Who Would *Want* To Manage Leeds United Now?
In thirteenth place in the Championship table, Leeds United finished the 2015/16 season thirty points from the division’s automatic promotion places, fifteen points from the play-off places and nineteen above the relegation places. Were it any other club, with any other owner, this most tepid of seasons would have ended more or less without comment. Leeds United, however, are an ongoing soap opera of a football club and the departure of Steve Evans this week, seven months into his contract and with the body of last season still warm, provides further ammunition to those who believe that the now apparently perpetual cycle of new managers churning through the club has reached a level at which improving upon mediocrity is now next to impossible for anybody who arrives there.
Evans himself, of course, is one of professional football’s least likeable and least sympathetic individuals, and sympathy for this particular devil is never going to be high, but that doesn’t mean that the recent record of Leeds United in the managerial transfer market doesn’t warrant further inspection. Massimo Cellino arrived at the club in the first place in February 2014 with plenty of warnings regarding his prior behaviour already in place. Over the course of twenty-two years at Cagliari, he had burned his way through a jaw-dropping thirty-six managers, and this statistic, though widely quoted, has seldom been considered within its full context.
Not only did Cellino maintain this level of coach disposal in the first place, but he did so over the course of more than two decades. In other words, not only is this instability – along with an apparent inability to file his tax returns properly – a signature move that is undeniable, but history also teaches us that once at a club, Cellino has a tendency to stay for as long as humanly possible. He’s made noises about selling up in the past, but his own previous behaviour indicates that dislodging him from the club is unlikely to be easy.
In less than two and half years, Evans’ departure from the club is the seventh time that a Leeds United manager has departed under the watchful gaze of Massimo Cellino, following Brian McDermott, Dave Hockaday, Neil Redfearn (twice), Darko Milanic and Uwe Rosler. But Leeds United is a club of substance, with a grand history and the obvious potential to be back in the Premier League, under the correct tutelage. But when we pause to consider the lack of job security on offer, who in their right mind would want to go and manage there?
Football people, of course, crowd around vacant managership roles like moths around a light bulb, so it’s unsurprising that names are already being linked with the vacant position, but the club has already been rebuffed in more than once – the Bristol Rovers manager Darrell Clarke, for example, signed a contract extension at the end of last week which seemed to end any speculation that he would be making that trip north – and what is noticeable about the list of potential replacements being touted around in the press at the moment is that the majority of them are out of work rather than employed by other clubs.
This, again, is unsurprising. After all, if you’re in work as a manager at the moment – and the already fragile levels of job security in this most febrile of occupations have reached breaking point over the course of the last five years or so – why on earth would you gamble that on a football club with a proven track record of instability when it comes to how long you may stay in your new job. The egos at work in professional football are sun-obscuringly enormous, of course, and the club’s history, the size of Elland Road, the potential to build something special is such that people will be drawn towards it, no matter how chaotic it is behind the scenes. But much as Groucho Marx didn’t wish to join a club that would have him as a member, why should any supporter trust the judgement of a manager who believes that being appointed the manager of Leeds United under the ownership of Massimo Cellino would be a good thing?
It’s more or less impossible to have any sympathy for Steve Evans, of course, but that is a bed that he has most definitely made for himself. In a broader sense, however, the behaviour of Cellino towards managers continues to remain almost completely counter-intuitive. The revolving door policy shown at its most extreme extent at Leeds but increasingly prevalent across the board in English football has its occasional successes, of which Watford is the most obvious example, but across the rest of the board its a policy that betrays a lack of self-confidence on the part of those who make the appointments, more than anything else. The mathematics of football haven’t changed. The same number of teams will win trophies. The same number will be promoted and relegated each year. All that can ever change is the identity of those who are lucky and those who are unlucky come the end of each season.
The new manager will bring a new philosophy. He may want a complete clear-out and rebuilding of a club’s backroom staff. He may have players that he wants to sign in order to see these pans through and will most likely have players that he considers to be surplus to requirements. The previous manager may require his contract to be paid up or for compensation to be paid. The new manager may well want more money than he predecessor was paid. If we give it a great deal of consideration, the replacement of the manager of a football club is a disruptive process, a matter of last resort when all else has failed in terms of revitalising a club’s fortunes. As things stand at present, this action seems to be taken as though managers that can save a club’s day are ten a penny. And the biggest single advantage that they have to the person doing the sacking is that they take the pressure off that person, for a while, at least.
Perhaps what is needed is a fresh perspective on the replacing of the manager of a football club. Perhaps, rather than considering the replacement of a manager as a failure on the part of the manager himself, we should be looking more closely at the owners. If the stream of managers to have passed through Elland Road over the last two and a half years are the string of failures that their replacement after a few months would suggest, that doesn’t say a great deal for the decision-making abilities of the person appointing them in the first place. Massimo Cellino has now completed two full seasons – his ban notwithstanding – at Leeds United without having got the club within sniffing distance of so much as the play-off places in the Football League Championship.
In this regard, though, Leeds United is just an extreme example of a phenomenon that has become commonplace across the whole of English football. Yet we seldom see club owners admitting that they’ve “taken the club as far as I can” or “leaving by mutual consent” after a poor run of form. We can dislike Steve Evans as much as we like, and there is plenty of justification for doing so. At Leeds United, however, it is most probable that he was a symptom of the club’s seemingly perpetual sense of malaise rather than its cause.