There is something of the night about Giuseppe Bellusci. Steve Evans thinks so. He sees Bellusci as being at his best when he is in the zone with “that bit of devilment in his eyes”.
They say that one of Bellusci’s ankles is tattooed with an expletive; no context, no design, just the expletive plain and simple. Amid the questions of ability and popularity, everyone at Leeds United agrees that the defender is more complex than the average footballer. He spoke last month in the club’s matchday programme about the challenge of making the dressing room understand him.
Outside the dressing room, understanding is more difficult. Bellusci’s performances for Leeds in two years at the club have ebbed and flowed – parts of his second season have been much better than his first – but he is never far away from critical attention. Tomorrow, away at Championship leaders Burnley, Evans must decide whether to fly in the face of it.
Bellusci has much to contend with in terms of his reputation: his involvement in the controversial withdrawal of six foreign players before last season’s defeat at Charlton Athletic and the common view that among United’s squad, he is one of owner Massimo Cellino’s favourites. Where football is concerned, his costly error at Rotherham United last weekend, closely followed by another against QPR on Tuesday, led to booing from the crowd at Elland Road as QPR pinched a draw. Earlier this week a video emerged of Leeds’ 2-1 defeat to Rotherham, showing Bellusci nudging Lewis Cook off a first-half free-kick before smashing it over the crossbar. Cook’s frustrated body language speaks for itself. But Evans said the perceived image of Bellusci as hard work, as a problem in the camp, was an “inaccurate” portrayal of a centre-back who he described as “very humble and very down” after a difficult week.
“Peppe’s an intelligent boy,” Evans said. “He’s never shy in giving an opinion but he’s been very humble, very quiet. I’ve seen many players like that over the years – strong characters – and this is when they need support.
“He doesn’t need my support when he’s getting man-of-the-match performances at Blackburn and Cardiff. He doesn’t need me to be there for him then. But I’m a manager who all through my career has been in the trenches with people when they need it.”
Bellusci erred last Saturday by attempting to clear with an overhead kick as Rotherham attacked in the penultimate minute of a Championship game which was tied at 1-1. The consequence was the concession of a penalty and a red card for goalkeeper Marco Silvestri. Rotherham midfielder Greg Halford won the match from the spot.
The Italian’s mistake on Tuesday was less reckless but costly still, a trip on QPR striker Sebastian Polter inside the box two minutes from time. Leeds at that stage were well on course for a 1-0 victory. Evans had chosen to stick with Bellusci after Rotherham and replace Sol Bamba instead, insisting later that Bamba had been left on the bench after complaining of feeling “under the weather”.
“I don’t like to see any player be subject to heavy criticism from supporters,” Evans said. “I think when you make big mistakes, it’s harder for supporters to accept that when it’s so late in games. Afterwards I look for reaction and if he could have bled because of mistakes I’d have seen Bellusci bleed at Rotherham and bleed against Queens Park Rangers. For 88, 89 minutes he was outstanding. But as a central defender, a goalkeeper or a defensive player, people don’t remember the 88 minutes. They remember the big decisions you get wrong or the big mistakes. There’s no doubt that he’s made mistakes but there’s no doubt he’ll give us a positive reaction.”
That description of Bellusci’s mindset is at odds with scepticism about his character. Evans said there was no merit in doubts about Bellusci’s attitude or commitment or the idea that he was driven by his own agenda. “It’s not fair,” Evans said. “I think it’s inaccurate. Sometimes when people leave places they tell a story. Sometimes that story is to protect themselves and apportion blame to others.
“I don’t think there’s one player in the dressing room who doesn’t remain focused on trying to win games or get in the team. It’s never about effort or commitment. It’s just about doing things a little bit better.
“I’ve said to the players that it’s basic errors which are costing this team a lot of points. It’s different individuals week in, week out and I’m included in that. We all have to be better.”
Bamba trained yesterday and is available to play at Burnley tomorrow but Evans said his team selection was still to be finalised this morning. After a steady outing against QPR, Liam Cooper is expected to start in the centre of defence with either Bellusci or Bamba alongside him.
Leeds are 15th in the Championship and have little left to play for but Evans’ decision on Bellusci is a delicate one. United’s head coach is adamant that the errors made by the former Perugia player have blotted some very solid performances. He also knows that another costly mistake would call in the question the decision to play him.
“You always run that risk as a manager,” Evans said. “But I don’t look at him on the pitch and say ‘you’re going to make a mistake’. It won’t come into my thoughts when I pick the team.
“I’m looking at energy levels, body language in training and I’m looking for Peppe to step up again in terms of attitude and being focused – to have that bit of devilment in his eyes when he plays like he did at Blackburn and Cardiff.
“He’s trained very well and we always look for people to give us a positive reaction. We’ve not picked our team for Burnley yet and we’re in the middle of assessing what they’re about. But I won’t need to assess too hard because they’ll be 4-4-2 and we know who’ll be in the boxes.”