Leeds United’s 2015/16 season ended on Saturday, with a whimper, as they lost 1-0 to Watford in the Fifth Round of the FA Cup, a team in ninth place in the Premier League, but who stood below Leeds United in the Championship table when Massimo Cellino bought the Club in 2014. There were no surprises in the performance; Leeds controlled possession but made few inroads. They could claim to have been unlucky in conceding a Scott Wootton own goal, but in essence, if you possess nothing that will create opportunities at the other end, it doesn’t really matter how you concede.
Now, we must watch on as seemingly almost every other club in English professional football gears up for the run-in, with prizes, riches and tangible progression at stake; the business end of the season, which once again Leeds United have no business with.
It is very hard to predict what Massimo Cellino sees when he assesses English football and Leeds United’s place in it, but however entrenched he is in the everyday business of the Club and the endless legal issues that surround him, he must occasionally look up, see Leeds United’s season ending in February and consider that there is more to a football club’s life than simply existing.
Leeds United fans have been accused for many years of being obsessed with the past, clinging forlornly to a rich history of, perhaps sporadic success, but always honour, spirit and a fierce, competitive nature. Now Leeds fans have forgotten what ‘being competitive’ is and are helplessly and relentlessly looking to the future, without any foundation to suggest optimism should be an accompaniment. Forever “building for next season”, but forever starting again.
So what of the future? Will Massimo Cellino be in it? Will Steve Evans be in it? He clearly thinks so. Thick-skinned and impervious to the last, Evans talks boldly of his plans for next season, like a panicky and delirious partner in denial, making wedding and baby plans while their other half tearfully explains that they have no future together. Clearly Cellino views little with long term clarity, but you sense that Steve Evans will soon reach the end of his usefulness, and someone else will be charged with the next project, whatever that is.
That is not to say that Evans has not succeeded in his job; keeping relegation at arms’ length with meagre resources. Furthermore he has done so while reading diligently from Cellino’s hymnbook. It is not impossible that Cellino still looks at Evans as the ‘perfect head coach’; someone who is unlikely to gain more popularity than himself, and who, for all his bluster, will do almost anything for a few more weeks in the most prominent hotseat he is ever likely to encounter.
For most Leeds fans, however, the thought of Steve Evans moulding the football club’s future is not a palatable one, particularly as his faithful portrayal of ‘his own man’ doesn’t mask the reality that he has little influence on anything other than the post-match press conference. This is Cellino’s baby for as long as he wants it to be. Last summer Cellino decided to seek help from a rational, professional and experienced source, and then kept quiet while the most productive summer re-building programme in recent years was undertaken. It didn’t go quite far enough, and then it was ripped to shreds. Those fans thinking ‘maybe he will change’ this time around, are the most rose-tinted and glass half-full football fans you are ever likely to meet. Some people are designed that way and it is hard to criticise their quest for sanguine tomorrows, except to pinpoint the flawed logic that it is based not on flimsy foundation, but on no single, credible shred of evidence.
If Leeds United are to be “….in the promotion race next season. End of” in the words of Steve Evans, fundamental operational changes need to be made to the business, which over two years into the job – ignoring for now over 20 years at Cagliari also – Cellino has shown little interest in.
Leeds United needs a scouting network. Cellino has tried his hand at appointing a head of recruitment, but Martyn Glover moved on, as so many people seem to do behind-the-scenes at Leeds United. It is a barely hidden notion that Cellino himself has a strong influence on player recruitment, despite the fact that every other club in professional football, those we spoke about earlier that still have prizes to chase, bases their recruitment on a wide and proven infrastructure of intelligence and experience.
Leeds United needs to address its wage structure. We have to assume that Cellino was right to address a top heavy wage bill when he joined the Club, and this is not something you can do quickly. A lot of the ‘dead wood’ that has been cleared has been done so with much fan approval, but unfortunately we are now left with new dead wood. Furthermore, the Club now has a wage bill of £13m, well below the average for this division. Even if Cellino wanted to, it will be difficult to now raise that again to reach competitive levels while keeping current players on moderate contracts happy. It is a balancing act that all clubs face, of course, but one that is central to retaining players like Charlie Taylor and Lewis Cook, while sending a message out to new recruits that this is a club that means business and “you should join us”. One look at the wage bill very quickly delivers the true message.
Leeds United needs deep thinkers and leadership. Currently the club resembles two blokes renting a beautiful and ornate period stone building of former grandeur and using it as a Discount Warehouse to peddle white goods of dubious origin. There is no soul, vision, longevity or humanity in anything the organisation does. That building looks outwardly the same, if a little tired around the edges, it reeks of history and potential, but the roller shutter door and the temporary canvas sign, and the joyless intimidation that stares out from within, is a cheap and tawdry façade masking what was once great.
Leeds United needs its supporters. The most pronounced asset the football club has is its fans. History is littered with rousing occasions where Leeds United fans have come to the party and made the party; their positive force is undeniable. Losing the support of fans through events on the pitch is one thing, and indeed is part and parcel of football; openly opposing and provoking the fans is quite another, and in terms of running a football club like Leeds United with any intentions to progress, is the very last thing you want to do. Pie tax and relentless Category A tickets do not harvest goodwill and collective, all-embracing spirit. Fair prices and a considerate attitude to the lifeblood of the Club – in the words of Steve Evans – would go a long way to building some trust, but as it is we are faced with seven remaining dead rubbers at Elland Road this season, and not one reason why fans should part with their cash to watch them. Indeed, they are effectively being discouraged from doing so. There is no sign that this will change for next season when the season ticket base will dwindle yet further. Can anybody at Leeds United see this?
Leeds United needs to look at itself. Fans can gaze at every ground that the Club visits and every opposing team that rolls up in the West Stand car park at Elland Road and count a dozen things they do better than Leeds United, without even thinking hard. This is not me being pessimistic for the sake of it, this is me looking at the football landscape in February 2016.
Take a gaze at Leeds United; mid-table in the Championship for the fifth season running, with crowds barely reaching 20,000, nothing to play for until August, a threadbare squad in need of its annual overhaul and a wafer thin organisation from top to bottom, and tell me that is satisfactory. Trouble is, I don’t know if anybody at Leeds United has what it takes to see this.