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Duck Soup for Steve Evans

23 October 2015
Duck Soup for Steve Evans
For a team sitting in 19th place in the Sky Bet Championship before kick-off, a 1-1 draw at Fulham in a game the away team dominated but salvaged through a curious penalty, can rarely have been greeted with such relief and cloudless buoyancy as that which followed the final whistle of Steve Evans’s first game as Leeds United head coach on Wednesday night.

The relative optimism was a thinly-veiled cover, in some quarters at least, for light relief. At last some football to distract us from the ongoing chaos off the field at Leeds United, and a beginning to the week that finally brought the laughter to a stop. Monday’s sacking of Uwe Rösler was tiresome in its inevitability and the appointment of Steve Evans – the sixth Leeds United head coach in 18 months - in his place was uninspiring and almost a sideshow. As a result, the news of the Football League banning Leeds United’s President, while foreseeable given the list of impending court cases on the table, was almost a line in the sand moment, where many Leeds fans felt this taxing charade could not continue any longer.

Last week I quoted the dictionary definition of ‘insanity’ being the act of doing the same thing repeatedly but expecting a different outcome. It was aimed at Uwe Rösler and his need to inject change into his Leeds United team. It could equally be aimed at Leeds United’s President and his addiction to repeatedly identifying and appointing head coaches, yet not allowing any of them the environment, authority or lifespan in which to thrive; and if by chance they do, the deadly outcome is the same anyway, via some convoluted route usually involving baffling insults.

This week’s definition is the word ‘farce’; “a comic dramatic work or genre using buffoonery or horseplay and typically including ludicrously improbable situations”. A farce in theatre is “characterised by deliberate absurdity and nonsense, and quite often is set in one particular location where all events occur”. The scene is Elland Road; Leeds United’s owner and President opens the door to a new head coach after every home defeat, and fends off impending litigation, while an inane assortment of ‘characters’ guffaw in the background. Imagine the Marx Brothers’ living room, a cross-dressing cabaret singer, the vicar ringing the doorbell, the setting of booby traps, being caught in uncompromising clinches and much door-slamming, trouser-dropping hilarity. This is all done in one circular act that repeats and repeats until we die laughing; or the laughter dies, which is pretty much where we are now.

How all the chaos and upheaval affects the players is born out in results. Lewis Cook is playing under his fifth head coach in just one complete season and 13 games. He is 18 years old and far and away Leeds United’s most influential player. It is not that nobody at Elland Road has identified that; it is more the fact that nobody seems to want to nurture that greatness in favourable circumstances. Instead we throw at him, and others at an equally delicate stage, a maelstrom of different ethics, advice, tactics, formations, drills and mental attitudes. Somehow Cook is still here, and still the driving force; a tribute to his natural talent and individual will to rise above the destruction.

It is true that in Leeds United’s situation the players do now require a more simplistic and straightforward approach, and the one thing we learnt from Uwe Rösler’s twelve games in charge is that whatever his message was, it wasn’t getting through to the players.

Undoubtedly Steve Evans will have a short-term effect, far more in fact than was evident in the attacking abandon and high-pressing application at Fulham on Wednesday night. Whether Evans will have any impact long or even medium term is not even worth talking about, with so many factors beyond both his control and the wit of man. But while his “I’ll 100% pick the team” bravado raised knowing eyebrows from Leeds to Miami and back, and every coach thinks he will be the one to finally ‘change’ the Leeds United President, at least the formidable Evans bluster has been appreciable but more considered this week.

Evans’ initial press conference on Tuesday had many a Leeds fan nodding firmly in agreement, though we should consider that if a coach cannot shine during that very first exposure – a blank canvass so to speak – then there is little hope for his durability when the bricks and bats of life at Elland Road truly take their toll.
But Evans’ more sincere stance – almost showing contrition for his well-known characteristics – was welcoming in the trying circumstances. While showing the traditional respect for Leeds United’s name and history, Evans was sufficiently streetwise to recognise that the club he was walking into was something of an unknown quantity. He referred to changing some of his methods, such as taping his mouth up a little bit more, and perhaps this may be upgraded to improving his famously flawed people skills. Evans is firmly aware that he isn’t most fans’ first choice – or however many choices you wish to make - and he needs to earn some respect rather than storming in with a six-pack and a ‘Steve Evans is here’ t-shirt. Hopefully that attitude was left with his sombrero in Rotherham.

If Evans’ opening press conference was the expected home win, so the improved performance from his team in Wednesday night’s 1-1 draw at Fulham was also something of a given. If you can’t show a little more fighting spirit when there’s a new boss to impress, Leeds United is not for you, because that opportunity will certainly present itself more frequently than anyone should rightfully expect. Still, the dogged insistence that Fulham would not be allowed to play as they wanted was admirable at Craven Cottage. Leeds looked dangerous in the final third and the shots on goal statistics were also greatly improved, if maybe the killer instinct was not. But Leeds put in their most complete 90 minutes display of the season, and didn’t endure a single period where they gave Fulham a footing in the game; signs of encouragement tempered perhaps by the tame concession of yet another goal against the run of play, a succession of woeful set pieces and the simple fact that Leeds didn’t win the game against an out-of-form team.

Meanwhile, another bit of light relief for Leeds fans this week was the intervention of the Leeds Fans United group. This was in helping to reverse the hopelessly mis-judged decision by the Leeds United President to cap away tickets for Leeds fans to 2,000, in a supposed protest at the club’s treatment by the Football League and Sky Sports, which mis-fired spectacularly.

The President’s decision was not so much ill-advised, as bearing the hallmarks of a toddler’s tantrum bereft of any advice at all. The facts that came to light following news of the President’s impending ban, showed that the away ticket decision was made in full knowledge of it, and therefore compounded the erratic and puerile nature of an apparent swipe that missed its target by some considerable distance.

That Leeds Fans United – a body at this stage not elected to represent Leeds United fans but merely gathering funds for a tilt at part-ownership – could achieve both direct access to and a coherent audience with the Leeds United President at a time when the good ship Leeds United was far from sailing in calm waters, certainly made an impact. The statement issued jointly by the Club and Leeds Fans United read with calmness and clarity, and offered an assurance that a toxic scenario had been dealt with swiftly, with little fuss and, most significantly, for the greater good of Leeds United and its fans.

It was a strong statement of what fan-ownership of a small percentage of the Club could accomplish; sanity, respectfulness and trust, and a goal that is perhaps more achievable given the President’s impending ban and his unprecedented and very public concession to an unelected fans’ group. As a demonstration of exactly how fan ownership can work, it was a shrewd and stunning move.

Now Leeds United move on to Bolton Wanderers on Saturday where three points against the bottom club must be their goal; and with another 4,000-strong army of fans rejuvenated by relative improvement on the pitch but charged also with a renewed spirit that the Club must prevail in the face of those who attempt to manage or mis-manage it.

A week of internet humiliation from football fans around the country sort of has that galvanising effect, and as the circular farce continues to be played out in the living room, the hope is that the characters change, the doorbell stops ringing, and more importantly, one day we stop opening the door.

By
Jon contributes sports content for Leeds Living, he is an established sports and lifestyle writer for various organisations, and is a twice published author.