brentford 2 – 0 leeds united: concentrateBack
On the eve of the season, there were only two things I was confident about for the year ahead. One, that Dave Hockaday wouldn’t last the season. Two, that Marco Silvestri would win player of the year.
The first one you could see coming a mile off, and saying ‘last the season’ was just a way of being polite. In the end it seemed like Cellino just liked prolonging the torture, especially when he made Hockaday take training the morning after the Bradford defeat. Think you’ve got a reprieve, Dave? Think again!
The second needed a bit more imagination, but with each passing game I become more and more confident that it’s a bet as safe as they come. In pre-season Massimo Cellino apparently described Silvestri as the best keeper Leeds have ever signed, and while all that says to me is that Cellino never saw Nigel Martyn, we have an ever growing list of reasons to be grateful that Silvestri is as good as he is.
As one of our earliest signings in the summer, back when the pace of life at Leeds was, for a change, relatively sedate, we had more time to spend with Silvestri’s YouTube showreel than for some of our other new players. In Marco’s case, showreel was exactly the right term. It was hard to tell which of his saves were genuinely great, and which were pulled off with some extra camera-conscious panache just to impress, but you had to concede that, showboat or not, this guy knows how to stop a shot.
The cut-glass cheekbones; the intense, colourless eyes; the (now gone) cornrows and the camouflage goalkeeper kit – the blue one is pure Mervyn Day – all mark Marco out as a new kind of keeper for Leeds, if his style of play wasn’t enough. But Silvestri’s is not a style that seems immediately made for Championship football, and there are times when the showing off has got him into trouble; as against Brentford, when a free kick was met with a flying parry, rather than being routinely caught. That gave Brentford a second chance to score; it also gave Silvestri a second chance to show off his pointblank skills, and although he again parried the ball into danger – towards the penalty spot, this time – Jason Pearce was present to hook the ball clear.
It wasn’t the flashiness that raised my expecations of Silvestri, though, so much as my lowered expectations of the rest of the team. Even when they’re making fingertap save after fingertip save, if you’re seeing a lot of your team’s goalkeeper, your team are probably having a bad game. And I expected Leeds to have a lot of bad games this season, especially when we started with the Hock.
There is little doubt that Silvestri was United’s best player against Brentford, even though he conceded two goals, and that was the pattern I pessimistically predicted pre-season; Silvestri would have a lot to do, and he would do everything he could, but he can’t do everything.
There was nothing Silvestri could do when Jota was given all the time he needed in the penalty area for the first goal, and nothing he could do when McCormack was allowed to run unchallenged from the halfway line and add a deflection to his shot, and such is the life of a brilliant goalkeeper: the goals against column will grow, even as the player of the season votes stack up.
If Silvestri was powerless to stop the defeat then so, to an extent, was Darko Milanic. That’s no reflection on him as a coach – we simply don’t know how good he is yet – and I’m not suggesting that Neil Redfearn should have got the head coach’s job when I say that Redders could have got a result at Brentford. But I am saying what I said after the Huddersfield game: that the good form of recent weeks came about because Redfearn knew everything about the players at his disposal and so could be confident in his decisions, and that whoever replaced him would be at an immediate disadvantage simply because they don’t have that depth of knowledge.
While Silvestri wins player of the year, Lewis Cook ought to win the young player’s award this season, but it won’t be thanks to games like this. Up against him was Jonathan Douglas, five years after leaving Leeds but still only 32, and with every intention of bossing United’s young and inexperienced midfield. Are Cook, Mowatt and Bianchi good players? Yes. Could they, with Austin cut off at the top tip of the diamond, get a grip on Douglas? No.
It’s partially the formation’s fault; as Brighton showed at Elland Road, if you always have a player in the middle of Leeds’ four, you start every midfield move with an advantage – and Douglas was always there. But it’s also down to the management of a young career. Cook in particular has yet to come up against such a dominant midfield opponent, and this was not a day to leave him out there to flounder; a judicious half-time substitution would not have been a criticism of his ability, more just a recognition of the circumstances. Circumstances that, I think, Neil Redfearn would have recognised.
Redders wasn’t there, though, despite Milanic’s unequivocal reply when he was asked if he’d be drawing on Redfearn’s advice. “Redfearn made a great job and yesterday I talk with him, and like I talk yesterday I talk next days with him. He knew the team very well. If I want to know something about a player or the team or the opponents, I talk with him.” Would Redders be joining him in the dugout? “Yes.”
By which Darko apparently meant, “No,” which is almost a bigger concern to me than the result on Saturday. Milanic is, especially compared to Hockaday or Cellino, a man of pleasantly few words; but we do need those few words to be the truth. Circumstances change and perhaps Redders really did need to be with the Under–18s on Saturday, but given that they’ve coped without him for the last month, it might have been handy to have him on the bench alongside the new guys, like they said he would be.
It’s odd to describe the appointment of a new coach as a setback, but that’s exactly what this is. That’s not criticism; just a fact. We’ve gone from a coach who knows the players inside out to a coach who needs to learn about them from scratch; from a coach who can bring the best from the squad based on close experience, to a coach who needs to be kept away from such thoughts as, “This Norris fella, why doesn’t he get a game? He must be good, right?”
Milanic needs that time, and we’ll just have to take the defeats on the chin while he takes it. He also needs that help from Redfearn to make the learning process as swift as possible. For the club as a whole, though, we need him to be the right appointment and we need Cellino – more than us – to back him, otherwise the whole merry-go-round will start again.
Whether the Griffin Park terraces is the right place for Cellino to be supporting Milanic from is a different matter. There’s obviously a story to be told in how come the club president was ejected from the Brentford seats and ended up with the Leeds fans behind the goal, but that’s sort of the problem with Cellino: he’s always the story. Leeds lost, but it doesn’t matter because Cellino bought a hot dog; Silvestri was brilliant, but it doesn’t matter because Cellino posed for selfies with the fans; Milanic got off to a difficult start, because it doesn’t matter because Cellino spent the game having his ego stroked.
Well, those things matter to me. Silvestri for player of the year, Redfearn back on the first team bench, and let’s hope Milanic can restore some wit to the team. We’re no longer drifting in the pleasant land of caretaking and delight; a new permanent coach is here, it’s back to being a tough old season again, and we need to concentrate on the job. The world, filled as it is with Shauns Harvey, Kens Bates and Judges Lapore, contains enough distractions as it is.