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middlesbrough 0 – 0 leeds united: unearned errors

middlesbrough 0 – 0 leeds united: unearned errors

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The charge sheet is getting longer against Brian McDermott; the criticisms of his management are mounting up. The first mark against him? That he got sacked once already.

Nothing else can create doubt about your ability to do a job like losing it. Even if you weren’t supposed to lose it in the first place, and even after you get it back, it can’t ever be the same as it was.

At the start of the season, there was almost no question that Brian McDermott would still be here at the end of it. Barring some next-level disaster, McDermott could guide Leeds United through 2013/14 with an eye already on 2014/15; a rare luxury for a modern manager.

GFH Capital seemed to go out of their way to take the pressure off. Promotion was a long-term ambition, like buying back Elland Road; success right away was less important than “sustainability” and steady progress. Going up wasn’t the target for this season, although it would be nice; there was simply too much to do, though, to get the club into a state fit for promotion so quickly.

That was, in many ways, a relief. No matter how many times the advantages of sticking with and supporting a manager are pointed out, football clubs continue to fire at will; and is was nice to think that Leeds United, one of the most baskety of basket case clubs, were going to be the ones to buck that trend. Brian McDermott would still be here and building when wage-drainers like Diouf, Green, Varney and Brown were off the books; Haigh, Nooruddin and Patel had taken the bullets from the gun and locked the gun in the cupboard.

It sounded ideal, especially for Brian, who after he was sacked by Reading said of his next job, “Everything needs to be right – finances need to be right; relationship with the board and the owner. So a lot of things need to be taken into consideration and it has to be a right match.” He said it again at Leeds. “The manager and the owner are the most important relationship at a club,” he said. “It has got to be really tight.”

The second time he said it was, of course, a few days after GFH had given the keys to the gun cupboard to Massimo Cellino, and United’s owner-elect had given Brian both barrels. At that moment, and ever since, it wasn’t at all clear who the owner was that he should be having that tight relationship with.

The confusion didn’t begin on that night. Like Eric Cantona and Ken Bates before him, Cellino toyed with the idea of Sheffield Wednesday first, before turning his attention to Leeds United and taking his first tour of Thorp Arch in October. McDermott, for whom the relationship with the owners is “the most important” at a club, may have wondered then who the guy in the shades was, and why they weren’t introduced to each other until late January.

This might all seem quite far from the Riverside, but one of the main complaints about the rubbish served up on Saturday was that this is McDermott’s team now; this is the team he wanted, so why aren’t they playing any better? Middlesbrough are rubbish – why could we barely get a shot on target?

Well, in the first place Middlesbrough sure are rubbish; six games without scoring tells you that. But they’ve only conceded three in that time, and four of those games finished 0–0; given our reliance on Ross McCormack for pretty much everything in attack this season, it was always going to be difficult to break Boro down. Aitor Karanka has got them set up George Graham-style to never concede; working out how to score is lower down his list. A nil-nil with precious little football was a predictable non-disaster.

In the second place, this is not Brian McDermott’s team. He may have signed the bulk of the players, and spent good money on at least one of them – but Brian McDermott does not expect this team to be a successful one at Leeds United. He isn’t even pretending to. “When we become a good side, a side capable a challenging in this division,” he said after the match, “then maybe we could have nicked that game 1–0 but we are not quite where we want to be as a team yet.”

That might sound self-defeatist, or like he’s passing the buck, given that he’s nearly been here a year. But remember which relationship Brian says is most important at a football club, and remember what he was promised at the start of the season. And look at how the squad has been developed. Murphy cost a lot, and has largely been worth it; beyond him, though, the arrivals have either been absolute necessities to fill a gap in the squad – Wootton to give Lees and Pearce a break, for example; or opportunist arrivals when other players moved off the wage bill – like Jack Butland finally relieving the injured Paddy Kenny now Varney and Green are gone.

Kenny has been relieved in some style, too; rarely has a debut performance been greeted with such giddy excitement. Butland was worth his man of the match award for the confident command of his area behind an unfamiliar defence, but don’t forget that Middlesbrough haven’t scored for about a million hours anyway. And don’t forget to give credit where it’s due, too, because he was probably the manager’s choice, just as much as the frustrating – a polite way of saying completely rubbish – Kebe was.

I have to chuck that ‘probably’ in there, because there are no guarantees at the moment that Brian McDermott is in charge of player recruitment; this is an area Cellino has said he will be taking a keen interest in, and has already tried to with Andrea Tabanelli. Kebe and Stewart were heralded by David Haigh as proof that the manager was being backed during the January transfer window; but Haigh also used them as proof that the takeover was going to be a swift and smooth process, so their arrival was somewhat overblown by owners growing desperate for good publicity; and the scrutiny of their performances has reflected that fanfare, and reflected badly – on McDermott.

McDermott had actually wanted two others as well, but as we’ve learned since several truths have come out about GFH’s ownership, he was having to fend off suggestions from Bahrain that he buy ‘some Brazilians’, regardless of talent or cost or work permit; he was also trying to build a squad for next season while a man with a nickname in Italian of ‘manager-eater’ toured his training ground.

Fans are complaining that there is no obvious thinking on display in McDermott’s Leeds United, but it’s actually quite easy to read. Young players with room to improve have been brought in on low wages because, even if they don’t work out, they’ll still serve as respectable squad members for the next few seasons: Smith, Wootton, Stewart, Ariyibi. Old players with good reputations have been brought in on short term contracts to provide some experience and options during the transition: Hunt, Zaliukas, Kebe. Once this season is over, and the contracts of Diouf, Pugh, Brown, Green, Varney, Drury and Ashdown all end – and perhaps Tonge, Norris and White too, if they can be moved on – that’s roughly £4m of freed up cash that is all McDermott’s, and that’s when the real team building can start.

If he gets that far. Given what McDermott said about the next job he would take after Reading – “Everything needs to be right – finances need to be right; relationship with the board and the owner” – he must have thought he’d found people he could trust when he came to Leeds United and started on a three year plan. Well, perhaps that was a bigger error of judgement than signing Hunt and Kebe, but at least Brian has stuck to his side of the bargain. I’d wager that the squad is pretty much where McDermott expected it to be right now; steady just below the play-offs, ready for Warnock’s high earners to depart and make way for Brian’s first team.

It must be hard to stick to a plan like that when you’ve already been sacked once, though; and when you know, despite the fan-friendly soundbites and the free guitars, that the incoming owner doesn’t give a care about your prior planning, because he rates Gianluca Festa higher than he rates you. Cellino might laugh it all off as a misunderstanding, but there’s a reason why his very first act as presumed owner of Leeds United was to sack McDermott.

It’s also hard to stick to a plan when you’ve already been sacked once, because of the way that sacking reframes the terms of the discussion about your job. Cellino has turned McDermott’s sacking from an ‘if’ to a ‘when’, and whereas fans were mostly willing to stick with McDermott after Rochdale and Wednesday because of their faith in him for the long term, Cellino’s actions have rendered such things as ‘faith’ and ‘the long term’ redundant.

There’s a sad inevitability to it all. Cellino will take over; results won’t improve; McDermott will be sacked; we’ll never see the team he could have built if the owners had kept to their side of the bargain; and we’ll wonder why on earth Brian didn’t sign Butland months ago, while Varney and Green flatter to deceive at their new clubs.

And as the managerial merry-go-round begins with an ex-Middlesbrough defender with next to nil managerial experience, perhaps one day we’ll look back at the day a guy who had got Reading promoted in his second full season got us to a nil-nil at Middlesbrough in his first, and wonder if we might have made a mistake.

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