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leeds united 1 – 2 wolverhampton wanderers: backsliding

leeds united 1 – 2 wolverhampton wanderers: backsliding


This is something more than uncharted territory for Leeds United. This is territory where we’re having to build the tools to chart it as we go along.

Over time we’ve become more used to measuring managerial terms in months, rather than years; and United blazed that trail first in the 1970s, when Brian Clough and Jock Stein’s work was only worth measuring in days.

With Darko Milanic, Massimo Cellino has changed the scale again. Now we can measure a manager in hours: 764 hours, to be precise, according to LUFC Data on Twitter. It’s new, at least.

There are various other ways you could measure Milanic’s time at Leeds. Games, six; wins, none; draws and losses, three each.

Words spoken would probably be measurable too. The curt demeanour of Darko was a welcome change from the garrilous self-regard of Dave Hockaday, but the one-word answers in his brief press conferences made it hard to get to know him, or what he was about, or what he was doing, or what he was trying to do, or what he was allowed to do. Darko Milanic, we barely knew ye.

I tried, in the week before the Wolves game, to think of one thing Darko Milanic had done as head coach of Leeds United that was good. He’ll be remembered, if he’s remembered at all, as the man who gave Adryan Tavares his long-awaited debut, and who made us wait an extra hour after initially deciding to do it but apparently losing his nerve. Other than that his influence on the team has extended to changing the personnel and positions within the diamond on a game-by-game basis; faffing around with the full-back positions, apparently just to annoy Stephen Warnock; and bringing Steve Morison back. And that’s it.

There’s a paradox here, because it’s hard to understand how someone making such neglible changes to the side can have had such a negative impact on it, but apparently simply by taking over from Neil Redfearn Milanic has sent our team into a tailspin. When the news of his sacking was delivered to Milanic – not by Cellino, naturally, and apparently not before the press had been told – he could have been forgiven for asking, “But what did I do?” And whichever lackey brought his P45 might have answered, “That was the problem!”

What Darko did do, in his last game in charge, was turn one of the brightest United displays in a while into one of the dimmest. The midfield that started was the midfield that I think we all hope to see, at least for as long as we’re sticking diamond-shaped: Bianchi as the anchor, Tavares at it’s attacking point behind the front two, Mowatt and Cook providing control and invention left and right.

It worked, too. As on his debut against Rotherham, Tavares belied the notion that he’s not ready for the Championship, fighting as hard as anyone to win the ball back; when he has it, his flicks and skills are for more than just show. He turns and he passes, and he puts Leeds on the front foot. Cook always seems to want to play at a higher tempo than everybody else, zipping around the pitch, demanding the ball, playing it long and short in every direction.

Mowatt can be forgiven for fluffing a golden chance to make it 2–0 in exchange for the quality of his pass to Morison, who set up Antenucci with a difficult chance on the edge of the box – yet another Leeds goal from the outer fringes of the penalty area – that put Leeds ahead. Mowatt wasn’t the only one with chances: Morison himself, and Bianchi, could all have added to a bigger advantage at half-time than the 1–0 Leeds had.

Maybe the narrowness of that lead is what did for Darko. In the second half Leeds didn’t look like they had a clue what they were doing. Kenny Jackett had made some keen changes at half-time to allow his players more of the ball, and with Wolves dominating possession, Leeds didn’t seem to know if they should defend their lead or push for a second. Nothing Milanic did made it any clearer.

If Darko had taken off Antenucci and brought on Liam Cooper, that would have been fairly clear cut: we defend this slim lead for our lives. Instead Mowatt was replaced by Luke Murphy, whose bias towards attack or defence in midfield still hasn’t become clear more than a year after joining the club; and then Tavares was replaced by Casper Sloth, the Danish Luke Murphy.

The confusion was general. Some players would pause uncertainly in midfield, trying to slow the game down, until they were dispossessed; others would run full pelt into attack, only to look back and find that nobody had run with them. After finally looking like an effective striker in the first half, Steve Morison looked as bemused as anyone to be playing wide right in the second, especially when it came to occupying defensive positions, and pretty much gave up; while filling up the centre of the pitch with identical neat-and-tidy genre midfielders meant they only got in each other’s way, rather than denied Wolves the right to play.

Wolves, meanwhile, did exactly what Leeds haven’t seemed capable of doing at any point this season – they got into the penalty, drove at the byline, pinged the ball into danger areas and took chances from close range when they came their way. Antenucci and Doukara are making a specialism of their twenty-yard daisy-cutters, but I wouldn’t give to see one of them score a goal like Wolves’ first, lashing a loose ball home from right in front of the goalkeeper.

What the crowd thought of all this was clear midway through the second half when Leeds won a corner, and most of the team lingered near the centre circle rather than get into the box. “Come on then!” yelled the Kop, waving beckoning hands to the players to come and attack the bloody goal; the players looked from the Kop to the bench, and some came forward and some didn’t, but all were caught by the same indecision. Who held the true authority here, and who should they listen to? Darko Milanic, or the Gelderd End?

