HEAD COACH Garry Monk’s task tonight is to ensure Leeds United owner Massimo Cellino being hit with an 18-month ban by the Football Association does not derail his side’s burgeoning Championship promotion bid.
The Elland Road club head to Brighton & Hove Albion sitting fourth in the table, their highest standing in almost six years.
A first victory at the Amex Stadium would nudge United a place higher and to within four points of the Seagulls in the second automatic promotion berth.
That is the good news. Less palatable was yesterday’s confirmation that Cellino is facing a lengthy ban for breaking the FA’s agent regulations in the £11m sale of Ross McCormack to Fulham in 2014.
Ahead of arguably their toughest assignment of the season so far, the timing of United being back in the headlines for all the wrong reasons could hardly have been much worse.
Leeds’s owner plans to appeal but if the FA’s punishment – which includes a £250,000 fine for both him and the club – stands then the Italian must walk away from Elland Road on February 1 next year.
He must also attend and complete an education programme covering “the duties and responsibilities of an owner and director of an English club”.
Amid all the distracting talk of appeals and bans, Monk’s focus is solely on tonight’s trip to the south coast and a chance to make a real statement of intent.
“We have done exceptionally well, but we need to be better,” said Monk, who was part of the Swansea side that won promotion from the Championship in 2011. “I am not taking anything away from the group, but I know what it is to be successful and to have a team who can reach a higher standard.
“In this period, from Christmas and into the new year, every game becomes harder.
“People start to focus a bit more on where they are (in the league).
“When you are winning games and doing well you are looked at differently. You are maybe given a bit more respect so teams work harder against you to try and stop you. We have to be ready for that.”
Cellino’s ban from being a director or shadow director is the latest in several off-field controversies featuring the Italian since he took charge at Elland Road two and a half years ago.
He has previously served a Football League ban after being found guilty of tax evasion in his home country, while a hiring and firing policy that saw Monk become his sixth managerial appointment last summer has merely added to the chaotic feel to goings-on at the club.
Cellino had denied breaching FA rules by agreeing to pay an unlicensed adviser to McCormack £185,000 as part of the transfer, but an independent commission, who met for two days at Wembley in September, found the Italian guilty. Leeds, as a club, had previously pleaded guilty.
An announcement of the decision was delayed amid legal wrangling over whether it could prejudice a possible appeal by Cellino. The written reasons behind the commission’s decision have not been made public.
This latest controversy may yet prove to be the last of Cellino’s reign with Italian businessman Andrea Radrizzani revealing last week he was in advanced talks to buy a 50 per cent stake in Leeds.
If the plans come to fruition, a full takeover would then follow next summer.
Just what impact this uncertainty at the top of the club will have during a January transfer window that is likely to be crucial for all the promotion-chasing pack remains to be seen but Monk believes his squad needs to be strengthened if United are to remain in the hunt for a Premier League return.
“If we don’t make improvements we will end up standing still,” he said. “For me, it is not about where we are in the league or promotion. Everyone else can worry about that.
“There are certain aspects of our game which aren’t at the level we need. When you come into the period where games become more important and things become a bit clearer in terms of where and what you are fighting for, the games intensify and the focus intensifies.
“You have to be honest. Massive credit to the players for how far they have come in a short space of time, but they know as well as I do that the message of improvement is most important. It is not for the sake of saying it. It is what is going to be needed.”
Pontus Jansson is one of the players Monk wants to tie down. The defender joined on loan from Torino in August and has been a revelation.
His permanent addition – the loan deal is believed to include a clause that the Swede can join for £3.5m in January – is seen as pivotal if Leeds are not to waste their current promising position.
Jansson, for his part, is desperate to stay and lead the promotion charge. “That’s how we have to think,” he said when asked if a top-two finish was a realistic goal. “We believe in ourselves now.
“When I came here my goal was to take Leeds to the Premier League. I said it on my first day. People laughed at me at the beginning, especially in Sweden. But now there is a belief.”
Last six games: Brighton & Hove Albion WWWDWD Leeds United WWLWLW.
Referee: P Tierney (Lancashire);.
Last time: Brighton & Hove Albion 4 Leeds United 0; February 29, 2016; Championship.