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the square ball week: shots fired

the square ball week: shots fired

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I called it. I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but I want to say that if it does, I called it. It was June 24th.

“It’s only a matter of time,” I wrote on the TSB forum, “Until Martin Allen pitches up with us, isn’t it?”

We were five days into the Hockaday era then, and still poring over his Wikipedia page and trawling Forest Green Rovers forums to try and work out what we were being given here, and why it seemed like such a jerk. And the presence of Martin ‘Mad Dog’ Allen on Hockaday’s CV – Mad Dog and The Hock worked together three times, at the MK Franchise, Leicester and Cheltenham – raised a smile. Oh yes, Mad Dog. That scamp.

Then the alarm bells started ringing. Scamp as he was and scamp as he is, I’ve never been convinced by Martin Allen’s judgement; is asking for a ‘whistling teacher’ on the Notts County official website a good start to a managerial job? I suppose it was a step up from asking for somewhere to kip: “I don’t like these posh hotels. I don’t want nothing flash. If you know anyone, it’s for me and my dog Monty who is a very good boy … If anyone can help, please contact the club.”

That request came at the end of one of the madder but actually most touching open letters I have read in these cynical times; a thank you from Martin to the staff, players and fans who had helped him in his first week as manager.

“Kate stayed here going through all my paperwork and organising me until 8.45 on Monday night. Kate is the girl who works in the office. She took my white shirt home and ironed it and brought it back in to work for me to wear last night. She’s top girl!

“The bus drivers are cool and calm and drive the bus smoothly and calmly. They are top lads!”

— and so on. It’s actually quite sweet when you get down to it. But ultimately, when you get down to it, the sweet side of Allen’s mad dog behaviour doesn’t quite cancel out the strange side: jumping naked into rivers; lasting only four games at Leicester after seeming to scupper their own transfer dealings; the points where his affected cluelessness in front of the media veers towards schtick. Nor does it cancel out the way he seems to struggle to keep a job, or do a job much above League Two.

Martin Allen might be a very good manager; he has won League Two manager of the year in his time. But at Leicester City, his biggest job by some distance, he lasted just 96 days, most of those in the close season: he’s a risk.

And this is how he described himself when asking for a place to sleep, preferably on the south side of Nottingham: “A dosser who will keep himself to himself, who works long hours. Very polite and well mannered, friendly, funny, kind, caring, occasionally mad.” Which is also a risk. Because that’s the kind of profile to make Massimo Cellino slap his thigh and exclaim: ‘It’s like looking in the mirror!’

Which pretty much seemed to be the logic around hiring Hockaday in the first place – “He’s a great guy!” – so why not? Hock II: The Hock’s Boss.

Like I said, I called this last June. And I’m not saying it will happen. Certain tabloids seem to have thrown Leeds in as an afterthought to stories linking Allen to Portsmouth, almost as if they want to make him look in demand; or they just want to make us look in denial. Leeds United fans still think they support a big club? We’ll spend the summer linking them with non-league managers, that’ll teach ’em to know their place.

Or maybe those tabloid hacks just see what I see: that this isn’t unlikely enough to rule out. I’m not saying it will happen… but it could. And that’s enough. That’s the point. This time last year we were eagerly awaiting the World Cup so we could take a look at Colombian striker Victor Ibarbo, who was surely going to follow Massimo Cellino from Cagliari to Elland Road. In the end he actually went on loan to Roma, who paid €2.5m for the pleasure of picking him for a season, with the option of paying €12.5m more to keep him for good. We got Dave Hockaday and Edgar Cani. We are where we are; we’re in a world of Mad Dogs, looking for a sane man.

Or are we? We don’t actually have to look very far. We have our sane man right now, and the sane thing to do would be to keep a tight hold of him and let him keep doing his sane thing.

There are fair questions about Neil Redfearn’s coaching record. His record in non-league management isn’t impressive, and neither were his early caretaker spells at Leeds; while his work at Thorp Arch was praised, it took until this season for his role as coach to click. Even then, he seems to have found life difficult without Steve Thompson, and some of his team sheets have been baffling.

But wasn’t in his question is that whatever it he has been doing, it has been working. And there is literally no price you can put on that. It doesn’t have to be logical, and so you’d think someone like Massimo Cellino would get it; you don’t know if the watermelon is ripe until you open it, but if it’s the ripest watermelon you’ve opened in years, you don’t throw it in the bin, do you?

We can pretend that appointing a manager is an exact analysed science, or we can agree with Massimo that it works when it works, and you don’t have to explain it. Sometimes there is that beautiful unexplainable click of coach + players + club and things begin to move forward regardless of reputation or skill. And when it starts happening, you don’t leap in the way and stop it; you do all you can to keep it.

The same logic applies across the team and the coach. How could Leeds United, this summer, hope to replace players as good as Sam Byram, Lewis Cook, Alex Mowatt and Charlie Taylor? And how could we hope to replace a manager doing a job as good as Neil Redfearn?

The answer is, we don’t. There shouldn’t be a decision to make about Redders. The decision should come if, after being given proper backing and control, results on the pitch don’t reflect his agreed target with the club. That target this season was to keep Leeds United in the Championship. If the target next season is promotion, and if Redders doesn’t contribute to his side of making that happen, then that’s the moment when a decision has to be made.

That’s not what’s going to happen, though. If speculation about Martin Allen wasn’t a surprise, neither was it about Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink; exactly the kind of glamorous, nostalgic appointment that would make plenty of fans forget all about Redders. The only surprise was Cellino’s response. ‘Why would I want a League Two coach less experienced than Neil Redfearn?’ he asked Adam Pope, and yes, if you’re imagining that old familiar pouty frown forming across Jimmy’s face at this point, you’re probably right. That, you’d imagine, would settle that. On to the next one!

Whatever Cellino’s next move is with the watermelons, it’s destined to backfire on him; and us. Things are going too well to be dismissed out of hand, but when Massimo and Redders sit down after the Rotherham game for their ‘sensible conversation about a way forward’ etc etc, dismissing Redfearn is exactly what everyone expects to happen.

Unless, of course, we get a repeat of the McDermott situation last year; despite being often in the same room, Cellino will claim it’s been impossible to meet with Redfearn, and then Redfearn will be declared ‘missing’, and he’ll end up being sacked (or suspended) by Andrea the furniture salesman. ‘The fans didn’t know it,’ Cellino will say, ‘Neil was very strange guy.’ Very hard to sack, in other words.

And then Martin Allen will come in and the circus will begin again. Or not; like I say, I called it, but I’m not saying it will happen. But this week the first shots have been fired as the season grinds to a halt. This week we’ve heard the opening salvos in the summer’s gunfight; get ready for the incomprehensible sackings, the bizarre appointments, the takeover speculation, the transfers in and out, the arguments, the tantrums, the court disputes. Full-time on Saturday isn’t the end of something, it’s the start of something; or it’s the continuation of something that feels like it will never end.

“Let’s hope we’re five points clear in next March or whenever it is,” Martin Allen once told an interviewer. “When does the season finish?” May, he was told. “May? Urgh. It won’t for us, god bless you,” he said. You going to be done before then? asked the interviewer. Martin fixed him with a stare and nodded his head in silence. Then: “What are you laughing at?”

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