Leeds United head coach Steve Evans has distanced himself further from supporter protests against Massimo Cellino and warned his players that he will not accept the in-fighting as an excuse for poor performances.
Evans dismissed the idea that attacks on Cellino by sections of Leeds’ crowd were threatening to negatively affect his squad, saying any players who claimed otherwise were “probably not playing well and looking for reasons.”
The United boss spoke as he prepared his side for Saturday’s FA Cup fifth-round tie away at Watford, a fixture which is keeping the club’s season alive amid a failed bid to qualify for the Championship play-offs.
The past fortnight has been dominated by renewed public pressure on Cellino, the flamboyant Italian whose 22-month reign as owner of Leeds has seen repeated flashes of conflict with some of United’s fans.
The club took legal action last week to remove a supporter-funded advert placed directly outside Elland Road, calling for Cellino to sell his majority stake in the club.
Monday night’s 0-0 draw with Middlesbrough was then preceded by a fresh protest in which images criticising Cellino’s ownership were beamed onto the south face of the stadium’s East Stand.
United also came under scrutiny after it emerged that Cellino had stepped up his dispute with the Football League over televised fixtures by demanding that the governing body allow him and Leeds to negotiate individual TV rights - an allegation the club’s executive director, Paul Bell, previously denied in a statement on Sunday.
Despite that backdrop, United’s players turned in a strong performance against second-placed Boro and Evans said the focus and confidence of his squad was intact as he prepared for the challenge of guiding Leeds into the quarter-finals of the FA Cup for the first time in 13 years.
Evans said: “If players start telling you it’s affecting them they’re probably just not playing well and looking for reasons.
“Players and staff have a job to do and we mustn’t forget our job. The president and Paul Bell have completed different remits to me. I’m employed by them to make sure the players stay completely focused.
“Supporters are always going to be supporters through good or bad. They’ll be there for life. I don’t get involved in what happens above me. All I know is this football club was in a perilous state before Mr Cellino stepped in (to buy it). That’s a given.
“But as head coach you have to distance yourself from that. I never get involved in anything other that Thorp Arch, the team and the players.”
Cellino continues to hold support among certain sections of United’s fanbase but Evans said: “I don’t see a divide when the performance is right. Against Middlesbrough I saw all ends getting behind their team and I’ve always believed that if you put out a team that gives the supporters a reason to keep their focus on that, that’s what they’ll do.
“I find there’s more of a problem when you’re not playing well. There’s more of problem when players are out there and not good enough. That will always be a problem, given the expectation and the history of this club, until we get back to the top level and can attract the top players.”
Cellino is yet to comment on Monday’s protests against him and Evans said he had not spoken to United’s owner about them, despite regular conversations in the past few days.
“I’ve not spoken to him about the protests because it’s not my remit,” Evans said. “I’ve spoken to him many times in the last few days about the game on Monday night and he’s looking forward to speaking to me on my plans for Watford.”
Off-field matters and apparent disillusionment did not prevent Leeds from selling an allocation of 4,200 tickets for Vicarage Road on Saturday.
United will face a Watford team who are ninth in the Premier League and described by Evans as “the second biggest success story of the season after Leicester” following their promotion from the Championship last May.
“The more supporters you can take the better,” Evans said. “They want you to win as much as you want to win. There won’t be one of those guys sitting there who doesn’t want to win this game more than me.”