Post-match silence from the Leeds United camp at Brighton on Monday evening deafening in its explosive potential as far as supporters of the Elland Road club are concerned. Phil Hay reports.
By leaving Brighton without a word on Monday, exposing himself to accusations of cowardice, Steve Evans inadvertently acknowledged one home truth: that he and Leeds United cannot talk their way out of the rut they are in.
It was the club’s decision, rather than Evans’s, to bypass the post-match press conference at The Amex and no style of apology would have quelled the anger felt towards the protagonists in a 4-0 defeat. Leeds are judged by their actions these days and the party line from Elland Road is wearing thin. Evans was damned either way on Monday; condemned by his silence in the face of a shocking result but arguably incapable of striking a conciliatory chord.
In the end it comes down to perception; the difference between the reality as the club paint it and the reality as others see it. Evans talks regularly about “building something”, as if Leeds are in the early throes of a revolution, but the club look like a model of short-termism from the owner down.
Their head coach has a contract to the end of this season, much as he expects or hopes to extend it. The arrangement is the equivalent of a caretaker. United’s owner is disconnected from the public and typically aloof; still at risk of a lengthy Football League ban and unable or unwilling to make peace with the supporters opposed to him. Monday’s appalling defeat at Brighton also weakened Evans’s assertion that Leeds, as a team, have grown and matured under him. Uwe Rosler was never beaten as viciously. Brian McDermott was the last coach to take a thrashing so bad.
Paul Raynor, United’s assistant who faced questions from Sky Sports on Monday night before the club halted all other media commitments, called Leeds’ performance “absolutely shambolic”. That description applies to more than the performance. Only Leeds could go from Friday’s press conference, where Evans said he was “100 per cent” certain of receiving a new contract, to a situation on Monday where the majority at Brighton wondered if Massimo Cellino would revert to type and sack him forthwith. In the end Evans made it home on the bus but if Cellino is as Cellino does, his remark about the Scot “talking too much” yesterday is blindingly ominous.
Evans will not ask for sympathy and he will not get much but the result at Brighton, the capitulation of his players, patently hurt. It was there in his face as he walked past the media without saying a word in the tunnel at The Amex. It will hurt for two reasons: the humiliation of a display so spineless and the anxiety of knowing that a position he covets might be at risk. Evans has said many times that he will never hold a bigger job, that he will depart in tears when he loses it. Even if Cellino chooses to stand by him, the defeat at Brighton comes at the cost of some public confidence.
Cellino and Evans had an agreement that the Scot’s contract – a deal which runs to the end of June – would be extended to the end of next season once Leeds were mathematically safe from relegation. It sounded like a reasonable compromise at the end of December when Evans had his squad 12th in the Championship, 10 points above the relegation places, but the past two months have made his performance as head coach less tenable.
There is a difference between stabilising a season, as Evans was doing before Christmas, and scraping towards the run-in with one win in 11 and a 4-0 hiding at Brighton to recover from. The extension of Evans’s deal would require some explanation from Cellino and some rationale about the decision. In Evans’s defence, the squad is not his and he has made precious few changes to it, but Neil Warnock fell back on that excuse in the early months of his tenure as manager, only to find that his own players and his own plan failed in the same way the following season.
United’s team at Brighton looked brittle, unbalanced and worryingly weak. It would be interesting to know if the players themselves feel the past few months have brought about an improvement or whether they think that Leeds have anything resembling a long-term plan. It should not be forgotten that Rosler’s sacking by Cellino in October was not something the squad were calling for. Many of the players were surprised by his dismissal.
The weaknesses in the team at Leeds – the specific shortcomings, the general lack of depth, the absence of leadership on a night like Monday, and the constraints caused by injuries – are so evident that they do not need revisiting. The defeat at Brighton proved that, as a basic starting point, over and above the influence of the head coach or Cellino, United will go nowhere without raising their squad to the highest standards of the Championship. The league is an expensive environment; moreso with each passing year and moreso than Cellino realised when he bought the club in 2014. The standard was a shock to him then and it must be now. Monday was the heaviest loss of his entire reign as owner.
Cellino has been uncharacteristically quiet recently – quiet by the standards of a man who once admitted openly that he had considered sacking David Hockaday before changing his mind – but he is central to the entire plot at Elland Road. The situation is bigger than Evans and bigger than the squad. Cellino, for his part, projects nothing more than a blurred vision. It is impossible to see where Leeds are going under him or where he thinks Leeds will go under him. Like Evans talking about “building something”, there is little for the supporters to buy into or to invest in emotionally. The club feels like a void and has done for all but a few months of last summer; like death by a thousand watermelons.