“We can’t be average in front of this crowd.” A motto for the summer, given to Leeds United by a head coach who waits to learn if he will be part of it.
He lives in hope but there were hints of Steve Evans saying his goodbyes on Saturday, to Elland Road at least.
Saturday saw no flourish at the end of a sapping home campaign, only defeat at the hands of one of the Championship’s worst-performing clubs, but the crowd in the South Stand chanted Evans’ name and he responded with a spirited Leeds salute before walking down the tunnel. This dance between him and Massimo Cellino is almost up and Evans cannot tell when he will be back.
He met with United’s owner on Friday, called in for discussions about every subject going except for the burning issue of his own job. The meeting was called short, Evans claimed, because his presence was required at the team hotel; before a game against an already-relegated Charlton Athletic team and with Leeds fishing for window-dressing at the end of another difficult season.
“The clock beat us,” Evans said, in another example of how Leeds and Cellino struggle to cut to the chase with head coaches. The 53-year-old is crossing his fingers that a 2-1 defeat to Charlton does not weaken his case – “you hope that one result isn’t the difference as to whether you’ll get kept or not” – but Cellino’s mind seems unlikely to turn on a single result. Perhaps Friday’s chat will genuinely help the Italian see what he is signing up to with Evans as head coach next season. Or perhaps his decision was made some time ago.
Leeds have one match to play, a fixture at Preston North End on Saturday which Evans will take care of, and the club need an improbable swing of eight goals to outrun Preston to 11th position. Evans expects Cellino to confirm his fate before he arrives at Deepdale. Leeds are tying off loose ends now, with the real game to come, and Evans came away from Friday’s talks believing that he and Cellino are both agreed on the amount of work required.
“We’ve got some really good players but sometimes that’s not enough if they get let down in other areas,” Evans said. “We’re a mid-table Championship team at this minute of time.
“We need stronger players, more quality in the right areas of the pitch, which is all areas of the pitch, but the objective is very clear for the head coach of Leeds United next season: be in the play-offs as a minimum. That’s going to take a lot of work and togetherness but I’m ready to meet that objective.
“I’ve been in and I’ve had a look now. I know what I want to change, what I want to keep and what I want to restructure. The president is aware of all that. But I have to have his support, 100 per cent.”
It is, as Evans said, about climbing out of the average bracket; as single examples, of winning more than seven home games in a season where promoted clubs will win twice as many, and of claiming more than two Elland Road victories against the bottom nine sides in the table. Charlton, a team who are down with 40 points and have conceded almost 80 goals, soaked up waves of pressure on Saturday and rode their luck when the game called for good fortune but they picked Leeds off with goals either side of half-time and withstood a late onslaught in which Sol Bamba scored and began to moonlight as playmaker, 60 yards up the pitch.
Leeds, for all their issues, do not touch Charlton in the shambles stakes but the London club’s coach, Jose Riga, made a prescient point afterwards. “I told my players before the game that a lot of things can happen inside the club but the truth is what happens on the pitch,” he said. It cannot be said that the two aspects are unconnected but as Evans admitted, even at the most stable of clubs, United’s squad would not have been good enough.
Evans’ side had territory and space to work with in the first half but their crossing was loose and forgiving. When Morgan Fox got free on the left wing at the other end on 39 minutes, his vicious delivery allowed Johann Berg Gudmundsson to run across his marker and smash a low touch into the net from close range. Earlier, the same player had rattled a post from 20 yards. It seemed that while Leeds had most of the ball, Charlton had all the bullets.
Four minutes into the second half, Ademola Lookman took possession in acres of space on the left wing, cut across to the centre of Leeds’ box and whipped a strike passed Marco Silvestri. “We give the ball away and then we don’t engage them,” Evans said. “You could attribute four or five errors to that goal. And if you give away cheap goals in the Championship you find it difficult to get back in games.
“The fact that Charlton have been relegated is a real shame because they’ve got quality individual players. They should never be in the position they’re in. But we dominated totally and I sit here in amazement that we’ve got nothing out of the game. Amazement doesn’t get you anything.”
Throughout the second half, United’s impetus came from player-of-the-year Charlie Taylor, a full-back who Charlton could not evict from their right flank. One delicious cross from him was smacked onto the underside of the crossbar by Chris Wood. Jordan Botaka lashed the rebound into the side-netting. On 71 minutes, and moments after Callum Harriott had failed by inches to give Charlton a 3-0 advantage, Taylor served up another hanging cross and Bamba ran into drive a downward header past Nick Pope.
Other chances presented themselves, with Pope denying Antenucci and Wood with two excellent saves. “We were in control in the first half and then we went 2-0 up,” Riga said. “Popey did the rest.” Evans suggested that Leeds might have been “half a yard off” and compared to several previous games, they probably were. A result was still been there for the taking before and during six minutes of injury-time.
“When I arrived here, this club hadn’t won for eight months at home, a staggering statistic,” Evans said. “We put that right but we’ve been inconsistent at home. When you only win twice against the bottom nine at home it’s because you lack quality. We know the stats and we can’t blame luck. We can’t blame the crossbar every day.”
Before United’s players took a lap of the pitch, a lap of appreciation as the club described it, Evans took to the microphone and gave the crowd a vote of thanks. “If I’m not here next season, I’ll remember this for the rest of my life,” he said. It sounded like someone who knew which side the toss of a coin would come down on and sensed his time was up. “I think the president’s ready to make his decision,” Evans said later. The time for a resolution is nigh.