Massimo Cellino’s half-time appearances in the Leeds United dressing room are irregular. That much we can say.
Whether they matter – actually matter as in breaching limits of influence or interference – is a question for the players and staff whose personal space he is occupying.
Steve Evans sounds happy enough. Other head coaches at Elland Road have found Cellino hard to co-exist with but Evans sounds satisfied with the terms of their relationship.
To take him at his word, he is free to pick his team unhindered. He is free to choose formations, substitutes, the rest. If Cellino’s proximity at half-time during Leeds’ past two away games caused discomfort then it caused discomfort for other people.
The selection of players during Cellino’s many months as owner has been a repetitive and murky subject. Certain players – most notably Stephen Warnock – and certain coaches gave the impression that he dictates the pecking order more actively than a chairman should or more actively than English football accepts.
On Cellino’s part there is no pretence from him that he takes in the games without drawing opinions, or that he keeps those opinions to himself.
He never rated Warnock. Of that he made no secret. When Derby County bid for the left-back last January, Cellino was quick to let him go. His rationale is always the same: “I must look after this club.” What Cellino resents is the suspicion that head coaches under him are patsies with no authority to manage the squad. He argues against that bitterly whenever he’s asked about it.
And, in truth, Leeds are not a mirror-image of the days at Heart of Midlothian when Vladimir Romanov – so the story goes – used to fax the line-up from Lithuania the day before a game. Previous coaches at Leeds, and Evans too, will admit that Cellino says what is in his head; sometimes subtly, sometimes forcefully. That is not necessarily the same as being told which side to play.
But if Cellino feels hard-done-to by talk of interference, his newly-developed habit of hovering around the dressing room is a naive way of feeding the conspiracy. It is often said – and it was said again by David Hockaday in a newspaper interview last weekend – that Cellino is chronically short of good advice; in receipt of too little of it and unwilling to heed much of the guidance he receives.
A chief executive worth his wage would tell him that attending the dressing room at half-time is a guaranteed way of inviting scrutiny as people ask whether Cellino has any business being there.
It undermines Evans’ credibility even if Evans’ autonomy as head coach is actually intact. It starts a debate about a decision like the substitution of Scott Wootton two minutes into the second half at Charlton Athletic on Saturday. The conspiracy goes that Evans was nudged into it. It is just as reasonable to say that Wootton was on a yellow card, Gaetano Berardi is a better right-back and Leeds improved with Berardi on the field
The change was not illogical. You could go further by saying that Berardi should have started in the first place but picking a right-back and picking Wootton is Evans’ prerogative.
Cellino’s motivation for putting himself among the players is a legitimate point of discussion. Is he there to assess Evans close up and to watch the Scot’s methods in the heat of a game? Is he there to remind the squad that while his stake in Leeds is apparently for sale and a Football League ban hangs over him, they ought not to think that he is no longer bothered, no longer present and no longer in a position where people must answer to him? Is he actually trying to dictate decisions?
According to various sources, at Queens Park Rangers he stood and observed in virtual silence while Evans held court. He barely said a word. Perhaps Cellino was in the habit of making his presence felt at Cagliari and perhaps the Italian game is less precious about the sanctity of the dressing room. They say that in Sardinia he exercised his right to do as he pleased.
In England, too, he has an uncanny knack of being the centre of attention wherever he goes. If Cellino is not publicly announcing his decision to stop attending United’s games, he is raising eyebrows by turning up unexpectedly at QPR and Charlton and involving himself in discussions with Charlton’s disgruntled fans.
If he is not influencing Evans’ tactics then he’s creating a situation where people might draw that conclusion. Evans says the matter is a fuss about nothing and you feel sorry for him if it genuinely is. But the fuel feeding this conspiracy would not be difficult to cut off.