by Chris Dunlavy
WANT to know what working for Massimo Cellino does? Take a look at the rapidly diminishing form of Steve Evans.
Since taking charge at madhouse Elland Road in October, the famously corpulent Scot has shed a whopping three stone.
Once so big he needed a Leeds badge stitched to his old Rotherham tracksuit, the 53-year-old now looks like a bag of hammers in his oversized garb. Evans is a man transformed – and the change isn’t just physical.
Evans has long been football’s arch villain, a touchline circus act booed and hissed like an out-of-shape Captain Hook.
Ammunition was plentiful. A criminal conviction for tax evasion, the lodging of false contracts at Boston, a dugout demeanour akin to Joe Peschi’s psychotic Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas.
Refs were abused. Opponents maligned. In his first season at Crawley, Evans was sent from the dug-out six times, racking up cumulative bans of 24 games.
Livid-faced, snarling, spitting expletives, Evans made Alex Ferguson’s hairdryer look like the cough of an ailing dormouse.
Victory and defeat were greeted with equal gracelessness.
Conquerors were either lucky, wealthy or both. Vanquished opponents should have been beaten by six. Like a blonde Billy Davies, he saw only enemies and shadowy vendettas.
But that was then. Beaten 1-0 by Burnley last weekend, Leeds had more shots, more possession, missed two sitters and saw a decent penalty shout waved away.
A decade ago, such injustice would have prompted Evans to detonate like Fat Man over Nagasaki. Now?
“Burnley are destined for the Premier League,” he said. “They’re full of good players, they’ve got a top manager and they’re a great team. Their unity to defend that goal was admirable from a coaching point of view. It’s a good club with good people and we wish them every success.”
No sniping, no back-handed compliments. He even praised the referee. Common courtesy it may be, but for Evans it represents remarkable restraint.
Clearly, the Glaswegian is not the next Mother Theresa. He’s done plenty over the years that can never be forgiven. But, if he is genuinely trying to change, shouldn’t that be applauded?
For all the oafishness and skulduggery, I’ve always suspected that Evans craved only respect as a coach. That his anger spewed from a gnawing suspicion that past mistakes may forever preclude a job worthy of his talent.
Handed the tiller at Leeds, former champions of England, that bitterness seems to have melted away like the timber on his waistline.
I just hope Evans is given the chance to continue his rehabilitation. On paper, it doesn’t look promising.
Since replacing Neil Redfearn in October, the Scot has won just 12 of his 32 matches. Cellino has wielded the axe for far less.
In reality, though, the team has a shape, coherence and resilience that is let down only by a glaring toothlessness beyond the manager’s control. Leeds are two strikers away from serious contention.
Evans hates accusations of being a ‘money manager’ and, in fairness, showed, by keeping Rotherham in the Championship, that there’s more to his coaching manual than a fat wallet.
But give the guy financial backing and he has proved – first at Crawley, then at Rotherham – that he will not waste it.
Over the last two years, Cellino has done just that. On the day he took charge in April 2014, Leeds were 15th in the Championship. Ten million pounds worth of transfers later, they are still there.
Should the Italian employ Fabio Cannavaro or one of the myriad other ludicrous names on his alleged hit-list, more cash will slide down the pan on lightweight Italian no-hopers. Another season of stasis – or worse – will ensue.
In Evans, Leeds have a manager who can spot a player, understands the division and already knows the weaknesses of his squad. He is also – slowly but surely – cleaning up his act. If only Cellino would follow his example.