The weeks have been kind to Leeds United in the absence of their disqualified owner but he became the centre of attention again yesterday as the club lost their way in Brighton.
A statement from Cellino – a long-winded attempt to clarify his position – appeared unexpectedly before kick-off at The Amex Stadium, his first public comments in over a month, and United’s squad were unable to drown out the politics as they have so successfully in the second half of this season.
Leeds were the Championship’s form team, or one of them, before yesterday’s match but a 2-0 defeat to Brighton was comprehensive and overwhelming, telling a story of a team who ran themselves hard away at Middlesbrough over the weekend and have run themselves tirelessly for nine games running.
The club’s head coach, Neil Redfearn, has magicked a workable plan and reliable set-up from the resources available to him at Leeds but his dependence on a small and regular core of players seemed to catch up with them on the south coast.
Brighton scored midway through the first half, United’s first concession in over three hours, and they had enough of the match to be out of sight before the interval arrived.
Defeat appeared to be coming from the moment Sam Baldock found the net and Inigo Calderon confirmed it on 65 minutes but it was a result that Leeds could just about afford.
Cellino chose yesterday to speak openly because in his words “qualification for the 2016 Championship is now achieved”; which is to say that United won’t be relegated.
His statement was convoluted and broken, confirming in his own flamboyant fashion that he will not retake his seat as president of Leeds until after his disqualification by the Football League has been reviewed by the Football Association, whenever that may be.
The FA refused to comment on a timescale yesterday and Cellino gave no indication either, suggesting that he is at the start of a fairly lengthy process.
In the meantime, this season is 13 games from completion and there are matters to address at Elland Road, not least the question of whether Neil Redfearn will remain as head coach for a second year.
As auditions go, Redfearn has just about won the crowd. Leeds’ spectacular bounce up the Championship, helped by five wins from six games before last night, should be United’s cue to take up the option to retain him next season but the club’s main decision-maker is now absent indefinitely, or at least technically.
The club are yet to speak to Redfearn about his future.
It is true, nonetheless, that their squad have thrived without Cellino in town, coincidentally or otherwise, and yesterday’s statement seemed to imply that he would carry on his scrap with the Football League without dragging Leeds any further into it.
United’s team is anything but broken but Redfearn was forced to apply a couple of fixes to his line-up at the Amex, replacing the injured Sam Byram with Casper Sloth and recalling Liam Cooper in place of the suspended Giuseppe Bellusci.
Cooper took the captain’s armband amid no protest from Sol Bamba, an accomplished stand-in for the past three games, but the transition was not as seamless as it needed to be. Brighton played with the nervous energy of a team bothered by relegation and Leeds tried in vain to pick them off as they had Middlesbrough on Saturday.
For the most part, it was Brighton’s evening and a night when Leeds found their rhythm only sporadically.
Rudy Austin’s raking hit in the 10th minute produced the game’s first moment, driven close enough to David Stockdale’s left-hand post to draw a full-length dive from the Brighton goalkeeper, but Joao Teixeira’s chance five minutes later was an effort that Marco Silvestri would not have saved.
Teixeira slipped between Bamba and Cooper to meet a hanging cross from Craig Mackail-Smith, catching the ball with a glancing header which missed Silvestri’s goal by the slightest margin, but when a clearer chance fell to Baldock on 25 minutes, the striker could not miss.
Mackail-Smith created the disarray in Silvestri’s box, sprinting away from Charlie Taylor on the right wing and forcing Redfearn’s defence to retreat suddenly, and his low delivery was perfectly positioned for Baldock to side-foot it into the net.
Mackail-Smith would have doubled Brighton’s lead four minutes later had Silvestri not dug his side out of trouble by getting his studs to the striker’s low finish.
Calderon had the ball in the net soon after but an offside flag kept Leeds in the match and Stockdale barely featured.
Brighton to their credit looked more classy than their league position, a nightmare to cope with on the counter-attack, and Redfearn was not helped by the loss of Steve Morison to injury early in the second half. Morison has led the line almost without cease since his recall in early January.
Edgar Cani took to the field, his second appearance since joining from Catania, but the pressure on Silvestri was relentless. The Italian has already denied Teixeira twice when his parry from Beram Kayal’s fierce hit rebounded against the face of Calderon and bounced over the line.
There was luck in that goal but not in the result, even after late opportunities from Bamba, Cani and Souleymane Doukara, and Silvestri limited the damage by tipping Dale Stephen’s header onto the crossbar in the 89th minute.
Teixeira then struck the inside of a post in injury-time. A fourth straight win for the first time since December 2009 was a sizeable step too far, in spite of Leeds’ form.
A philosophical Redfearn said afterwards: “It was a fair result. Brighton were very good and we played nothing like we can.
“We looked a little jaded and we looked like we’ve come off the back of a long run. We lacked menace and we made bad decisions.
“Brighton were well worth the points.
“But I can’t be too down because we’ve been on a fantastic run and we were the form team in the division. When you lose a game you can sometimes magnify things.
“The lads have been fantastic and the first time you come unstuck you’ve got to dust yourselves and get ready for Watford on Saturday.”
Asked about Cellino’s pre-match statement, Redfearn said: “It wasn’t a distraction.
“The players were aware of it because it was an announcement made by the club but that’s where it ends.”