Is Massimo Cellino the elephant in the dressing room? Leeds United head coach Steve Evans thinks not and is adamant that he alone picks the team and tactics. Phil Hay finds Evans in pugnacious mood.
Steve Evans moved tonight to dampen the controversy over Massimo Cellino’s dressing-room appearances at Queens Park Rangers and Charlton Athletic, saying he had “no issue at all” with the Italian’s actions and denying again that United’s owner was dictating team affairs at Leeds United.
Evans confirmed that Cellino had been present in the changing room during half-time of both of the club’s recent games in London but said Cellino “contributed nothing at all in terms of tactics” and repeated his previous warning that he would resign as head coach if Cellino attempted to pick his side.
Evans’s position was reported to be under threat following Cellino’s decision to descend to the tunnel at the interval of a 1-0 defeat to QPR last month and a 0-0 draw at Charlton Athletic on Saturday.
Speaking on the day of his appointment as head coach, Evans said: “The day I don’t pick the team, I won’t be manager of Leeds United. I have to pick the team.”
The 53-year-old, who replaced Uwe Rosler in October and is the sixth first-team chief in Cellino’s 19-month reign as United owner, said suggestions that he might walk away from his job were “utterly ridiculous” and refuted claims that Cellino was influencing tactics and substitutions.
“All I can say is that this is being overplayed,” Evans told the YEP. “Yes, Mr Cellino was there but he contributed nothing at all in terms of our tactics or our decisions about players. He basically said nothing apart from shaking my hand and saying ‘come on, coach’. It was just a case of him offering encouragement.
“The dressing room at Charlton is almost split into two parts and I wasn’t even aware that he was in there until after I’d finished talking to the players. None of us could see him. I’ve no issue at all with what he’s doing and people are making too much of it.
“The bottom line, and I’ll repeat myself, is that I’m in charge of all team matters. That’s a fact whether people like it or not. The day that changes is the day I’ll walk because a bridge will have been broken. The president knows that because I’ve told him straight. To be perfectly honest, I’m the sort of character where if someone from the boardroom was telling me to pick player A, I’d deliberately pick player B to make my point.”
Evans’s decision to replace right-back Scott Wootton with Gaetano Berardi two minutes into the second half at Charlton came under scrutiny after it emerged that Cellino had attended the dressing room at the break.
Evans, who named an unchanged line-up following a 2-1 win over Hull City the previous weekend, said after full-time that a yellow card shown to Wootton early in the game had led to his withdrawal on 47 minutes. United went on to dominate the remainder of a goalless draw.
“I’d actually told our medical staff to get Berardi fully warmed up before I spoke to the players at half-time,” Evans said. “Scott was on a booking and I was concerned about that. I’d been concerned about it right through the first half. I didn’t want to lose him to a red card.
“In no way was that down to Mr Cellino. It’s the same with Sam Byram. I’ve never been told not to play Sam Byram. But Sam’s contract is up in the summer and, to my mind, if he won’t sign a new contract then I’ve got to think more about players who are committed to being here long term. That’s not to say I’ll never use him. He came off the bench on Saturday.
“To wake up and read that I might be on my way out because of all this is utterly ridiculous. The team, the tactics, the formations, the training, when we travel and so on – everything to do with the players is being left to me. I’ve no complaints.”
Cellino, who bought Leeds in April, 2014 and has endured a traumatic year-and-a-half as owner, has previously faced accusations of dressing-room interference during his time in control at Elland Road.
Evans, however, said previous owners he had worked under, including Rotherham United’s Tony Stewart, had been around the changing room on match-days and claimed the attention on Cellino was down to the fact that “everything seems to be a problem when Leeds are involved.”
“With Tony at Rotherham, we used to talk about the team all the time,” Evans said. “Owners are around the dressing room more than you’d think. It’s not unusual and it’s not a big deal. It’s just made to look like an issue here because it’s Leeds United and it’s Mr Cellino.
“I never let Tony Stewart tell me what to do and the same goes for the president here. Don’t get me wrong, I’m 100 per cent happy to comply with the instructions of Mr Cellino and I don’t expect to have the final say on areas of business like contractual matters but if I’m not picking the team then he’d need to find himself a new head coach. I’m quite happy to say that publicly because I’ve said it to him.”
Cellino’s attendance at QPR and Charlton came despite a statement issued by him in October in which he vowed to stay away from United’s game following abuse of him by the crowd during a 2-0 home defeat to Blackburn Rovers.