Charlie Taylor, who delivered a sweet cross to the back post where Byram ghosted in to head the ball past Ikeme.
Leeds appeared comfortable, but Wolves changed that with 10 minutes to play.
A fantastic cross from the left was met by the substitute Nathan Byrne, who deftly volleyed the ball across Silvestri into the net.
However, it proved too little, too late, Leeds holding out to secure three points that moved them above their opponents and into the top half of the table.
Wolverhampton Wanderers: Ikeme; Iorfa, Batth, Ebanks-Landell, Golbourne; Price (Coady, 83), McDonald, Henry (Byrne, 66), Edwards (Le Fondre, 57), Graham; Afobe. Unused substitutes: McCarey, Doherty, Wallace, Holt.
Leeds United: Silvestri, Wootton, Bellusci, Cooper, Taylor; Byram, Cook, Adeyemi (Doukara, 28), Bridcutt, Dallas (Mowatt, 85); Wood (Antenucci, 79). Unused substitutes: Peacock-Farrell, Coyle, Bamba, Murphy.
Referee: Stuart Atwell (Nuneaton).
Further TV switches: Page 20.