fulham 1-1 leeds united: have another goBack
Up and at ‘em, 4–4–2, pressing and intensity and passion passion passion. It was everything we wanted from Leeds United, in Steve Evans’ first game, and he can put his feet up on a pillow in his hotel room tonight and reflect on a positive start to his honeymoon.
On the other side of the bed, Leeds United are nuptial veterans. As we roll over on to our side we might reflect that, thrilling and new as that hour and a half was, did Steve really do anything that Uwe could not have managed just as well? And was the breathy aroma of pilsner and sausage really so hard to stomach, compared to the scent now drifting our way from as yet unexplored regions of Evans?
The frustrating thing about the past few days is how easy it is now for Massimo Cellino to just start all over again with impunity. “I accept responsibility,” he says, again, but all it takes is a score draw away from home and some huff and puff and he’s no longer accepting responsibility but praise. Hey, the new guy’s good! Great job!
It’s fairly easy to parse Leeds fans’ views on the game against Fulham, and these are mine: the performance was much better, it had intensity and intent, and the players showed the desire we demand. Sol Bamba looked like he would explode when Leeds were awarded their second half penalty; perhaps because it lifted the weight of Fulham’s goal from his shoulders, but in any case it was a display of passion that has been absent in recent weeks. Absent on this night was finishing; with more composure in front of goal, or if the goalkeepers had swapped sides at half-time, Leeds could have won this match 4–1 and deserved it. The changes to the personnel, the formation and the attitude were all, give or take inevitable teething troubles, spot on.
So much so simple. More complex might be the thoughts of Uwe Rosler. In my report on what turned out to be his last game in charge, I lamented that with all of the international break at his disposal, the best new tactic Rosler could come up with, having promised to change to get points on the board, was to start Botaka. And that was it. It would be interesting to know Rosler’s reaction on Wednesday night as Evans selected and played the team and tactics that might have kept Uwe Rosler in a job.
Did Steve Evans, in two days, really take the team so much further than Uwe Rosler could in two weeks? What were the differences? What gave Evans the confidence to switch to 4–4–2, when Rosler, having flirted with it and publicly pondered it, veered from it against Brighton? Why could Evans start with Sam Byram, while Rosler could get nothing from him once Cellino put the boot in? What was preventing Rosler from making these changes himself, from putting the fire into the team that they showed at Craven Cottage?
What Steve Evans had on Sunday was a nine hour conversation about football with Massimo Cellino, a hallmark of Cellino’s watermelon seduction technique. He will sit, it seems, with a new man and some salt and pepper pots and, in one lazy Sunday afternoon and evening, win the Champions League of their joint imagination. It’s beautiful, and it’s based on a common understanding; after nine hours, you really know a guy. After nine hours you might not be able to remember their name, depending on what you’ve been drinking, but you know that this guy, whoever he is, is a beautiful guy, and you speak the same football language.
If you take the job as Leeds United coach thinking you can count on such real talk in the future, you’ll be wrong. You might, if you’re Uwe Rosler, get the players you need to play the system you want, the system you laid out across the table, the condiment pots drifting back and forth between the white lines, a winger here, a winger there. You might think the investment in your shared vision would buy you some time to put it into practice, to at least get to know Botaka or Buckley, before you get down to getting the best from them.
You might think that, if things didn’t go well — and under Rosler, they weren’t going well — the chairman would find some time to sit down with you again and discuss the reasons, and talk about how your shared vision could be altered to fix it. Maybe together you could decide: get Antenucci on the pitch, however it fits! Forget the contract, play our best right-back at right-back! Remind yourself, and the team, of the passion you have for this job, this club! Rosler talked to the press, obliquely it’s true, about doing all those things. But no. Your chairman moves faster than Botaka, and he sits down for that talk with someone else.
Perhaps there would have been no point in Cellino having a long, clear the air conversation with Rosler; I’m not convinced there would have been. Rosler was doing a bad job. But if there wouldn’t have been any point, what was the point in employing him and backing him in the first place? Why were wingers still arriving at the club when confidence in Rosler had eroded beyond rescue, so that Evans in his first game was having to juggle his preferred formation with the fact that injuries — and a slightly dunderheaded substitution, bringing Buckley on for Wood when Phillips would have done there and then, not later — had left him with three wingers on the pitch?
