They call Leeds United an unpredictable club but the annual crossover from winter to spring brings recurring hysteria to Elland Road.
This could be any of the past three seasons. The protagonists are different but the plot is the same: a club between owners, a manager under the cosh and a squad of players who are bringing scorn upon themselves.
Leeds promise never to return to this place but seem lost for a way out of their routine. Two-year plans, three-year plans; some guarantees for the next fortnight would be nice.
Routed by Bolton Wanderers on Saturday, Leeds rolled over in the end with the tired exasperation of a club who need answers. Managers have paid with their jobs on days so bleak and, as Brian McDermott himself conceded, he has had a few of those since Christmas. Whose confidence he relies on and whose reassurance he should seek are questions dependent on other matters.
McDermott’s future would be Massimo Cellino’s call were Cellino the unrestrained decision-maker at Elland Road but he is a prospective owner still, regardless of his regular attendance at United’s matches. McDermott answers to Gulf Finance House, or so he is told, but the bank itself has diminished responsibility with Cellino’s takeover in the hands of the Football League.
Things are happening at Leeds, in spite of the delay and the suggestion that the planned change of ownership rests on a tax evasion case involving Cellino in Italy next Tuesday. Beyond the payment of staff wages, the acquisition of players and the defeat of a winding-up petition, United have completed the laying of a 3G artificial pitch at Thorp Arch – a project delayed by non-payment to the manufacturers – and settled overdue invoices from suppliers. There is a sense of business ticking over again, of work being done.
But McDermott is different, a coach who GFH pinned its faith to with a long contract and a manager who would cost a seven-figure sum to sack. The bank and Cellino might be minded to retain him and stick to the plan but the absence of regular pronouncements from Elland Road leaves no way of establishing if McDermott’s continuing employment is a genuine vote of confidence or the result of a void of authority.
Cellino took in Saturday’s 5-1 defeat and absolved McDermott of blame while publicly butchering his players. Bobby Davison, the ex-Leeds striker who commentated on the game for the BBC, found the Italian’s private thoughts easy enough to guess. Davison coached on the continent with Ferencvaros and is familiar with itchy trigger fingers in Europe. “If we’d performed like that, we wouldn’t have got out the stadium,” he said.
There is a strain of psychosis about certain European sides and a riotous streak that loses perspective. McDermott has warned before that Leeds are in a vicious cycle of mediocre term after mediocre term and manager after manager, forever fated to float around in the Championship until someone is given the time they ask for. It is logical, sensible thinking but a hard line to push when a team are decimated as Leeds were by Bolton. Before the weekend, Bolton had scored 17 times away from home.
That fact and others allow their manager, Dougie Freedman, to empathise with McDermott, though both men know how football works. “We’re in the business of winning matches,” Freedman said. “I’ve had hard days myself so Brian doesn’t need my sympathy. He’s big enough to look after himself. The key to the result was the way we passed the ball through midfield.”
Freedman was right, and not just about Saturday. Leeds under McDermott are at their most vulnerable when the balance of control in the centre of midfield swings against them. Rudy Austin was played against Bolton, 24 hours after flying back from international duty with Jamaica, and was reduced to chasing and tackling in his tireless style.
Luke Murphy pressed but worked the ball alone and on either side of the field, McDermott’s wingers dug deeper and deeper holes for themselves before he substituted them in the 64th minute.
Jimmy Kebe was the focal point of abuse again, jeered when his number appeared on the fourth official’s board. “With certain players, for whatever reason, they’re not taken to by the supporters,” McDermott said.
“It’s not pleasant and it wasn’t particularly pleasant but we accept it.
“Supporters pay good money to watch.”
When Kebe and Cameron Stewart left the field, the scoreline wasn’t pleasant either. Bolton scored three goals in 12 minutes either side of half-time, the first claimed by Joe Mason in injury-time before the interval.
There was a strong suspicion that Tim Ream’s punt from his own half had run out of play before he cleared the ball but Neil Danns was quickly onto it, playing Mason clean through with the help of a deflection.
Mason drew Jack Butland – the helpless duck in the shooting gallery – and pinged a low shot beyond him.
The first half offered nothing more than that, an attritional period.
“The goal was a blow but in the second half we thought we were going to chase the game down,” McDermott said. He replaced Lee Peltier with Sam Byram for that purpose but Lukas Jutkiewicz nodded Jay Spearing’s free-kick past Butland in the 52 minute and Zat Knight bundled a shot under the keeper five minutes later, again via a delivery into United’s box.
On Leeds’ first appearance at Elland Road for five weeks, the occasion died with that finish. Jason Pearce – a father for the first time – was badly missed in the centre of defence.
“We lost our shape and our way,” McDermott said, and Bolton lapped the disarray up.
Mark Davies converted a free header after Ross McCormack lost possession and Jutkiewicz tore down the left wing, and Andre Moritz scored a fifth goal in the penultimate minute, smashing a shot off the underside of Butland’s crossbar.
There were almost 29,000 seats full at the outset but thousands of them empty again by the time Matt Smith’s diving header raised the crowd from an eery silence in injury-time. The purpose of Saturday was, in theory, to stage a late attack on the play-offs.
They were not even mentioned at the death.
Leeds United: Butland, Peltier (Byram, 45), Warnock, Murphy, Lees, Wootton, Kebe (Mowatt, 64), Austin, Wickham, McCormack, Stewart (Smith, 64). Subs not used: Hunt, Brown, Zaliukas, Cairns.
Bolton Wanderers: Bogdan, Baptiste, Ream, Spearing (Moritz, 83), Knight, Wheater, Kamara, Danns, Mason (Trotter, 70), Jutkiewicz, Davies (Lee, 75). Subs not used: Hutton, Eagles, Hall, Lonergan.