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watford 3 – 0 leeds united: motivated

watford 3 – 0 leeds united: motivated

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There’s nobody worse. Five defeats in a row. Three wins in twenty-two. Over the last eight games, according to LUFC Data, Leeds United have the worst form in all four divisions.

That should be that. It was Brian McDermott’s birthday yesterday, and it would be no surprise if his late birthday present this morning was a meeting in the president’s office and some free weekends between now and the summer.

What he got on his actual birthday was a pre-game visit to the dugout from Massimo Cellino, a place where Cellino has been itching to have influence since he tried to install Gianluca Festa there alongside McDermott for the Ipswich game. His next gift was to be let down by each and every one of his players against Watford, before finally tearing into them in the dressing room while fans on radio phone-ins and web forums demanded that he be sacked.

There can’t be any excuses anymore; not for Watford, not for the last eight games, not for the last twenty-two. Among the many mistakes McDermott has made in the last four months, it’s been to make it feel like nothing was anybody’s fault at Leeds; that the responsibility always lay off the pitch where the takeover and the unpaid wages was diluting the football side. It was probably at least partly true, too, but it looked like a failure to accept deserved blame.

Who does deserve the blame, though? “I’ve spoken to the players afterwards and told them look, I’m protecting you guys in the press,” he told Adam Pope on BBC Leeds after the game. “It’s important that I’ve always been that kind of manager. It’s difficult to protect a performance like that.” Pope added later he’d heard about what Brian had told his players after the game, and at half time; that the days of protecting them are over, that they’ll have to take the responsibility for their own performances from now on. The blame is being laid at its proper door, and its still not Brian’s.

It looks like more buck-passing, but Brian has a point. “It seems to be a never-ending cycle that we need to break,” McDermott said of Leeds after the 4–2 defeat to Reading. “What you’re going to find is you’ll get another manager and you might have the same thing, you’ll get another manager and you might have the same thing, that seems to be how it is. That’s what’s happened in the last eleven years. I’m determined, determined to stop this cycle of events that’s happened over the last eleven years.”

They were strong words, and words it would be hard for any Leeds fan looking at the last decade to disagree with, but that’s all they were: words. Too much talk and not enough action has been the complaint about McDermott, but to be fair to him, nobody else has been willing to talk, and so we can’t hear anything beyond the manager to account for the whirring cycle of Leeds’ tailspin.

If the days of the manager protecting the players are over, let’s have them truly be over. Bring out Jason Pearce and Tom Lees, and ask them why between them they couldn’t get a tackle in on Troy Deeney to stop Watford’s third goal. Get a microphone in front of Scott Wootton to find out what happened to everything he was taught at Old Trafford. Do an indepth interview with Stephen Warnock to get to the bottom of why a player who went to the last World Cup can’t control a simple pass in the Second Division. Bring out David Norris and El Hadji Diouf and ask them what they’ve done to deserve their wages this season.

Someone recently suggested removing McDermott to remove the ‘culture of defeat’ that has set in at Elland Road, but the idea that that culture arrived with Brian is false. He’s not covering his own back when he talks about an eleven year cycle at Leeds – he’s right. The trend for a decade has been downward. Promotion from League One and the attempt on the play-offs next season were spikes in the graph, but Leeds were bouncing back from the lowest league position in our history, and gravity was soon dragging us down again.

Gravity, and selling our winners. We didn’t only lose good players when Howson, Johnson, Gradel, Snodgrass and Becchio left, we lost players with the character required to win, and to behave like winners. Nobody expected Bradley Johnson to make the impact he has in the Premier League, but he’s done it because he is, in essence, not a loser.

There is a culture of defeat at Elland Road but it’s in the dressing room, not the manager’s office. Where McDermott has failed is in dismantling that culture. Noel Hunt should have been his Gordon Strachan, an inspiration to the others; Luke Murphy was captain at Crewe and should have stepped up to become a general in the Leeds midfield; only Matt Smith has shown any Bradley Johnsonesque signs of being able to lift himself above the mire.

Marius Zaliukas is a key example. He was a talisman for Hearts, a leader, and in his first three games he looked on his way to becoming the same at Leeds. But after three games that was pretty much gone. What happened? Did he forget how to play? Does he miss Edinburgh? Did he take one look at McDermott and think, Nah? Or did he look at Norris, Brown, Varney, Tonge, Diouf, all on good money, all contributing nothing, and find the will to win suddenly evaporating? Murphy is a young player and needed help to get up to this level in his first season. Who was there to guide him, who was the senior player to teach him how to play for Leeds United? Danny Pugh?

It’s Brian McDermott’s job to motivate the players. But apart from Ross McCormack, Luciano Becchio in the first half of last season, and Jason Pearce in the first half of this, and I can’t remember the last time I saw a player who looked truly motivated by representing Leeds United (I’m excusing Byram and Mowatt on the ground that youthful enthusiasm was motivation enough). Lack of motivation is not a McDermott thing; it goes back to the last days of Grayson, when the last few players that did give a damn about Leeds United Football Club had been sold or soon would be.

Looking to McDermott to motivate the players is one thing, but with some of them he might as well be trying to motivate a stone; some of them just aren’t interested in being motivated. The responsibility for team performances lies with the manager, but when the team performs like this, game after game, season after season, I’d start compiling a list of players that have been here considerably longer than Brian McDermott has, and who have contributed significantly less, and I’d get rid of them first.

Football doesn’t work like that, though. The manager gets sacked and the players carry on, and in the next game the same players who couldn’t control a ball between them are suddenly world beaters again; they score the goals, they get the cheers, and that proves it was all the manager’s fault after all.

Happy birthday. If he’d still felt like celebrating, there was one party in town last night, assuming that town was Bahrain. The first set of accounts to reflect Gulf Finance House’s ownership of the club were published yesterday, on the same day that GFH finally unburdened themselves of 75% of it to Cellino. They couldn’t have hoped for a neater exit, or a more lucrative one; eyebrows have been raised at the high price Cellino has handed over to GFH for a club that has few assets and masses of debt – most of it owing to GFH themselves. It’s nice work if you can get it, and nobody in Bahrain will be unduly bothered by a 3–0 defeat in Watford – they don’t have to put up with the customer complaints anymore.

If there’s one glimmer of hope for Brian, it’s that the identity of one of the customers has changed. Massimo Cellino has done as much as anyone to undermine McDermott, but alongside him in the dugout in the evening sunshine at Watford, Brian might have found an unlikely ally. Cellino comes from Cagliari with a fearsome reputation for sacking coaches – the “manager eater” dined out on one just this last Sunday – but when he was caught unawares on that recorded phone call, it was the players that were his target. Brian was “strange,” but the players were “shit.”

“If Brian wants to work with me, if he’s going to do the right thing, and I believe that he can, that he can run the team, why should I throw money from the window?” said Massimo. It’s his call now, and who stays and who goes at Leeds United largely comes down now to who he believes in more. Does he believe that the players have the motivation required to play for Leeds United? Does he believe that Brian McDermott has the motivation required to manage Leeds United?

Both McDermott and the players had all the motivation they needed last night to impress the new president, and we all know the result. When the axe starts to fall, where it falls will tell us what impression they made on Cellino.

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