Preston 1 Leeds United 1: Head rules heart for a teary Evans
You are, it seems, never more than a stone's throw away from a former Leeds United boss and at Deepdale it felt like there were two on the touchline.
Simon Grayson has been and gone already and Steve Evans is surely next. There is no hope for a head coach when he has none himself.
Evans promised to shed tears when Leeds relieved him of his duties and they came at the end of a 1-1 draw with Grayson’s Preston North End, the last game of a season which took its ounce of flesh. If that was not an admission of bad news ahead then Evans’ body language was: dejected, disillusioned, with shoulders slumped. “I’m always an optimist so I hope that me being pessimistic is wrong,” he said. “But sometimes your head has to tell your heart what’s going to happen.”
A week ago Evans believed a contract extension was in the post, metaphorically speaking. His meeting with Massimo Cellino before Leeds’ 2-1 defeat to Charlton on April 30 gave him that idea, even though he came away from that conversation without a definitive answer. Evans would not or could not say what had changed since then or why his confidence had diminished so quickly but the penny seemed to drop before Saturday. Coaches have a short life-span at Elland Road. This is how Cellino works, since his earliest days as a football club owner.
“Maybe it’s just the feeling you get,” Evans said, admitting for the first time that a contract which ends in June might be the sum of his time with United. “It’s all based on gut feeling. If you’d have asked me last week I’d have said I was 100 per cent here. Now I don’t know. I thought I did. Maybe a week ago I thought I did but I don’t know.
“Anyone who gets Leeds United right is going to worldwide famous, aren’t they. I’d like to be given that opportunity. I think I’ve done a good job in circumstances that have sometimes been difficult and the minimum I’ll deliver next season is the play-offs.
“The owner has to find the best man available and if we all sit back and say ‘what an appointment that is for Leeds United’ then I’ll go on my journey. But I don’t want to look back and see someone who’s not good enough.”
That is precisely where the crux of the debate lies and it is invading United’s dressing room as well as the terraces. Sol Bamba’s comments on Saturday were an echo of his outspoken interview at the end of last season, a plea for Cellino to make Leeds look and feel like a club with a clue. The defender’s form has been very patchy since August but no-one says it quite like him. “At the minute we are all over the place but hopefully that can be fixed pretty quick,” he said.
There were times this season when Cellino – an owner who has already tried and rejected five other managers and head coaches – could have sacked Evans with some impunity but Evans took applause from a packed away end at Deepdale, moved to tears as he signed off with his familiar three-punch salute. There were chants of “sign him up” from a following of 5,500, all of them demob-happy and in typically playful form as the sun shone.
Appreciation for Evans is two-fold: to a large extent the product of his performance in a job he took on with little public support in October but also because of the fear of who Cellino will replace him with. There are, as Evans’ conceded himself, other managers with stronger track records in the Championship than him. But there are ample clones of David Hockaday and Darko Milanic; coaches who Cellino was regretting appointing almost as soon as their contracts were signed.
When Evans warned about Cellino turning to someone who “isn’t good enough”, he hit a nerve. Leeds are in a cycle of searching for greener grass. The club sacked Grayson in 2012 but have never found better and Preston, who finished 11th in the table a year after promotion, seem happy with him. Jermaine Beckford, who led the line for North End, is still as prolific a goalscorer as United have had in years. His popularity remains undiminished.
A dead-rubber at Deepdale became a healthy sequence of appreciation to and from United’s support, amid no audible dissent towards Cellino or anyone else: a clap from Beckford, a bow from Evans and a wave from Grayson who could not resist when he was asked for one in the 70th minute.
In all it was a jovial affair, with a visiting end packed with inflatables and a knack of resisting the clutches of disapproving police and stewards. Early in the second half, a fan was carried from the bottom of the stand to the top on a surfboard, an achievement which at that stage threatened to be the highlight of the match. The humour was good and a carefree mood reflected the fact that the season was no longer worth arguing about.
“If ever I felt the supporters didn’t want me, I wouldn’t stay,” Evans said. “But they have to see direction and they have to see people who care, with passion, ability and a track record which makes them go home thinking ‘I’m going to turn up next season. I’m going to get right behind that.’ We’re onto something here.
“I had glance back at the league table and when I came in we were fifth or sixth from bottom.” Leeds finished 13th. “Every remit I was challenged to get I delivered it and more but the president has to meet with the board. He has to speak to people in this week. I respect that.
“I need to let people above me take an informed decision and I’ll take it with the good grace I’ve tried to keep since I came in. I won’t be one of those head coaches who goes away, goes to court or speaks ill of this club. It would go against everything I’m for.
“I’ve got a family. I need to go to work next season but I’ll afford the club the time to make that decision. If it comes and it’s against me, I’ll break my heart and then I’ll switch to speaking to people (other clubs) who’ve waited to speak to me. But the time can’t be unlimited. The people advising me think I’ve been very patient as it is.”
In the midst of it all there was a match. And after a tepid and slightly lifeless first half, a good one at that. Leeds broke the deadlock 12 minutes from the end when a Charlie Taylor cross bobbled in the box and drew Preston goalkeeper Chris Kirkland into tripping Luke Murphy. Chris Wood, who has missed a penalty at Hull City a fortnight earlier, refused to concede the ball to Mirco Antenucci and smashed the spot-kick high into the net.
By injury-time, Evans felt confident enough in United’s lead to hand a debut to midfielder Ronaldo Vieira, the wonderfully-named 17-year-old who agreed a professional contract last week, but Preston, who has already seen one strike from Eoin Doyle disallowed for offside, equalised with a minute of added time to play.
Scott Wootton, a half-time replacement for the injured Liam Cooper, lost possession to Jordan Hugill in casual fashion on the byline and left Leeds scrambling to recover. Bamba got a foot to Hugill’s cut-back but merely returned the ball to him, allowing Hugill to smash it under Marco Silvestri. The goal was absolutely typical of Leeds. Just as it will be typical of Leeds if Evans now walks the plank.