As the thermometer plunged below freezing point, Jesse Marsch wore the look of a man reveling in the restorative warmth of a long-awaited summer sun. West Yorkshire may be in the midst of a bleak, and bitter, mid-winter but on a night when the outrageously gifted Wilfried Gnonto and a reassuringly sharp Patrick Bamford both scored twice, the Leeds United manager hitherto fragile job security suddenly seemed infinitely more robust.
Admittedly it was merely an FA Cup third round replay against second-tier opponents but, in tearing Cardiff apart, Gnonto and Bamford hinted at brighter days ahead for a team who travel to either Accrington Stanley or Boreham Wood in the fourth round.
Although the Elland Road jury is still out on Marsch he is certainly succeeding in coaxing a tune out of Gnonto. The 19-year-old Italy forward, a £4m signing from FC Zürich last summer, reinforced his burgeoning status as a West Yorkshire cult hero by opening the scoring inside the opening minute.
When Rodrigo’s clever, sumptuously chipped cross from the right dropped for Gnonto on the opposite flank the scorer responded by launching himself off the ground and unleashing a fabulous first-time, audaciously scissored volley which flew past the startled Cardiff goalkeeper, Jak Alnwick, grazing the underside of the bar en route.
It surely belongs in the same stratosphere as Paolo Di Canio’s world-class, scissor-kick for West Ham against Wimbledon more than two decades ago and was the sort of sublime finish the world’s very best players treasure.
“Wilfried’s intelligent, humble and grounded,” said Marsch after watching his protege petrify the Championship strugglers every time he ran at them from his left-sided station. “It was a dream start. I’m happy. It’s coming together. I wouldn’t say it’s validation because we’ve still got a lot to do.”
Leeds, who face a vital Premier League game against Brentford here on Sunday, remain in relegation danger but as they mounted wave upon wave of high tempo attacks, Dean Whitehead could have wished for a kinder job audition.
With Mark Hudson sacked shortly after Cardiff’s team’s 2-2 draw in south Wales in the original third-round tie, Whitehead is in caretaker charge and looking to impress. How he could have done without the attacking excellence of Gnonto, Jack Harrison and Rodrigo.
After making a couple of fine saves from Gnonto, Alnwick was left, ruthlessly, on his backside as Rodrigo lured him off his line and then rounded the keeper before shooting into the unguarded net.
Significantly Rodrigo’s 12th goal of the season had been facilitated by the outstanding Harrison’s unhinging of Whitehead’s defence. That rearguard was soon bisected once more as Gnonto shot his second goal, the ball passing through a defender’s legs before evading Alnwick’s reach. Once again, Harrison was the creator.
Reality briefly intruded as Leeds’ enduring set-piece fallibility re-emerged when they failed to clear a corner, allowing Curtis Nelson to head beyond Illan Meslier. Happily for Marsch a VAR review highlighted that the offside Andy Rinomhota had interfered with play by blocking the goalkeeper’s view and Bamford, Rodrigo’s half-time replacement, quickly banished memories of that defensive lapse.
After 18 mainly injury-interrupted months, groin surgery in Munich late last year seems to have restored the striker to former glories and he combined well with Gnonto until the 66th minute when the Italian departed to the most comprehensive of standing ovations.
It was Bamford’s moment to assume center stage and he did not waste it. Timing his advance to perfection he evaded Cardiff’s offside trap and, having taken two stellar touches to control a dropping ball over the top, polished things off with an exquisite left-foot scoring volley.
Suitably spurred Bamford quickly scored again, using the outside of his left foot to elude Alnwick after a lovely one-two with Gelhardt. “Patrick has real clarity of thought,” said Marsch. “He’s been stressed but, for the past two weeks, a smile’s been back on his face.”
By the time Callum Robinson scored two late goals, the latter from the penalty spot following Marc Roca’s handball, Whitehead and a Cardiff side now winless in 10 games and seeking their fifth manager in two years, were beyond consolation.
All that remained was for Marsch to describe reports that his players want him sacked as “BS”. “We’re very much together,” stressed a manager still to integrate his brand new £35m record signing, the France Under-21s forward Georginio Rutter. “And we’ve got some great attacking weapons now.”