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the square ball week: interference

the square ball week: interference


The BBC’s Adam Pope pressed Darko Milanic with quite an odd line of questioning in the minutes after the Reading game on Wednesday night.

He was asking about how come Stephen Warnock had been dropped, when he has been one of the best performers this season. Milanic said first that, with a game coming up on Saturday, he has to make sure there enough fresh players.

“It was done because of fitness?” asked Pontifex, “Rather than…?”

“No, no, no,” said Darko. “I wanted this game to have stability there with another player, and Cooper did it well.”

There. Nothing wrong with any of that. Dropping one of the form players to play a centre-half out of position was a strange move, and the question had to be asked, especially as we try to work out what our new head coach is all about.

But Darko Milanic had two good reasons for doing it: to keep freshness for Saturday, and to have some solidity in that position. You might not agree with the reasoning or its result, but normally in football as long as you can see the reasoning behind a decision, you can accept it.

So that wasn’t the odd line of questioning, because all of that would be relatively normal at any football club. But Popey wasn’t done yet.

“And the important thing here for Leeds fans,” he continued, “They want to know, this is your decision Darko, you’re making the decisions for the team, yes?”


“Absolutely, because – ”


“Yes. Because we know that the president likes to have an opinion, and some fans think he interferes too much, but this is your team, your choice?”

“That is my team.”

Darko actually repeated that for emphasis, but his point was made. Well, kinda. Making his point and getting anybody to believe it are two different things.

Ah, I dunno. Who among us knows? How can we know? The evidence is stacking up that Massimo Cellino – the president of which the Pope spoke – hates Stephen Warnock. The evidence shows that he hates paying Warnock’s high wages; that he put Warnock on the same transfer list as Mathieu Smith, Noel Hunt and (apparently) Jason Pearce; that he phoned Hockaday from the stands to have Warnock subbed off in the first half of the Watford game, but Hockaday and Lewis a temporary attack of backbone and demurred; that while he was in the away end at Brentford, lacking a hotline to Milanic, Cellino settled instead for slagging Warnock off to anyone who wasn’t too starstruck to listen.

It’s evidence of sorts, cobbled together from a mixture of rumour and observable experience – I’d love to hear a different explanation for Warnock’s telephone/sub-hands celebration when he scored against Bolton. But there it all is, and there Stephen Warnock is, in the best form of his Leeds career, sat on the bench. Maybe Darko Milanic just took one look at him and training and hated him, too; or maybe not.

Then there’s poor old Andy Couzens, who mentioned in passing on Twitter the morning after the Reading game that “Not all as it seems behind the scenes and that’s not good.”

That’s something you hear a lot about Elland Road these days, although it’s generally from some disgruntled ex-employee – of which there are plenty, nowadays. Andy Couzens hardly falls into that category, although ex-employee is true, even if enough people didn’t get that – and didn’t cotton on to Andy’s profile photo of himself in a Leeds shirt against Stretford – to make me feel old.

The early nineties were a bewildering time to be a young Leeds United fan. I knew the club as the subject of schoolyard jokes in the mid-eighties – “You’re so bad, you should get a game for Leeds” – but Howard Wilkinson, as he bid all the old ghosts step aside for the new look United, also stirred them all up again as suddenly the world was interested again in a glorious Leeds. It was only Strachan, Batty, Speed and the rest that the press wanted to talk about; they wanted to talk about Bremner, Clarke, Gray, and suddenly Leeds were synonymous with success again.

Until 1993, when the only success was a game against Middlesbrough and a debut goal for Strandli, as well as one for Fairclough and even one for Batty. Apart from that and the Stuttgart trilogy, Leeds were awful, which was mighty confusing for a young lad just getting used to the idea that Leeds were brilliant.

That’s why the FA Youth Cup win at the end of 1992/93 was so important to the fans at the time, and why names like Andy Couzens – and Jamie Forrester, Kevin Sharp, Mark Tinkler, Noel Whelan – while they might not be household names or have a high profile now, when they do something or say something, some of us want to know about it.

Couzens’ comments were hardly revelatory, or particularly out of turn – Adam Pope and the YEP’s Phil Hay as good as confirmed what he was saying about Massimo Cellino’s “involvement” in team selection – but by introducing the specific new element of a gang of seven undroppable players, he did turn up the heat on the question of how involved Cellino really is.

Every team has a core of players that it is built around; that’s perfectly natural. But two things about what Couzens is suggesting at Leeds are far from natural. One, is that even with a core of players, those core players have to be droppable – every shirt has to be up for grabs. Otherwise what’s the point of the starter playing well in games, and the squad player playing well in training, if the status quo is the status quo. Or, to put it another way, what’s the point of Billy Sharp if Antenucci and Doukara will never get dropped?

