Thirty nine games at Elland Road makes Garry Monk the longest-serving head coach on Massimo Cellino’s watch. There was irony in the fact that in the same week as Monk passed that landmark, Cellino was himself at risk of leaving Leeds United.
The Italian was given until tomorrow by the Football Association to tie up loose ends and resign from United’s board of directors before starting a 12-month ban imposed for a breach of agent regulations. That suspension was stayed yesterday afternoon, however, after the FA agreed to delay it while Cellino mounts another appeal.
As questions hang over his future as co-owner of Leeds, the head coach in post at Elland Road – the sixth Cellino has worked with and employed – has never looked more secure in his job. Monk is breaking the mould of insecurity as his squad try to break their long exile from the Premier League. “I’ve enjoyed it from day one,” Monk said.
Tuesday’s win over Bristol City took him past the tally of 38 matches overseen by Steve Evans, the manager who prior to Monk enjoyed most of the little patience Cellino showed in his first two years as majority shareholder.
Monk’s wisdom was questioned when he took the plunge last June and took on a role that many saw as impossibly complicated if not quite impossible. He has never regretted his willingness to listen to United’s offer with “no preconceptions” of what he would find or how he would cope.
Leeds are as happy with Monk; led by a coach who has not only broken into the Championship’s play-off places but shown a talent for keeping his team there. He is already within seven victories of equalling the number he amassed during 77 games in charge of Swansea. With his reputation growing, Rangers – a veritable basket case – were vaguely linked this week with a move to recruit Monk as their manager. “I don’t comment on rumours,” he said. “I’m very focused on my job at Leeds and this game at the weekend.”
Match-to-match is how Monk has handled this season.
Some of his predecessors used to think like that for fear of what life beyond the next game would bring but his own policy is aimed at shielding his squad from too much talk about a promotion which is increasingly attainable.
Leeds are fifth going into tomorrow’s game at Ipswich, the first of 14 remaining matches. Mick McCarthy, the Ipswich boss, echoed comments made by Neil Warnock last week by describing Monk as his manager of the year.
“I’ve talked many times about the club, the history of it, the size of it and the challenge but also about the recent history as well,” Monk said.
“Recently there’s been a lot of suffering and not so much enjoyment. I wanted to take that challenge and put a smile back on our fans’ faces and a smile back on the players’ faces; to bring back more positivity and ultimately have a way of playing that everyone could enjoy.
“The club feels more united now. Everyone feels a bit closer together. I still think we have more to do and more to give but we’ve been moving in the right direction. That’s important for any club, but especially for this club considering its recent history.”
Monk, for the most part, has been spared the politics and meddling that undermined previous head coaches. Cellino, who sold a 50 per cent stake in Leeds to Italian businessman Andrea Radrizzani last month, has been involved all season but more at arm’s length; less inclined to micro-manage the club and not as close to Monk as he was to other managers.
The legal jostling between Cellino and the FA – a legacy of the sale of Ross McCormack in 2014 – has bypassed the club’s head coach completely. Asked if he had spoken to Cellino about his impending ban, Monk said: “To be honest, we’ve been really busy in the last two weeks. We’ve had three games a week and I haven’t had time. I’ve been very focused on the football.”
Monk thought primarily about football when Cellino approached him with the offer of a 12-month rolling contract last summer. Some in the game would have warned him against it and told him that Leeds were a shambles. “You hear a lot of things about a lot of different situations, and not just in football,” Monk said.
“I’m not one of those who pre-judges things. I like to go in myself, assess things myself and get some perception from what I feel. Then I can make changes or do whatever I need to do.
“I didn’t come here with pre-conceptions about what had been going on. Of course I understood what had been going on. I understood the situation the club was in and how it was perceived. But my job was to come in and see what I thought. I felt that I could help and put things in place. It was a challenge I looked forward to and still look forward to.
“You can see how it affects people here and with the fans I’d say (it affects) their lives. They support the club with their lives and that’s a big responsibility to have. But you should look at it as a challenge, not fear it. That’s something we’ve changed drastically. At the start of the season I felt fear from the players and apprehension from the players. We changed that.”
Monk, who met an unceremonious end at Swansea after many years of service there, said he was “better now than when I first came in and wiser than when I first came in.” He grew accustomed to promotions with Swansea, climbing from League Two to the Premier League as a player, and might find that experience useful as a relatively young Leeds squad enter the sharp end of the Championship term.
“It’s the same parallels and the same principles,” Monk said, “and it’s for me and my staff to to lend our experience. We’ve been lending it since the start of the season and that’s not just because of the situation we’re in the towards the end of the season, fighting for something.
“We’ve been doing that since pre-season, trying to lend experience. We’ve been doing that since day one. Many of these players are facing their first real full season of competitive football at this level. You’ve seen them grow all the way through.
“Of course there’s pressure and lots to think about but I want people to enjoy this. There are lots of times when clubs suffer. Managers’ careers, players’ careers – they’re never easy and they’re never always up. There are lots of downs. So when you’re having a good time, you have to enjoy it.”