One thing this season has given Leeds United is a head start on half of the Championship. If that sounds like straw-clutching then it probably is, like Alan Partridge clinging to good news about the chocolate oranges, but the club are free to think about next season with impunity.
It is scant consolation and no excuse for the wasted months behind them. Leeds cannot spin their second year under Massimo Cellino as a purposeful step in the direction of good football. There was a plan for this season, a concerted plan, but it and many involved in it went by the wayside: Uwe Rosler, Adam Pearson, Martyn Glover and their various ideas. Rosler dodging sunburn in the mountains east of Salzburg seems like a lifetime ago.
Of the backroom team put together last summer, only goalkeeping coach Richard Hartis is still in the building. Stuart Hayton, the club secretary, is the other surviving member of a deliberate, and briefly encouraging, attempt to give Leeds some managerial framework before this season began. He rarely mentions it but Steve Evans still wants for a first-team coach, four months after taking Rosler’s job. Leeds have drifted from an effort to thrive to an effort to survive; back to a life of making do.
Making do never washes at Elland Road and it is barely washing now. Evans felt the creep of unrest at Watford last Saturday, pressed on his tactics, pressed on his use of Scott Wootton at right-back and pressed on the timing and choice of his substitutions. One of his predecessors used to say that when something was wrong at Leeds, everything was perceived to be wrong and Evans’ position is unforgiving. Poor results will incite annoyance against him. Good results will be seen in the context of a season which is already dead.
The Scot has a certain style about him – brash, outspoken and honest to an almost reckless degree – and it is clear to see that not everyone has warmed to it. His comments about Jordan Botaka at Watford upset some, even though Botaka continues to looks like a hopeful punt. But replacing Rosler in October was not so much a free pass as a thankless offer. The best Evans could have done in the interim was take this squad closer to the play-offs. The group of players he inherited was never deep enough to climb much higher. His permanent signings number one – one permanent addition to a team that was 18th when he arrived and has been there or thereabouts all season – and his record is steady. A different head coach might have fared just as well. Very few would have done significantly better.
Evans has a contract to the end of the season with the option of a second year. The plan at the beginning was that he and Massimo Cellino would activate that option once Leeds were mathematically safe from relegation. On the basis that United are not going down, Cellino should clarify that situation as quickly as possible. Planning for next season is not achieved by dawdling through 14 meaningless league fixtures. March and April are precious months in which the club have time to address the failings of this season and the gaps in their squad.
If Evans is Cellino’s man, as much as anyone ever is, then United’s owner needs to come out and say so and explain his thinking. Is he satisfied with Evans’ performance to date? And, more importantly, can he confirm that Evans’ confidence about transfers in the summer is justified? There is nothing to lose by marking the ground, not when Leeds are lodged in mid-table. People would then know where they stand: the club, the squad and Evans himself. It frees him from the lame-duck routine which Neil Redfearn went through last season, forever aware that he was managing the team on behalf of an owner who was likely to replace him.
Evans is bound to suffer in those circumstances. He will continue to hit a ceiling of performance while making promises to a crowd that cannot be sure if his tenure has legs. He will talk about next season while others ask if he will be here to see it. Whatever his popularity, he is owed some surety one way or the other at an early opportunity. And Leeds will be asking for trouble if they sit tight until May and decide on the hoof that a change of head coach is in order. They are more than able to consider that question now.
Evans has a track record of winning promotion. It is there on his managerial record, albeit at a lower level of the English league. Leeds have a habit of making managers seem under-prepared or overwhelmed, but where Evans is concerned, it is difficult to draw a fair conclusion on his suitability. Much like Rosler, he has barely put his feet under the table. He has barely had the chance to get a grip of this team.
Another passing season leads to a very certain conclusion: that at Elland Road, the identity of the head coach matters less than two other factors. Firstly, Cellino’s inability to settle or to look like an owner who is more than 10 minutes from being run out of town. And secondly, the players. Particularly the players. Because the one constant of the past five years has not been Cellino, Evans or any individual. It has, rather, been the handicap of an inadequate squad. It caught up with Simon Grayson, it caught up with Brian McDermott and it caught up with Neil Warnock; coaches who met a bad end at Leeds but had ticked the right boxes previously. Leeds, with Evans, are onto their eighth head coach in four years, stuck in the habit of placing their bets and then folding a few hands in. Football works like that, but the more they all carry the can, the more unfair it seems.