AHEAD of this weekend reaching a 40-game landmark that evaded all his predecessors as Leeds United head coach under Massimo Cellino, Garry Monk says eradicating the “fear” and “apprehension” he initially sensed among the players has been key to the club’s transformation.
Leeds, after five seasons of mid-table mediocrity, have emerged as a genuine promotion contender this time around.
The Elland Road club have occupied a play-off place for the past three and a half months and there is a growing belief among the club’s supporters that May could bring a return to the Premier League.
Monk, appointed last June, has brought about this change and – as Cellino’s 12-month FA ban for breaking transfer regulations was suspended last night, pending the outcome of an appeal – he admits to being happy with the progress made so far on his watch.
“I didn’t come here with preconceptions about what had been going on,” said the 37-year-old ahead of tomorrow’s trip to Ipswich Town. “Of course, I understood what had been going on. I understood the situation the club was in and how it was perceived.
“But I am not one of those who pre-judges things. I like to go in myself, assess things myself and get some perception from what I feel. Then I can make changes or do whatever I need to do.
“I felt that I could help and put things in place. It was a challenge I looked forward to and still look forward to.
“You can see how it affects people here and with the fans I would say (it affects) their lives. They support the club with their lives and that is a big responsibility to have.
“But you should look at it as a challenge, not fear it. That is something we have changed drastically. At the start of the season, I felt fear from the players and apprehension from the players. We changed that.”
That Monk became Cellino’s longest-serving head coach in midweek by taking charge of his 39th game, exceeding Steve Evans’s reign, says everything about the often chaotic goings-on at Elland Road since the Italian’s arrival in 2014.
Until yesterday’s announcement by the FA that the Italian’s ban had been stayed until an appeal is heard, Cellino had been due to step away from the club and sever all ties by the weekend. It would have been his second enforced absence inside three years.
Now, though, Cellino will remain at the helm, albeit alongside joint owner Andrea Radrizzani.
Not so long ago, Cellino’s continued presence may have been cause for regret to whoever was in charge of the team, but the Italian has been less inclined to micro-manage the club this season and the benefits have been clear for all to see.
Monk, in contrast to many of his predecessors, has been left free to do what he was brought in to do, revitalise the on-field fortunes of an ailing club.
“I have enjoyed it from day one,” said Monk. “I have talked many times about the club, the history of it, the size of it and the challenge, but also about the recent history as well.
“Recently there has been a lot of suffering and not so much enjoyment. I wanted to take that challenge and put a smile back on our fans’ faces and a smile back on the players’ faces.
“I wanted to bring back more positivity and, ultimately, have a way of playing that everyone could enjoy.
“Of course, there is pressure and lots to think about, but I have said from day one that I want people to enjoy this.
“We are not where this group can get too, but they have made massive strides. The growth is clear to see.
“The club feels more united now. Everyone feels a bit closer together.
“I still think we have more to do and more to give, but we have been moving in the right direction. That is important for any club, but especially for this club considering its recent history.”
Monk, like Cellino, is awaiting the outcome of disciplinary proceedings. His, though, concern the fall-out from the stormy derby defeat at Huddersfield Town earlier this month that ended with Monk and David Wagner clashing on the touchline to spark a melee involving both sets of players.
The Leeds chief is facing a charge of improper conduct and the possibility of a second touchline ban of the season.
An FA commission is set to hear evidence from both clubs and the two head coaches, with Wagner facing two charges of improper conduct.
“I am waiting to set a date,” said Monk. “I need to speak to them (the FA) and I think Huddersfield will need to speak to them as well. We are just waiting for those two things to come together.”
More pressing for Monk is continuing the upward trend of his first nine months at the helm when United head to Portman Road tomorrow in the Championship.
“We are prepared for what we are going to face,” he added. “Mick McCarthy is fantastic, he is a very good and experienced manager who I have huge respect for.”