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leeds united 1 – 5 bolton: would the owner of…

leeds united 1 – 5 bolton: would the owner of…

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It’d be a shame if Mathieu Smith’s goal got lost forever among everything else. It’s so difficult at the moment, when discussing Leeds United, to discuss football, that the rare good bits should be celebrated, if only a little bit.

It was a great cross from Ross McCormack, and Smith did brilliantly to get away from his markers and score with a stooping header. He gets down well for a big man, and his header was unsaveable. Well played.

For a few moments afterwards the occasion actually became enjoyable; the Bolton fans were goaded for the way their team had chucked away a 5–0 win; Leeds, given a sudden boost, swarmed forward and if Smith had stayed cooler he could have had another; the stray ball that had been kept in the Kop was retrieved from under someone’s seat and to many great cheers a volleyball game carried on. It was almost like fun, so it was inevitable that the referee would blow for full time right then, just when we were enjoying it. And with the whistle, the cheers and laughter immediately turned to boos.

Brian McDermott well and truly screwed this pooch; the performance was unforgivable, the result an absolute scandal. But I’m willing to forgive, and not just because he seems like a nice guy.

It feels like the same things keep happening to our club, whoever is in charge, and that the identity of the man in the dugout and the decisions he makes has become irrelevant to the course of events at LUFC. He will sign players with good reputations. They will let him down. The defenders will change from a reasonably solid unit to an absolute shambles as easily as the wind changes direction. The team will grind out some reasonable results and then be embarrassed by a cricket score. Gallows humour will take over in the stands and the manager will end up sacked.

Simon Grayson, Neil Warnock and now Brian McDermott; Leeds United is becoming a job where you can’t do right for doing wrong. McDermott’s decisions are in the spotlight after this game, because a 1–5 at home demonstrates pretty comprehensively that he got those decisions wrong. I can’t say I wouldn’t have made the same decisions as Brian did, though. In fact I wrote as much after the QPR game, so I definitely can’t deny it; after a tough month of away fixtures ended with low-scoring draws against two of the most defensively efficient teams in the division, I saw Bolton at home as a chance to see what the same players could do when playing with an Elland Road mindset, up against a defence that has conceded nearly two goals per game away from home.

Even before a Pearce-less defence forgot everything it ever knew, first about the offside trap and then about defending from free kicks, the signs were all there that this was a Leeds team set up to let Brian McDermott down. Jimmy Kebe did actually show a couple flashes of decency: he turned defence into attack by running the length of the pitch with the ball at one point; at another he got a good tackle in at right-back and sent Lee Peltier away. That time, though, when Peltier began to look for an overlap from his winger, Kebe was still miles off the play, sauntering up the pitch, and in fact the lack of interplay between right back and right winger was a problem all game. Peltier guaranteed his half-time substitution by carefully lining up a ten yard pass to Kebe, that missed Kebe by about fifteen yards and nestled in the front row of the West Stand; with Peltier gone, Byram began a masterclass in playing right midfield, which left Kebe without a clue what to do.

The loud cheers that greeted Kebe’s substitution – only just louder than the ones for Cameron Stewart’s – might not have pleased McDermott, but he can’t be pleased by what he’s got from the pair so far. On paper, they were good signings. Stewart has a touch of the Max Gradel about him: highly rated, but spent too long as a reserve or injured; like Matt Smith, if he doesn’t work out as a first teamer, he should do fine as a squad player. One winger isn’t enough, and Kebe was probably the best available on the market, and a player McDermott could count on. I’m not convinced that the way they’ve let McDermott down so far should be held against the manager – it’s the players’ responsibility to be better than this.

But then we don’t see what Brian McDermott sees in training. And I was asking myself in the second half – what does Brian McDermott see in training? When Stephen Warnock fired the uncontrollable 80mph pass at McCormack that let Bolton break away for their fourth goal, was he doing something that he does on the training pitch every day, or at Thorp Arch are his passes clean and crisp? When Kebe tries to beat a player by just waving his foot over the ball as if trying the world’s meekest stepover, is that his usual standard in training, or is he skinning markers and firing precision crosses from the byline Monday to Friday like clockwork? Does he only notice Austin in training matches when he appears from nowhere to give away a needless free kick for a minor trip, or does he dominate the practice fields for miles around, from Boston Spa to Wetherby?

Are they this bad in training and McDermott carries on regardless? Or is he picking players that are brilliant at Thorp Arch, but become clueless as soon as they reach a real pitch?

“Guilty chickens,” is what Massimo Cellino called the players, and he was right; although at this stage Cellino remains just an interested observer. “The players pissed me off because they didn’t fight,” he continued. “I blame them, not Brian – I’d like to support him.” That last line carries a massive unsaid ‘but’: ‘I’d like to support him, but if I have to sack him, you can blame Tom Lees, not me.’

At the moment, of course, Cellino can’t sack him anyway, and it isn’t even clear who can. The constant requests at Elland Road during games now for fans to move their cars – “Would the owner of…” – strike an ironic note at the moment, given that we can’t be sure who the owner of our club is from one day to the next. “Would the owner of Leeds United, please go to Brian McDermott’s office, and try to break the news gently…”

Finding someone to sack McDermott would only be half the job anyway. Finding someone willing to take over as manager would be the much harder task, and carries with it much more risk than sticking with a manager with a good record who is having a hard time. What kind of basket case manager is going to come for an interview at our basket case club, meet our basket case owners and prospective owners and locked-out bidders (and all their kids), watch a video of our most recent basket case defeat and decide that this looks like a great job? And who counter-signs the contract anyway?

And I’m not certain that Brian McDermott is the problem. This game was a facsimile of the 6–1 against Watford, which itself had a lot in common with the 5–0 against Blackpool. Brian isn’t the common denominator in those performances; Leeds United Football Club is, and I’m beginning to think it’s not him, it’s us. Something about this club isn’t rewarding even good decisions; and it’s punishing beyond all sense the bad ones. Something about this club keeps returning us to this same point, season after season; we’ll never get beaten as bad as that again, we think, until we do.

The one thing that we haven’t tried, to break this cycle, is sticking with the manager. Neil Warnock is the exception that proves that rule, but then if we’d stuck with Simon Grayson the whole Warnock thing would never have happened anyway. But as an experiment, supporting McDermott through the summer and seeing what he comes up with when/if the takeover dust settles might be one worth trying.

I wrote back in December about the tense fragility of our good performances this season; that the 5–3–2 that had been working looked vulnerable to the slightest tinkering. I wrote it because McDermott wasn’t hiding the changes he was hoping to make, that he wanted wingers and to play 4–4–2, and because I could see that such upheaval would lead to trouble, at least short term. We’d have to suck up a few defeats while McDermott started again with a new playing style, and we’d have to believe that he would get it right in the end.

I hadn’t counted on it being this bad, though; I hadn’t expected things to get Rochdale, Wednesday, Bolton bad. And I hadn’t expected to have that belief shaken this much. McDermott has some decisions to make, and I think if Kebe and Stewart start against Reading on Tuesday night then he will have made the wrong ones. But, if they are dropped, that leaves Brian only today and tomorrow to find a successful way of playing, with his job coming to the point where if nobody in the boardroom can sack him, the fans will find a way. It’s a tough spot for Brian, and a tough decision to make; and there’s every chance that, because this is Leeds United, even the right path will go wrong anyway.

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