Howard Wilkinson — a proper football manager — described how Gary Kelly came to be moved from right-wing to right-back when he decided Kelly was better as a reactive player than a proactive one. Advanced on the wing, Kelly didn’t have it in his game to create chances or score goals; but in defence, with the game in front of him and his first duty to stop things happening, he could see and react to what was going on better and before most other players. Within two seasons of making the switch Kelly was regarded as one of the best right-backs in the world.
Reactive versus proactive also seems to be Cellino’s problem. The man is incapable of creating, of building, of seeing something through; instead he reacts, reacts, reacts. Ever since he sacked Brian McDermott on Mad Friday Cellino has been chasing his tail about the question of who should coach the team. Unfortunately, unlike Kelly, he reacts terribly, and makes even worse decisions than he did before; perhaps because he is reacting to his own mistakes, rather than analysing situations and responding accordingly. Cellino piles chaos upon chaos.
Not only the sudden change around of managers, but the away ticket cap have shown this in the last week. That move, announced out of the blue on Friday, was utter nonsense, as the man who claims to have fixed all the problems and all the messes behind the scenes at Leeds United claimed the future of the club was at risk if games kept being moved for Sky, and even more absurdly that not travelling to away games — don’t forget, he was calling for a total boycott — was the only solution.
It made more sense on Monday afternoon, when as the world adjusted to the idea of Steve Evans as Leeds United manager, the Football League decided that announcement was as good a warm-up act as any for the news that Cellino had failed its Owners and Directors Test again. Spite, then; Cellino had submitted the relevant paperwork to the League himself, confident there was nothing in it that would lead to a ban, and been banned, and got angry. And he had lashed out, tried to begin a war on the League, and used the fans as his weapon.
The pleasure we get from watching Leeds United play away, such as it is, was being taken away from us essentially because a few years ago a rich fool wanted to have a Range Rover; and now we were expected to take his side as he robbed us of joy. Of all his missteps, this was one of Cellino’s illest-judged, because it put his actions on the radar of large numbers of Leeds fans who, quite reasonably, only care about going to the match and not about what happens in the boardroom. Here of a sudden was the man in the boardroom affecting their ability to go to the match, and Cellino might soon have discovered how much better it was to be ignored.
Thanks to the intervention of Leeds Fans United the cap has been lifted and sense has prevailed, but the pattern is as consistent as ever; Cellino acts in haste, other people suffer, then Cellino gets to have another go. And of course he’ll accept responsibility for the error, while also accepting credit for changing his mind.
It can’t go on, and it won’t go on much longer. I think there is a story be found in the way that after two years each were offered to Hockaday, Milanic and Rosler, Steve Evans has come to Leeds on a rolling one-month contract. That feels like an uncharacteristic lack of confidence on both sides of the deal. On Cellino’s side it isn’t clear if it’s Evans he doesn’t believe in, or himself.
Because while he might say he is still running Leeds United, and will always be running Leeds United, and while the chaos of this week suggests very strongly that yes, indeed he is running Leeds United, Cellino is in trouble and he knows it. The Range Rover case was the least likely of all his court cases to cause him problems, and yet here he is: banned.
Over the weekend LUTV put a 34 minute Cellino interview on YouTube; it’s hard to imagine anyone with the time to sit through that, but it might have done him good to get it off his chest, much like Bates and his weekly speeches to nobody. I hopped around the video timeline and heard him, for the umpteenth time, complaining about the different stages and nuances of a conviction in Italian and English law, but it won’t do him any good. The Football League have a stance, and they hold all the cards, while Cellino holds all the pending cases.
Still he rolls on, the same lousy whining, the same petulant responses. If the ban was the trigger for the away fans cap, what’s to say it didn’t hasten the end of Rosler, too? Cellino might not have been able to sack him in a couple of weeks; couldn’t, under the terms of his ban, spend nine hours tête-a-tête with a new watermelon. It was act now, or never at all. And for Cellino, that’s not even a choice.
It won’t work, none of it will work. Leeds United drew at Fulham but it won’t work. We even played well, very well, but it’s just not going to work. Don’t be fooled into thinking that Steve Evans is going to be a successful Leeds United manager. It’s too late, for many people, who think Massimo Cellino will be a successful Leeds United owner.
Evans won’t work, Cellino won’t work, Leeds United won’t work, none of it will work. I walked away from the most impressive, positive and exciting Leeds United performance of the season still fearing relegation. Because this is just the same thing again, and it is just not going to work. And there are only so many times we can keep having another go.