Supporters who feel neglected by football or their clubs might think that the events of this week have turned the tide, if only slightly. The mass walk-out at Anfield which frightened Liverpool’s owners, Fenway Sports Group, into rethinking unpopular ticket prices was a timely example of popular power in a game which often tries to deflect it.
Jurgen Klopp felt moved to comment on that protest – admitting in essence that open conflict between Liverpool and their crowd was in nobody’s interests, least of all his – and the coaching staff at Leeds United now find themselves in the thick of a stand-off between Massimo Cellino and supporters who want the Italian gone.
Paul Raynor, Leeds’ assistant coach, was put up at a press conference yesterday afternoon with the intention of speaking about Monday’s game against Middlesbrough, but much of his time was spent addressing fresh discord caused by Cellino’s ownership. The devil makes work for idle thumbs, or so the saying goes, and Leeds have only an FA Cup fifth-round tie to look forward to after their Championship season blew itself out. Yesterday morning, an advert was put in place outside Elland Road’s East Stand bearing the slogan ‘time to go, Massimo’; a chant which Cellino heard several times before he temporarily stopped attending games in October. Cellino is abroad in Italy, visiting his family, and was not at the ground to see the advert in the flesh but it was an open challenge to him and a repeat of tactics used to encourage Ken Bates to sell the club by the Leeds United Supporters Trust in 2012.
United’s owner has faced public pressure before and ridden it successfully but the past fortnight – in which Leeds fell short in the transfer window and Cellino was caught on camera laughing about his infamous ‘pie tax’ policy – have broken the minor truce which seemed to be in place around Christmas.
Leeds were unbeaten in nine games in early January but now hold one win in eight and are without a prayer in the fight for promotion. Speaking ahead of Monday’s meeting with leaders Middlesbrough, Raynor claimed the two facts were related: that United’s poor form was encouraging frustration in the stands.
Yet amid the complaints, United’s crowds have held up. Around 10,000 quit Anfield before the end of a 2-2 draw with Sunderland last weekend, forcing FSG to take notice of anger about ticket prices, but a proposed walk-out in protest against Cellino’s pie-tax – a £5 charge levied on South Stand ticket prices – failed to gain any traction in December. Saturday’s meeting with Forest, a category A fixture, drew an attendance of over 24,000, 1,000 higher than Leeds’ average this season.
Asked if he was supportive of demonstrations like that seen at Anfield, Raynor, who came to United as Steve Evans’ assistant in October, said: “If it affects the players then no. There are other ways to show your anger or frustration. Suddenly there’s no crowd there and your fans are important during a game.
“I wouldn’t like to see them leave the ground because it would have an effect on the players and we don’t want it to happen.
“But I think once you’re a Leeds United fan you’re a Leeds United fan.That’s what I’ve learned here. The crowds have gobsmacked me, especially away from home.
“The fans need massive credit for the way they’ve stuck with it but I think they’ve stuck with it because they can see some momentum and they can see little signs that it (the football) is getting better.
“You’re going to get disharmony. Liverpool are having disharmony over ticket prices and they’ve dealt with that. Good luck to them but it’s not something I want to comment on too much.
“What we focus on and what we have to focus on is the support the fans give us which has been absolutely incredible. If we don’t play well we can see that. We hear the booing and we’re not silly, we understand it. But the backing has been fantastic because they see what we’re trying to do.”
Evans has been supportive of Cellino, particularly in the wake of a transfer window when the business completed by Leeds earned the club limited credit and substantial criticism. Leeds are 16th in the Championship and rapidly heading for a 13th straight season below the Premier League. Their biggest deal last month was the sale of Sam Byram to West Ham United for £3.7m.
Raynor was also complimentary about the Italian, saying: “We know what the job in hand is here. It’s a difficult job but it’s not an impossible job. There’s a good nucleus here and the president’s been very supportive in terms of his backing and the plans we’re trying to put in place.”
Evans was shortlisted for the manager-of-the-month award in December, on the back of a lengthy unbeaten streak. It was a sizeable shift in fortunes from a 1-0 defeat to Queens Park Rangers at the end of November which saw him and his players showered with abuse from the away end.
United’s boss has found praise harder to come by in the past month with his aim of a top-six finish petering out and Raynor said he was prepared for more criticism from the crowd if Leeds failed to find form quickly.
“That’s human nature,” Raynor said. “We’ve been doing this a long time and you do get periods where it’s not going well. You have to take that on the chin because make no mistake, we’ll take the pats on the back when the come. That’s the nice part of the job.
“Everyone was saying how brilliant we were five or six weeks ago when we had the unbeaten run; ‘you’ve turned it around, it’s fantastic’. Everyone was smiling then.
“We’re working very hard to turn it around and I believe we will.”