Saturday 16 November 2019

Dion Fanning: Marching on together but no-one knows where Leeds are going

'Marching on together,' the Leeds fans sang as usual on Wednesday but they need more than their passion to save them from the capricious regime of Massimo Cellino who may be disqualified from running the club until June of next year after being found guilty of tax evasion in Italy
'Marching on together,' the Leeds fans sang as usual on Wednesday but they need more than their passion to save them from the capricious regime of Massimo Cellino who may be disqualified from running the club until June of next year after being found guilty of tax evasion in Italy

Dion Fanning

It's half past ten and the team bus is ready to leave but Steve Evans has time for one more selfie beneath the statue of Johnny Haynes. The nine coaches which brought some of the 4,000 Leeds United fans to Craven Cottage and parked up along the Fulham Palace road have all gone but there are still a few supporters who want a picture after Leeds United's 1-1 draw with Fulham last Wednesday night.

"Get Stuart Dallas," Evans says, so somebody climbs on the bus and goes looking for Stuart Dallas. In the meantime, Evans walks down the line of supporters waiting by the coach and poses for a few more pictures. Stuart Dallas is found, steps down off the bus and greets a couple of supporters before also accommodating a request for a selfie.

"You'll be the next Scotland manager after Strachan," one fan tells Steve Evans. Evans smiles.

When Fulham took the lead earlier in the evening, the home fans started to sing, "You're getting sacked in the morning." Evans had only been appointed two days earlier but this is Leeds United, this is Massimo Cellino's Leeds United. Evans is the sixth manager the club have had in 18 months. He could be sacked in the morning.

Beforehand, Revie had instructed Bremner, if they should get that decisive point, to lead the players after the game to the Kop. Bremner took some persuading, but after they had celebrated before their own travelling support, Bremner duly marched his men forward. The ground fell silent, but instead of being lynched, the Leeds team were surprised to find themselves being loudly hailed as 'champions' by the 27,000 Kopites massed in front of them. The players stayed put for another 20 minutes, soaking it all in . . . and paying tribute to both sets of fans. They had been derided and despised for such a long time that one could not blame them for basking in the adulation. "Being cheered by a rival crowd - any rival crowd - was a new experience for us," Eddie Gray recalls.

- The Unforgiven -  The Story of Don Revie's Leeds United

Leeds' latest manager, Steve Evans
Leeds' latest manager, Steve Evans

'He'll sack you doing it your way and he'll sack you doing it his way. Whatever way you do it, he'll sack you. So you might as well do it your way.'

- Advice given by a player to a Leeds United manager working for Massimo Cellino

Don Revie:
The legendary manager of Leeds United in the '70s - played to great effect by Colm Meaney in the film The Damned United - found the going tough in the England job. He failed to qualify for '76 Euros and wth his reputation in tatters he took charge of UAE, in the Middle East, on a very lucrative salary.

Don Revie's Leeds United won the club's first league title in 1969. Between 1965 and 1972, Leeds United were Division One runners-up five times. They won the league again in 1974 and, after Revie's departure, they were beaten by Bayern Munich in the 1975 European Cup final. They were one of the greatest teams English football has ever seen.

Leeds United won their last league title in 1992 and in 2001 the club reached the semi-final of the Champions League. Then, of course, it all went wrong. Leeds under Peter Ridsdale had enjoyed the boom but along came the bust. In 2004, they were relegated and Elland Road was sold to help manage the debts. In May 2007, Leeds United went into administration and were docked ten points, ensuring they were demoted into England's third tier. Later that year, they received another 15-point penalty. After three years, they returned to the Championship but things haven't improved. Everything that made Leeds United great appears to have been stripped from the club but still something of the spirit remains.

"If I had loads of money, I would buy Leeds United," their former manager Brian McDermott said last week. "Until you live there, until you actually experience it, you can't really understand what a magnificent place it is."

Leeds is the third-largest city in England. Unlike the two bigger cities, Birmingham and London, it is a one-club town. During Leeds United's first season in League One, they had an average attendance of 26,543, the best outside the Premier League. For these reasons, they seem like an attractive club for investment but they are also, in the words of one man, "a badge and the supporters". Leeds don't own their ground, their training ground has been sold and when Massimo Cellino took over last year, he claimed the club would go bankrupt without his input. It may have been an exaggeration but nobody wanted to find out. Since April 2014, when he won an appeal against a Football League directive which barred him from taking over, Cellino has owned Leeds United. Last Monday, Cellino appointed Steve Evans as head coach.

Massimo Cellino.jpg
Massimo Cellino

Last Monday, the Football League announced that Cellino would be disqualified from running the club until June of next year after he was found guilty of tax evasion by an Italian court in June. He had previously been banned from running the club for three-and-a-half months by the league after a different Italian tax case.

Five minutes before he met the fans outside Craven Cottage on Wednesday night, Evans had finished his first post-match press conference as Leeds United manager. He is an eager and enthusiastic man and nothing enthuses him quite as much as Steve Evans.

When he was asked if the result at Fulham could help Leeds United turn a corner, Evans warmed to his theme. "I think they see a corner turned when Steve Evans walks in. You know what it's like, you have to be straight with players."

Manager Steve Evans sold the club to him a few days earlier by promising that he would encourage a passing style. Music to the ears of a skilful 21-year-old from Tipperary trying to get his career back on track.