Every chairman – or president – to a certain extent will have his say on team selection, too. Coaches get hauled in front of owners all the time, and owners and board can of course always have the ultimate say with a P45. It’s not shit-stirring, though, for Andy Couzens to point out that what he’s heard goes too far – because Andy Couzens knows what’s talking about.

“Knighton,” is what Andy Couzens told Keith Mincher went wrong with Carlisle United, in this interview about Couzens’ time there after joining from Leeds for £100,000 in 1997. The Knighton here is Michael, who famously did keepie ups on the pitch at Old Trafford to declare to the press that he’d bought the club, only for the deal to fall through.

He ended up buying Carlisle instead, and Couzens credits the flamboyant businessman (copyright, every tabloid ever) with setting the club back five years and ruining his career.

Mervyn Day had been manager when Couzens signed, but he was sacked, “for absolutely nothing.” The new manager was the club’s owner.

“John (Halpin) and David (Wilkes) were taking training,” says Couzens. “They’re lovely blokes but they were just puppets at the time. The Chairman may have claimed he was taking training, but he wasn’t – he only ever showed up when there was press about – he was desperate to be in the public eye. We all thought he was a complete idiot but some were wise enough to keep our mouths shut.”

That’s where the problems at Carlisle lay, in Couzens’ view – “That’s got to be one of the most talented squads that Carlisle has ever had, there’s no way it should have been relegated and no way it would if there had been leadership and guidance” – and he made sure Knighton knew what he thought about it.

To quote from Keith Mincher’s article:

“It may have been youthful exuberance, or my Premier League background, but I just felt it was unprofessional and that someone needed to make a stand.” Couzens stand came in a two and a half hour, face to face meeting with the errant owner. "I initially went in to ask why I’d been dropped. I’d been the sponsors man of the match the week before and then found myself on the bench. I didn’t like his answer, so I let rip.“‘I expected more of you, with your background.’ That’s what he said to me. This man who knew nothing about football, who was a national joke, was making me a scapegoat for the team’s lack of preparedness and poor performance. I knew what some fans were saying about me but the truth was different – yes, I was unfit, but I couldn’t not be. We were under-conditioned, under-trained and under-prepared and it was all down to him. That spell, where I lost form and confidence, led to me to keep picking up niggling injuries and pretty much ended my football career.”

That career ended with retirement due to injuries aged 25, which is perhaps why, when an old mate at Elland Road tells him that Cellino is picking the team at Leeds, alarm bells start ringing. It’s not quite such a jolly case of letting Massimo do what he wants with his rich man’s plaything when player’s careers are on the line.

Which is perhaps melodramatic, but it’s also not unrealistic. Cellino’s qualifications for having an input into team affairs are as follows: he has watched a lot of football in Italy, and he has enough money to buy a team. In Massimo Cellino, we have someone who is actually less qualified to manage Dave Hockaday; and he probably has more say than the Hock ever had.

Even aside from the gang of seven, we’ve been through three managers this season and certain things are becoming evident, and they’re not changing with the change of coach: mainly the diamond formation, which is virtually ever-present, despite the costs in terms of width and the fact that Jonathon Douglas is like its Kryptonite. It also looks like coaches must wear tracksuits, even if they start their first match in a suit, but it’s the diamond formation that’s of more concern right now.

If the president is dictating the formation, and the president is dictating the first seven names on the teamsheet, then what does the head coach do, apart from name the other four players? I hope for his sake Darko doesn’t have to do this with Cellino in the room. “I think Austin in this game.” A raised Italian eyebrow. “Er, or perhaps Norris?” A furrowed brow. “Tonge, he train well this week, Tonge I think.” A heavy sigh. “But Sloth, is very good new signing.”

“Good decision, Darko. Have another drink with me.”

Well, that’s the other thing he does apart from name the other four players. He claims they’re all his own decisions and then takes the flak – and the sack – if it all goes wrong. “This idiot,” Massimo can tell someone when he corners them in Fibre later, “He takes my good decisions, and makes them look bad.”

Unless he’s talking about Neil Redfearn. Redders, somehow, had the magic touch of being able to take Cellino’s good decisions, and make them look good. Assuming any or all of this is true, of course – it could just be that, when given the same complete freedom as Hockaday and Milanic to implement his own ideas, Redders just did a better job of it, and that’s all.

Nobody thought to ask, but then, nobody thinks to say anything or put their head over the parapet until they’ve gone. Apart from, I guess, Stephen Warnock with his on-pitch telephone; and Andy Couzens, reading a two-and-a-half hour riot act to Michael Knighton in an attempt to save a season, a club, and a career, from one man’s bizarre ego trip.

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