The manager: Promotion is not a word brian mcdermott will talk candidly about until it’s happened. Phil Hay reports.
Promotion. Leeds United’s raison d’etre since 2004 and Brian McDermott’s least favourite word. He will have you believe that until the 44th game of Reading’s recent annus mirabilis – Nottingham Forest at home – he didn’t even mention it. Not once.
I wish him luck with that. Promotion is everywhere in Leeds, hanging in the air but not yet realised in the way that United want it to be. A 10-year itch has developed in West Yorkshire, a decade of life beneath the Premier League, and managers at Elland Road are lucky to enjoy periods of grace. McDermott’s contract runs for three years but United expect all the same.
This season, next season, the season after; McDermott is unwilling to spell out a timeline of what should happen when. He is too ambitious, you’d think, to settle hastily for consolidation over the next nine months but wise enough to know that gradual development might be in order. That is why he insisted on spending money on United’s training ground in the summer. He does not want to fly by night.
His first full season as the club’s manager begins on Saturday, at home to Brighton, and where else to start but on the subject of what 2013-14 will bring? The improvements made to Thorp Arch were worthwhile, progressive and overdue but training grounds don’t sell tickets. Nor does the appreciation of McDermott’s vision – a contrast to the one-year hit attempted by Neil Warnock – negate all expectation of here and now.
The last time McDermott managed in the Championship his Reading squad tore it up, winning the title with a season-changing sequence of 15 victories from 17 games. Leeds were among their many victims and a 1-0 win over Nottingham Forest with two games to play sparked the mandatory pitch invasion at the Madejski Stadium. Surely McDermott saw promotion coming?
“I can’t think like that,” he says. “That’s not my style. Promotion’s a weird subject because I never think about it and I never talk about it. I don’t see the point.
“I’ll get asked about it all the time – by the fans, by the press – and that’s fine. The supporters in particular, they’re entitled to talk about their expectations. They put their money into the club and they follow us everywhere. They want something in return. That I accept.
“But me, I’m paid to do a job and I’m paid to do it well. All I want is to see the team get better every day. When we got promoted at Reading I didn’t even think about promotion. Seriously. We played every game as if it was the only show in town. We ticked one off, went on to the next one, ticked that off, went on to the next one.
“The only time I thought about going up was when we beat Nottingham Forest and the table showed that we were up. That was it. Then we won the Championship title and that was a better day again. Apart from that, not once.”
There is logic behind his thinking. In short, people hold you to your predictions and judge you on them. They did with Warnock. “Talking about promotion creates pressure,” McDermott says. “Why create our own pressure? There’s enough around here without doing that. We’ve been out of the Premier League for, what, 10 years? Let’s build something special but let’s not make the job harder by backing ourselves into a corner and saying ‘we’re going up next season.
“I want the team to evolve, to play good football and win games. What I won’t do is put stupid pressure on my squad.”
He reminds me that on April 12, when his appointment as manager was announced by Leeds, he was gambling his career, in the short term at least. He and his backroom staff were aware that with five games remaining United could conceivably be relegated. Again, McDermott refused to talk so negatively in public but he realised that Leeds were up to their necks in it. The victory in his first match, a 2-1 win over Sheffield Wednesday which Luke Varney sealed with two headers in the second half, ranks as one of the most significant of McDermott career. That is to say, he has rarely breathed with such relief afterwards.
“The best thing I did was to make the decision and come here in April,” he says. “Winning the games we won was our saving grace and when I think about it now, the Sheffield Wednesday match is probably...”
Like no other? “I’ve been involved in a lot of big games before – a play-off final, games when promotion and titles were on the line – but without saying it to anyone at the time, the Sheffield Wednesday game felt so, so big.
“I’d never have said so beforehand because the situation was serious enough without me admitting we were in trouble. We were 1-0 down at half-time and not in a good place. That’s putting it mildly. But Varney’s goals changed everything. As soon as the final whistle went I thought ‘we’d be okay’.
“Relegation was the elephant in the room but there haven’t been many occasions when the significance of winning an individual game felt bigger to me. Everything was riding on it, the whole season. There’s no point in talking about what might have happened if we’d lost because it’s all hypothetical but I know where we stood.”
McDermott did not plan to resume his career in management so soon after his sacking by Reading in March, primarily because he did not anticipate a suitable job presenting itself overnight. Even when Leeds approached him, he took time to consider his position; to consider the possible consequences.
The initial suggestion was that he and Leeds would wait until the close season to finalise terms but one anxious weekend under the control of caretaker Neil Redfearn – a weekend which brought an injury-time defeat at Charlton Athletic – rattled United’s directors. McDermott was unveiled as their new manager within days.
Would delaying his arrival have been a mistake? “The situation could have been so different,” he says. “I wasn’t looking to go into another club with five games to go but I’m very pleased that I did.
“I had the chance to see everything, to get to know the club, and I’ve been able to have real input into things that needed changing. I’ve got a feel for the place and on reflection I think you need that before pre-season starts. It would have been harder to come in cold last month – easier in the sense of avoiding what needed to be done last season but harder in the long run.
“I can only talk with hindsight but with hindsight, yes, it would have been a mistake to have said no in April. That’s not to say I couldn’t have made the job work at a later date but I’d have been starting from a different place, maybe a different level – not knowing the players as well as I know them now. That was a big decision.”
The alternative for him was a concerted break, the likes of which McDermott has not had for years. This summer most of his time away was spent attending weddings of footballers he knows – Shane Long, John O’Flynn and new Leeds signing Noel Hunt. “At first I planned to sit on my balcony down south and do nothing,” he jokes. “But I didn’t actually have any plans because I didn’t expect to be out of work. I wasn’t used to being out of work either and I didn’t particularly like it.”
Employment at Elland Road in April gave him time to think ahead but for all the days and weeks afforded to him, his work in the transfer market has been painstaking.
McDermott returned from Leeds’ pre-season tour of Slovenia with only three players signed and his squad top heavy in parts and under-strength in others. The list of “six or seven” names he passed to his board in May has hardly been crossed off. He will use his players in a different style and manner to Warnock but the resources available to McDermott and his predecessor look largely similar from the outside.
“I’m trying to get things right in a lot of areas,” he says. “It’s not easy but I know what I’m like – everything has to be spot on. If one thing’s out of place it annoys me. That’s the way I’ve always been. I need everything to be just-so.
“The Championship will be the same this season as it was last season – three games a week, really demanding, wide open. You need to be ready for that and I’ve tried to make sure that we are. I know people round here expect and I’m not in the job to disappoint. I know I’m carrying the dreams of lots of supporters. But that’s why this job is a privilege.”