Early on, the midfielder acts on natural instinct. The goalkeeper gathers the ball and Ryan beckons for him to roll it out in his direction. He collects, looks up, and executes a complicated through ball for experienced former Premier League striker Julian Joachim that is only thwarted by the offside flag.

The incident has long faded from the memory by the time he makes the walk to the dressing-room. Soon, it is to the forefront of the agenda. His Scottish manager is apoplectic.

"What the hell are you getting the ball off the 'keeper for?" Evans screams at the confused newcomer, as the opening gambit in a detailed character assassination. "I don't bloody care who you've played for."

Irish Independent feature on Richie Ryan, then at Boston United, November 5, 2011

Last Wednesday, Evans spoke with an authority which suggested he has been in the job for longer than 48 hours. "You stay as the Leeds United manager if you win football matches," he announced confidently. Maybe it's true but maybe you need to win all your football matches.

While Evans was at Boston United, he received a 12-month suspended sentence for tax fraud. After Boston United, he managed Crawley Town for five years and he left Rotherham United earlier this season after three years at the club. Perhaps Cellino and Evans will prosper together.

Evans was appointed last Monday after Uwe Rosler was dismissed on Monday with Leeds 18th in the Championship. Evans said you can't expect to remain as manager of a club like Leeds United if you're at the bottom of the league. "I didn't see that coming at all," Rosler said.

"It's wedding days, it's babies being born, it's your first date all rolled into one," Evans said when he was unveiled. "It's overwhelming. You realise the size of the opportunity you've been given and I'm really looking forward to it. I'll give it everything I've got."

On Wednesday night, Leeds played well at Fulham and were unlucky to get only a point. The Fulham fans booed their manager off but Leeds United's 4,000 had more important targets. 'Massimo, it's time to go,' they chanted before adding, in case there was any doubt. 'Sell the club, fuck off home'.

Some wonder if Cellino will stick around if this new ban is upheld. He has until Wednesday of this week to appeal but many hope this will be a real corner turned in the story of Leeds United.

One former player who spoke last week described the ongoing uncertainty under Cellino. Footballers are pragmatic and while the list of coaches brought in by Cellino hasn't always appeared inspiring, players are more likely to respond to what a coach does on the training pitch than to a reputation.

After McDermott left the club in June 2014, Dave Hockaday was appointed. Few outside the Hockaday household were excited by this decision but the players found an honest manager who spent pre-season getting them extremely fit. By the end of August, after Leeds had won only two of their first six league games, Hockaday was sacked. Neil Redfearn, another popular figure became caretaker for a month, before Darko Milanic took over but, 32 days later, he left the club having failed to win any of his six games in charge.

"Every few weeks you have to start again which makes the squad very unsettled," the former player said. "Most of the time the players don't know what's going on any more than the fans do."

Cellino had another explanation for his style. "The managers are like watermelons," he said last week. "They look good when you buy and you think you're buying the best watermelon in the shop. But they don't let you open before you pay the bill. You pay, you bring home, and then you open the watermelon. Sometimes it's beautiful. Sometimes it's not good at all. What do you do? You eat anyway. I try to eat sometimes to try and make the watermelon better."

On Wednesday night, Evans was making a case for his owner's style. Cellino, he suggests, is misunderstood. "My view is he doesn't want to be changing coaches or managers. He wants some stability." During his time as owner of Cagliari, Cellino sacked 36 managers in 22 years.

If he doesn't want to be changing managers, then Cellino is a long way from getting what he wants. Perhaps he just wants happiness. Like a serial divorcee who believes in true love or a man searching for the perfect watermelon, he will keep going until he gets what he wants.

Cellino is clearly a man of strong opinions. Some who have worked with him say that the strong opinions take in everything from the food served at the training ground to the type of grass that should be used at Elland Road.

While many coaches in English football have become used to answering to more interventionist owners, few have experienced anything like Cellino, yet many are tempted by the opportunity to work for Leeds United.

"Managers will always take Leeds United because they think they could be the one," McDermott says. McDermott was manager of Leeds when Cellino bought the club and had been told before the takeover was completed that he would be dismissed.

Leeds United manager Brian McDermott now looks set to stay at Elland Road

This appeared to have happened before a game against Huddersfield in February last year only for the club to issue a statement after the game saying McDermott remained in charge.

"Brian is one of the good guys," a former player said last week, describing rows he witnessed between McDermott and Cellino who, naturally, has strong views on team selection too.

Recruitment is another area Cellino feels strongly about. Early in his time at Leeds, he described the squad as "shit . . . the worst team I've seen in my life." Unsurprisingly this didn't go down well in the dressing-room

Evans has antagonised many during his managerial career so some might feel he belongs at a club owned by Massimo Cellino. Others would question if he belongs at a club as important to English football as Leeds United.

Right now there are few alternatives. "Marching on together," the Leeds fans sang as usual on Wednesday night but they need more than their passion to save them. Yet they are a club which continues to bewitch, primarily because of this passion.

"It's the be all and end all for the supporters," McDermott says. "When we won, Leeds was an amazing place to be on a Saturday night."

When Leeds win, even Massimo Cellino is happy but usually not for long.

Evans and Cellino are marching on together but where they're headed, nobody knows.

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