We all know who the true authority is these days at Elland Road, and Cellino says now that he decided to sack Milanic after the game at Norwich on Tuesday night. He said pretty much the same thing about Hockaday and the Watford game, only more publicly; this time, while he kept his mouth shut about his latest whim, Cellino instead sat in the stand behind Milanic with his heir apparent. All that knowledge now makes it a bit easier to understand why Milanic might have struggled with the big decisions on Saturday, as the four burning eyes of the President and the ghost of Head Coaches To Come warmly prickled the back of his neck.

“I made a mistake with this guy,” says Cellino, again. Which is easy to say when you’re not the one who left a good job at a club that loved you to travel halfway across Europe because, Cellino said, “He’s good-looking, what can I tell you? … I like him. He is a very cool guy.” Cellino used the “good looking” line about Hockaday, too, although the main reason he had for appointing the Hock was that he “liked him.”

That’s all been turned on its head now for Redfearn, who rather than being brought in from far-off obscurity because Cellino likes him, is already here and already known, and is getting the job because the fans like him. That’s not to belittle Redfearn’s credentials for the job, but his credentials are no different today than they were 34 days ago when he didn’t get it.

What has changed in the last 34 days is that Redders has become even more popular with the fans in absentia, and this has given Cellino a solution to his mistake with Milanic, and a futureproof solution to any mistake he might be making with Neil Redfearn. Neil Redfearn is not Massimo Cellino’s choice as Head Coach; he made that clear when he appointed Darko Milanic. Neil Redfearn is our choice, the fans’ choice, and if it doesn’t work out, I don’t doubt that we’ll be hearing plenty about that from Cellino.

A lot of the talk about Redfearn’s appointment is focusing on what may happen if it doesn’t work out, with everyone from Steve Evans to Johnny Giles urging him to think very carefully about taking this job, and to pack his contract with clauses that keep his Academy position open for him. That last idea doesn’t seem practical – the Academy can’t run with an acting boss pending Redders’ failure, it needs full-time, long-term commitment as much as the first team does – and the first is basic good advice, as the list of people who wouldn’t touch the Leeds job with a bargepole in the present circumstances grows with each passing coach.

But it’s also based on an assumption of failure, when Redfearn is well placed to succeed. Milanic didn’t know the players, and couldn’t decide between Cook or Tavares, Berardi or Byram; Redfearn knows them all, and they know where they stand with him. Team selection might be less mysterious now, even when it’s strange. Milanic also didn’t know the Championship, while teams like Rotherham and Wolves ought to hold no surprises for Redfearn.

Milanic also didn’t know how to lead, or rather, he didn’t know how to lead with Massimo Cellino as his president, Nicola Salerno as his sporting director, and Neil Redfearn as his key to the knowledge he needed, tantalisingly out of reach.

“For me it’s difficult to comment on something I didn’t hear and something that is new for me. It is better if other people in the club comment on this,” Milanic said lamely after the allegations against Bellusci were made at Carrow Road. “Peppe is now with the president and sport director in the club, and I cannot comment about the situation,” he added, even more lamely, on Thursday.

If not for his coaching ability, then at least for his presence in times of crisis, Redfearn would have been a better fit for Leeds at Norwich. The need for Cellino to relinquish at least some control at United is becoming more urgent with each “mistake,” and whether he likes it or not the President may find that Neil Redfearn takes some of that control for himself, even if it’s only in small ways, like speaking clearly and decisively to the press. I can more easily imagine Redders dealing with the Bellusci situation in a definite way, like Neil Adams did, than I can Milanic suddenly developing a backbone and sweeping away doubt.

I can also imagine Cellino then unhappily hauling Redders into his office should he have pre-empted or contradicted his own ‘Kick his arse!’ statement, but I suspect those are the new rules of engagement at Elland Road. Rather than an unknown lame-duck yes-man fighting against the clock to keep his job long enough to actually do something, we can look forward to Leeds having a popular, effective and strong-willed fans’ choice, fighting against the President’s controlling interference to keep his job long enough to actually do something. That might not be something to look forward to, after all, but it is what it is.

The problem Neil Redfearn will face, and every coach at Leeds United will face, is that the job is now a war. It’s not a war against the opposition or against Leeds’ haters everywhere; it’s a war against the conditions, a war against the stress, and a war against the guy who will put his arm around you one day, tell the world you’re the coolest and a great guy; and then send Nicola Salerno in the next day, to tell you you should have been sacked a week ago and now it’s time to go.

Neil Redfearn won’t win that war with Massimo Cellino – no coach will. But his job, if he takes it on, will be to win as many battles as he possibly can, and move this club forward far enough so that the next time we step back we don’t step so far.