Leeds United: Ban could signal beginning of the end

New Leeds head coach Steve Evans
New Leeds head coach Steve Evans
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On the day United owner Massimo Cellino sacked boss Uwe Rosler and appointed Steve Evans in his place, the Italian was himself hit by another ban from the Football League. Phil Hay reports.

The Football League knows how to time its punches. Yesterday, shortly before 5pm, the governing body announced on Twitter that it was banning Leeds United owner Massimo Cellino for a second time.

Two minutes later, Leeds United confirmed Steve Evans as their new head coach.

Evans had agreed a contract by then and was committed to the job. He and Cellino were sat together in an office at Elland Road when the news from the Football League broke. There were brave faces all round but Leeds and their owner might have stumbled into one crisis too many. Having sacked Uwe Rosler the previous night, Cellino was already running short of credit without the help of a fresh disqualification.

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Yesterday began with rapidly-confirmed rumours that Rosler had lost his job as head coach, fired by Cellino after 12 games. Cellino was one step further ahead than that and Evans, the former Rotherham United boss, travelled to Thorp Arch to take charge of training first thing. Rosler was a “gentleman”, Cellino said, but not the coach the Italian thought he would be. Two weeks after backing the German to the hilt, Cellino said he was attending games with “worry and fear” caused by Rosler’s management.

The fifth dismissal of a first-team boss in Cellino’s 18 months as majority shareholder went down as badly as most others. Public approval of Rosler had waned during three straight defeats and performances at home which set the worst run at Elland Road in United’s 96-year history but many supporters looked at the bigger picture, identifying the one constant in many of the debacles seen during Cellino’s time as owner.

Evans’ deal runs to the end of this season with the option of a second year. The fact that Rosler – appointed on a two-year contract in May – only marginally cleared the second month of this season should persuade the Scot not to clear his diary for 2017 but his success is no longer purely dependent on Cellino’s fickle faith. Cellino has until October 28 to appeal against his Football League ban which, to judge by his attempts to avoid a previous suspension last year, he almost certainly will but the 59-year-old is backed into a much tighter corner this time; disqualified officially until June 23, 2016.

When the Football League barred him from running Leeds last season, it did so after an immense struggle. Cellino was convicted of tax evasion in the case of the yacht ‘Nelie’ in March 2014 but the governing body was unable to acquire the paperwork it needed to rule on a suspension until late in the year. Cellino was told of his ban at the end of November and formally disqualified midway through January after a failed appeal.

Under UK law, that conviction was classed as spent after 12 months and no longer breaches the League’s Owners and Directors Test. Cellino regained control of Leeds in May. On this occasion, however, the Football League has turned around its investigation more quickly, securing a written court judgement direct from Cellino’s lawyers and deciding last week that a fresh conviction for tax evasion relating to a Range Rover imported from the USA to Italy broke its rules again.

Cellino was found guilty of that offence on June 23 and fined 40,000 euros. Barring an appeal, he will not be free to influence operations at Elland Road again until the conviction is spent on the same date next year.

In the days ahead and for however long he fights, the 59-year-old will come under severe pressure to sell the majority stake in Leeds owned by Eleonora Sport Limited and controlled entirely by him. There is no-one obvious to take charge in his absence. Last season, for three-and-half months, he passed day-to-day management of United onto former chairman Andrew Umbers and former chief operating officer Matt Child. Both men have long since departed the club – Umbers remains on the board but has not been seen at Elland Road for months – and Cellino lost trusted executive director Adam Pearson when Pearson resigned from his role last month. The board at Elland Road is largely made up of Cellino associates - advisors and family members - and representatives of minority shareholder Gulf Finance House. There is little or no expertise of running a football club to fall back on.

Cellino cannot even use the weight of public opinion to his advantage. Leeds are 18th in the Championship and on the managerial merry-go-round again. For all his experience, Evans’ arrival did not strike a popular chord yesterday. The Scot almost conceded that by asking the supporters to “give him a chance” in the job. He is now in a world like no other he has ever encountered, with a team who are three points clear of the Championship’s bottom three. Cellino was not wrong when he talked about United needing a “fighter”.

Most damning for him is the timing of this Football League ban. When the organisation first informed him of his punishment, Cellino was automatically given 14 days to appeal to an independent panel. With a deadline of October 28, it suddenly becomes clear than he knew of his impending suspension on October 14 – Wednesday of last week – and sat on this news for the best part of five days. On Friday, Cellino angered United’s supporters by unilaterally deciding to cut the club’s allocations of away tickets to 2,000 for every match, a move he painted as a protest against endless television dates and rearranged fixtures. The complaint against Sky Sports is a valid one but the manner of his approach, the heavy-handed tactics, look now like cynical deflection; the away crowd like bitter, collateral damage. The protest can be certain of achieving nothing with Cellino preparing to make himself scarce again.

Since then, Rosler has gone and Evans has taken the job of head coach. It amounts to huge upheaval at a time when Cellino’s power at Elland Road is about to be revoked or at least seriously threatened. Cellino said yesterday that in Rosler’s case he was “thinking of the club” but so much of what goes on at Elland Road seems to be about him. The productive summer just gone stands out as one of the few occasions when he wasn’t.

His disqualification last January – essentially setting the benchmark for convictions leading to future bans – felt like the beginning of the end for Cellino. This straw might break his back as Leeds brace themselves for a hard winter, the renewal of takeover rumours, another chapter in a quite unique saga and the ongoing process of three other legal cases involving him in Italy.

Enough is enough was the message from the majority of the club’s supporters yesterday and that was before Cellino’s disqualification emerged. The time he has left looks ever more borrowed.

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