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the square ball week: on the second day

the square ball week: on the second day


“I wish Andrea good luck,” said Massimo Cellino in his parting message to Leeds United. “I am sure he will continue what I have started.”

LOL. Cheers Massimo. We’ll all remember to thank Dave Hockaday for his part of the journey when we reach the Champions League, too.

For almost two days, we could laugh. And relax, and smile. And think about how different it was all going to become with Andrea Radrizzani as 100% owner of Leeds United.

“Probably we need to thank Cellino,” Radrizzani told Adam Pope of BBC Radio Leeds. “A little bit unconsciously and with a bit of superficiality, and not with a due diligence to cover the club, he found himself in the ocean, and he had to work hard to clean up, and bring the club in a better position.” In other words, Cellino got himself into trouble, and managed to get out without bringing about a total implosion. So thanks, we guess. “Now it’s not in a good position, but it’s in a better position, where it’s possible to build something.”

Which is pretty much the prevailing view of the fans. And if you could say one thing about Radrizzani’s first interviews after completing his takeover, it was that he did a good job of reflecting the prevailing views of the fans. Announcing Ronaldo Vieira’s four year contract at the same time as the takeover was a masterstroke in doing things the way they haven’t been done. The promise to buy back Elland Road is more than a promise, it’s an intent: “I prove in my life, when I say something, normally it happens. And this is already planned, we are already working, my team in the past few months has worked hard on different projects, and one of these is Elland Road, and it will happen within the summer.” That’s got a bit more about it than, “On Thursday I am going to the bank and I will buy our stadium,” especially as it isn’t being said by someone who sets off silent alarms whenever he walks into a branch of TSB.

So far, so genuinely good. Radrizzani’s air was of someone prepared for this moment of taking charge. “I continue to work, as I started to do already since January, or actually even last year when I started my discussion with Massimo Cellino to enter in the club,” he said. “So has been one year already of passion, emotion and hard work, so it will continue even more. And with the difference now, I can do with my own decision, and following my planning and strategy.”

The contract for Vieira was the evidence to back up the words, along with the executive appointments: former Real Madrid strategist Ivan Bravo already on the board as a consultant, Angus Kinnear moving from West Ham to replace Ben Mansford as chief executive, Victor Orta believed to be coming from Middlesbrough as sporting director. Again, compare it with the early days of Cellino, when the plug was pulled from the Thorp Arch pool, and Gianluca Festa, Brian McDermott, Benito Carbone, Dave Hockaday and Darko Milanic had all been and gone by the time it was empty.

Radrizzani was saying all the things Leeds fans wanted — needed — to hear, in the way we wanted — needed — to hear them. No bombast. No bold promises. No deadlines for promotion. As his promises of the Premier League came to nothing, Cellino fell back upon superstition: he wouldn’t plan for the Premier League, he decided, because you couldn’t: instead he would wish for it, because that’s the only way to make something in football come true. And now, Radrizzani, talking about his “final goal” of being a top-eight Premier League club: “How to achieve is a lot of hard work, planning, management, and investment. So it will take years.” Sound. Talk sensibly like this, show us how you’re going to take us with you, and we might have a chance of going somewhere.

The accord with the fans extended to Radrizzani’s opinions of events on the pitch. “I’m proud of my players, I think they did a good season,” he said. “Obviously we have regret for how the season finished, but they did their best, and we need to start from this as a base and improve. And I’m sure with more games and more experience the same players can deliver a better job, and then it is our commitment to try to improve this squad.”

Few fans would disagree with that assessment. To still be so interested so late in the season, after years — including this one — when expectations have been so low, was a fine achievement, but expectations in football don’t take long to switch from low to high. With the play-offs, Wembley and the Premier League so tantalising close, for it to have all slip away was awful disappointing.

What remained after the disappointment, though, wasn’t only charitable; it was celebratory. There hasn’t been too much appetite to delve into the reasons for United’s late season depression, perhaps for fear that what we might find would burst the happy bubble blowing around the fans, the club, and Garry Monk. Player unrest had been part of his downfall at Swansea; but those rumours about Pontus Jansson must have been overblown. The inflexibility of his tactics seemed to hurt us, but was just down to lack of personnel, and maybe a touch of managerial inexperience, right? Some of his signings, like Grimes and Barrow, were disappointing. But you can’t win them all?

“I’m sure with more games and more experience the same players can deliver a better job,” said Radrizzani, and in recent weeks the same has been applied to the manager. Even his imperfections were better than the best Hockaday or Evans had to offer, and he earned his chance to be the continuity between Cellino’s anxious era, and the purple new world of Radrizzani and The New Power Executive. As ‘Sign Garry Monk!’ echoed around Leeds Arena during local hero Josh Warrington’s post-season fight, Monk’s thin lips added a faint smile to his straight face. But he was just hiding his mutual devotion, right?

Perhaps not. The evidence from Swansea, and from his demeanour, is that there is a determined careerist streak in Monk, which, given the circumstances of managerial jobs in general and managerial jobs at Leeds in particular, is understandable. From close up, Leeds fans might have questions about specific aspects of how Monk goes about his work. From a distance, though, the world of football sees a manager who entered Elland Road at its most laughing stockest, coped with the basket case in charge, took a squad predicted for the bottom half through a tough start to the edge of the Premier League, and kept his dignity throughout. Leeds United haven’t looked so good for years, and Garry Monk’s stock hasn’t been higher since he was being tipped for the England job. A job, I reckon, Garry Monk reckons he’ll one day deserve.

The world of football is open to Garry Monk this summer. Bearing in mind that last summer Sam Allardyce was planning for the European Championships and the World Cup, and has now left football management altogether, Monk is entitled to take care over his next move. In fact, he’d be barmy not to. And it just might be that too much is moving at Leeds United to make it the best proposition.

