Never let it be said that Leeds United’s next head coach has nothing to work with here. A larger-than-life goalkeeper for one, a prodigious 17-year-old for two and an academy manager whose work creates light in the gloom at Elland Road.
It falls short of the full package in the Championship but Leeds are not the empty vessel they seemed to be in the worst moments of last week.
A victory over Bolton Wanderers came in time to remind the club that the season is young at five games old. And that someone else in this division is usually worse off than you.
On Thursday night Massimo Cellino took the plunge and sacked David Hockaday after 10 weeks as United’s head coach. Saturday’s game gave him no reason to think that he had turned on Hockaday too soon. The scoreline, the competence and the players used against Bolton suggested that an able boss could get it together at Elland Road. Cellino needs that man.
Despite his contribution over the weekend and his consistent service to Leeds, the next incumbent won’t be Neil Redfearn.
United’s academy coach is held in high regard by Cellino but having gambled so rashly on Hockaday the Italian is unwilling to take another needless chance.
In a roundabout way, he would do his club a favour by overlooking the one dependable figurehead at Thorp Arch.
Cellino has countless candidates to choose from and it would be witless in the circumstances to bypass them and reassign the head of a highly productive academy.
The youth development scheme at Leeds is not solely Redfearn’s doing but he has run it for two-and-a-half years and run it well. Goalkeeper Marco Silvestri held the line brilliantly in a tense 1-0 win over Bolton but the shining light was Lewis Cook, a defensive midfielder whose maturity at 17 is typical of teenagers United produce.
Hockaday liked to say that playing young footballers was his trademark as a coach. The difference on Saturday was that Redfearn actually did so. The former Barnsley midfielder made a fair point when he said that years of work at Thorp Arch meant he knew Cook inside out – an “unfair advantage” as Redfearn put it – but Alex Mowatt was used for the first time this season and Casper Sloth, United’s signing from Aarhus, made his league debut. Zan Benedicic wasn’t far behind, appearing a substitute.
Given 24 hours to prepare the team Redfearn took risks and trusted his instinct. Stephen Warnock’s 18th-minute goal was enough to seal Leeds’ second league win, albeit after an onslaught from Bolton which Silvestri thwarted.
“On Friday the players were a little hesitant and unsure about what would happen going forward,” said Redfearn, United’s caretaker for the third time in as many years. “From my experience of doing this before, my job was to get them upbeat and focused.
“They’re enthusiastic so it wasn’t too difficult.
“The young lads here are good players and I’ve worked with them for years. For me, it wasn’t a gamble playing them. Lewis is an outstanding talent and I thought he was the best player on the pitch.
“He’s beyond his years and I told the president (Cellino) that at the start of the season. I said ‘playing in front of Elland Road won’t faze this kid.’
“But this is what these young players should be doing – they should be lifting the level and the standard, and pushing the seniors. All of the players were brave in a lot of aspects. It got them a result.”
Redfearn was careful not to rule himself out of the running for the head coach’s job but it was clear enough that his heart lies in the academy. Given Category Two status under the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) last season, it needs him more than ever.
Under-18s coach Richard Naylor was sacked during the summer and Under-16s coach Leigh Bromby moved on too. Redfearn was last-man-standing when Cellino went looking for a caretaker on Thursday night.
“I met the president and he told me the situation,” Redfearn said. “He asked if I’d help and I said I would. There was no way I wasn’t going to.
“But I’ve got a big job on with the academy.
“We’ve had quite a bit of change in the summer, some people have gone with redundancies, so we’re in the process of putting things back together.
“I’m really excited about it because it’s not only the ones we’re seeing on show here.
“Right through the age groups, we’ve got some good players in the 13s, 14s and 15s.
“Some of them are going to play for Leeds United, there’s no two ways about it.”
That is the future. On Saturday, United needed points and inspiration.
The goal that provided both came from an unlikely source in Warnock after a swift attack in which Mirco Antenucci picked him out in the left channel. Warnock’s finish looked suspiciously like a low cross but it nestled perfectly in the far corner of Adam Bogdan’s net.
“All that matters is that the ball went in,” said Redfearn.
Bolton struggled in the first half, showing all the deficiencies which have placed them in the bottom three and Dougie Freedman’s job in peril, but Silvestri turned one shot from Joe Mason onto the face of his crossbar and safely held another thumping finish.
Freedman eventually threw on Jermaine Beckford for an appearance as a substitute which caused the striker no end of trouble.
He upset Bolton’s support by responding to affectionate chants from the home crowd and missed a sitter of a chance deep into injury-time when he drove a free header from Liam Feeney’s cross straight at Silvestri. In the madness of the scramble that followed, Silvestri parried the rebound and then somehow smothered the loose ball on his goalline.
“Some of his saves were out of this world,” said Redfearn and the 23-year-old keeper became the centre of attention at full-time.
The bigger picture was the sight of Leeds getting their act together before a timely international break. It is a defining moment in a potentially defining year for Cellino.“This puts the club in a better frame of mind,” Redfearn said. “We go into the break feeling much better.”
Leeds United: Silvestri, Wootton, Bellusci, Pearce, Warnock (C Taylor 55), Cook, Mowatt, Bianchi, Sloth (Benedicic 78), Sharp, Antenucci. Subs (not used): S Taylor, Cooper, Dawson, Tonge, Smith.
Bolton Wanderers: Bogdan, Mills, Wheater (Dervite 6), Ream, White, Medo (Feeney 82), Spearing, Danns, Lee, C Davies (Beckford 78), Mason. Subs (not used): Lonergan, Pratley, Hughes, Hall.