Leeds United: A bit more to Evans than meets the eye

United's head coach Steve Evans
United's head coach Steve Evans
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If anyone in football management has the ‘hardness allied to a sense of humour and personality’ then former Scotland national team boss Craig Brown reckons Steve Evans is that man. Phil Hay reports.

Evans was a young, stocky Glaswegian striker when Brown signed him at Clyde in 1979.

Former Scotland manager Craig Brown

Former Scotland manager Craig Brown

“As you’d probably imagine he was a bit of a firebrand,” Brown says. “He could be a rebel when he wanted to be but I found his heart to be in the right place. There’s more depth to him than people think. He’s a conscientious guy.”

When Brown became Scotland’s national coach in 1993 he was told by the late MP Margo MacDonald that he needed to be more “gallus”; a good Scottish word for bold or forthright.

“That was never a problem for Steve,” Brown says, “and I mean that as a compliment. Margo told me I was too polite and she might have been right. Steve’s gallus all right. He’s got a strong inner core and he’s not to be under-estimated.”

Brown was one of the “840” people who contacted Evans by text after he became United’s head coach last week. His message essentially told Evans that even if he survived in the job for one day, he would still have the “honour” of managing a club where stellar names had played and coached in the past. An overwhelmed Evans texted his reply: “Some f****** club, this.”

“I’d say he was happy,” Brown jokes.

Evans has a long background in management – more than 700 games between Boston United, Crawley Town and Rotherham United – but this job is his biggest by a distance. It is also an environment, with Massimo Cellino as owner, which coaches cannot properly understand until they step through the door of Elland Road.

Cellino’s impending disqualification by the Football League was announced on the day that Evans replaced Uwe Rosler. Cellino is appealing but cannot say for certain what will happen next so the picture for Evans is far from clear. Evans spoke last week about “concentrating on what happens on the grass” and it might be to his advantage that he has no alternative. He and Cellino are in regularly contact but barely touch on the subject of the Italian’s ban.

“Sir Alex Ferguson once talked about the importance of managing up as well as managing down,” Brown says. “A lot of managers can handle players and keep their team in order but these days you need to be able to deal and communicate with the people above you.

“Steve seemed to have no problem with that at Rotherham. They came up to Scotland for pre-season last year and I played a couple of rounds of golf with Tony Stewart (Rotherham’s owner). Tony absolutely loved him. He was so impressed with the job he was doing and couldn’t speak highly enough of him. I don’t know what went wrong there but I was very surprised when Steve left Rotherham. I found it hard to understand. He could be a good fit for Leeds. He’s got a hardness about him which might do the club good. He’s obviously thrilled to have the opportunity but I don’t think he’ll be nervous about it. He’s one of these guys who just goes in and does his thing. I mean, a job’s a job when you’re out of work but this is a chance for him to make a point. I wouldn’t say he’s got much to prove when you look at his CV but he’d want people to see that he’s up to a big job.”

Evans’ first two games as head coach yielded 1-1 draws with Fulham and Bolton; less than Leeds deserved for their performances but also less than they needed. The club play Blackburn Rovers tomorrow in a televised Thursday-night match which is expected to pull in an attendance of 18,000. Seventeenth in the Championship and already nine points back from the play-offs, the club are looking desperately for a spark. Where United’s home record is concerned – no victories since March and the longest winless run in their 96-year history – Evans has been plainly critical, calling the drought an “absolute disgrace”.

“I want Elland Road bouncing,” he said on Saturday, “but I want it bouncing at the end of the game.”

Evans’ strategy at Leeds appears to be simple: set achievable targets, aspire to reach them and see whether that keeps him in a job. The Scot has cut a relaxed figure in the past week, keeping United’s politics at arm’s length, and he has already picked through United’s squad, deciding which players are expendable and which areas of his team are weak. He made it clear to Cellino last week that new signings are necessary.

Brown knows Evans well enough to think that he will “not be shy” with Leeds’ combustible owner. The 75-year-old – currently in Russia on a coaching course – said Evans had the “right attributes” for high-level management, even if the thought rarely crossed his mind when Evans was playing for him at Clyde. Brown said: “When a player’s in his early 20s you don’t think about him in those terms. He was a striker of good quality who needed reminding of certain things from time to time. There was no malice in him. He was just typically Glaswegian.

“It didn’t occur to me then that Steve would be the coaching type but when I look back now I can see a hardness allied with a good sense of humour and personality.

“You need all of that to stick around in management. I hope he can stick around at Leeds.”