Monk has had a lot of heat for coming so close to the play-offs and missing them by so little, but he’s entitled to deflect some of that criticism towards the boardroom. “Ideally, from my situation, we need to improve the planning,” he said at the end of January. “We don’t want to be doing the business on the last day.” But then, at the start of January, the club had essentially split in two, and while Cellino and Radrizzani were harmonious, there was a gulf of inattention between them, into which the second half of the season fell.

“With Massimo, in this period he let me work on the future,” Radrizzani told Phil Hay of the YEP, during the post-takeover glow. “I wasn’t really involved too much in the day to day football. I could work to prepare for my time and my time is here.” With Radrizzani working on the future, and Cellino preparing to become part of the past — or of Brescia’s future — nobody was paying much attention to the present. Garry Monk may feel that a lack of support in the transfer window, with his club’s two owners’ thoughts elsewhere, cost him and the club a true shot at promotion. And if he feels that way, he may also wonder why he’s being left to take the flack.

I don’t doubt he would have questions about the structure Radrizzani has been putting in place around him, too. Ivan Bravo, on the board, is essentially a permanent (if part-time) fixture. It would be interesting to know the length of contract being offered to Victor Orta to become sporting director. It would be even more interesting to compare it to the length of contract being offered to Garry Monk. Monk may know, and he may have sensed that a wind is beginning to blow through Elland Road, gusts that may favour some individuals more than others.

“I think in my opinion it’s fair to have time to know each other because I’m starting now,” said Radrizzani, who you may recall also said he’s been working on the club’s future for the past twelve months. “I never had a chance to know him.” With that in mind, he seems to have decided, the best course of action would be to trigger Monk’s one year contract extension, and then get to know him better.

The problem from Garry Monk’s point of view is that essentially puts him back where he was a year ago, with a year to prove himself against the odds. And it won’t only be the owner to whom he has to prove himself: Bravo and Orta would no doubt have opinions, and longer tenures to back them up. 2016/17 was Monk’s audition, to show himself fit to be made the centre of a long term construction process that would end in the Premier League. Perhaps not with flying colours, but it would be hard to argue he didn’t pass. And yet here is the same offer, only with a larger audition panel, and talk from Radrizzani about the wage bill — “rational”, “risk to be bankrupt”, “careful”, “I’ve learned in the few months with as good teacher as Massimo in the club” — that suggests any future Leeds manager will still have to shop at the Barrow and Grimes end of the market. Or the Victor Orta equivalent.

Taking all this into account, the situation is easier to understand from Garry Monk’s point of view. It might be hard to comprehend that Middlesbrough — as Monk has apparently told one journalist — will give him a better shot at reaching the Premier League, but Steve Gibson plus Premier League parachute payments are an intoxicating combination for any ambitious young manager with thoughts of the England job. And don’t forget that Steve McClaren and Gareth Southgate both passed through the Riverside on their way to becoming national team manager.

What’s more difficult to parse is the attitude of Radrizzani, who has been left shocked and surprised by Monk’s resignation. For all the big picture planning he’s done over the last six months, with plans for the stadium, the land around it, the executive management structure, he seems to have been caught unawares by one important thing: the football.

Which is not surprising. Radrizzani is an experienced and successful businessman, with an excellent track record in sports media. But he’s never run a football club, or worked at one from the inside, or spent much time around English football clubs. Cellino, after twenty-some years at Cagliari, arrived as a worldly-wise know-it-all, and within weeks was giving tearful interviews bemoaning how hard he was finding it, how much more difficult everything is in England, he was pushing the plane, it was loading with luggage, he was dying. Radrizzani doesn’t seem to share Cellino’s penchant for drama (“Where’s Brian?!”), but I suspect he may learn as quickly as Cellino that the Championship might look fun from the outside, it’s not a place for the naive.

Naive is the only word I can think of for imagining that one of the best regarded young managers in the country, at a moment when his achievements have brought him his most acclaim, would be fine with what essentially amounted to another season’s trial, during which any number of factors out of his control — the new owner, the new board, the new executive, the new sporting director, the football being round — could send his stock crashing again. After six months of detailed planning, I expected more than ‘we’ll renew his contract and see how he goes.’

Naivety isn’t a problem as long as Radrizzani gets it out of his system early. And it’s preferable to the alternative, which is that Radrizzani has been lying and a replacement for Monk has been lined up all along. It’s too soon for that sort of nonsense to be starting.

Leeds United can’t afford for Radrizzani to take as long as Cellino to learn the harsh lessons of the cutthroat world of English football, though. He’s got a lot of work to do, and he’s got to do it right, and while his tone discussing buying Elland Road is confident, when talking about the money still owed to GFH he sounds as deflated as Cellino about the hold they continue to have over the club. Signing Vieira to a four year deal on day one was a brilliant statement of intent that increased optimism for the future, failing to keep Monk at the club on day two undid a lot of that confidence.

Radrizzani has to act fast to appoint a new manager, because players need to be signed, and pre-season needs to be organised. But that’s a decision it doesn’t sound like he was expecting to have to make, and when you’re English-football-naive, you’re soon listening to the wrong person and falling under the spell of a Hockaday. In truth, I don’t expect that to happen, because even if he’s learned a harsh lesson about football on his second day in the job, I expect Radrizzani to actually learn from his mistakes, listen to the right people, and not to bullishly believe he’s always in the right.

But then, I didn’t expect Radrizzani to make such a mess of keeping a good manager in post, which is perhaps the lesson of this week, which is annoying, because it’s one we’ve had again and again as Leeds fans. ‘Don’t let your expectations get too high — it only means it’s further to the ground.’ Aye, thanks, the fates. We fucking know.


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