Darko Milanic’s first job at Elland Road? To avoid upsetting the applecart. Leeds United were crying out for a new head coach three weeks ago but the question they will ask of Milanic now is whether or not the club need him.
He came to the attention of Massimo Cellino last month and at that stage United’s owner was touting a squad who had gone as far backwards as they were likely to go.
The tone of the conversation should be very different when Milanic arrives in England today. His appointment will give him the task of making Leeds better but in the short term he must guard against making them worse.
A thankless position was how some described the vacancy at Elland Road. Johnny Giles, the old Leeds midfielder, said “no coach worth their salt” would be willing to answer to Cellino.
But three weeks with Neil Redfearn as caretaker has given the post a new complexion. Milanic is activating a clause in his contract to quit Sturm Graz and take it on.
He took charge of Graz for the last time on Saturday, an hour or so after Leeds destroyed Huddersfield Town, and he must have looked for United’s result in amongst his other duties. Milanic has a monumental challenge at Elland Road and a demanding boss to please but he is coming here with the stables already clean. Redfearn’s management has seen to that.
The improvement during his four games as caretaker has been so pronounced that there are many who wonder why Leeds are courting Milanic when they already have a safe pair of hands. That view ignores the risk of shifting Redfearn from the academy and overlooks the difference between four league fixtures and 46 – or 36 as Milanic routinely handled with Maribor in Slovenia – but it is a warning for Milanic: that he cannot walk into this job and pretend to be starting from scratch.
Chris Powell is able to use that excuse and Huddersfield’s boss had a troubled look about him as Leeds dismantled a team who were as wet as the weather on Saturday. Redfearn’s impact has been better than his and the Football League is in the odd position where the Championship’s manager of the month award for September might go to someone who is neither a manager nor full-time and will not be in the job by the time the trophy is handed out.
As the games under Redfearn crept up, the confidence and performances have done the same. “We’ve rode our luck at times,” Redfearn said, but not on Saturday. His team were organised, well shaped and keenly aware of what it was they were supposed to be doing. Simple things, experienced managers would argue, but supremely effective all the same. Cellino doesn’t want the 49-year-old as head coach. You rather fear that other clubs might.
Ten points came from four matches with Redfearn in charge and Leeds are right outside the Championship’s play-off positions. Are the play-offs too much to hope for, he was asked. “I don’t see why,” Redfearn said.
“The good thing about this squad is that it’s very young and it’s going to get better. From the first whistle to the last we were absolutely excellent.
“What’s happened here is that with the results, the players have started to get more and more belief. It’s a process.
“There’ve been times in games when we’ve needed luck but we’ve earned that luck by doing the horrible stuff well.”
The penny has dropped about incisive flowing football at Leeds. Previous coaches tried to impose that philosophy on predominantly English line-ups but it comes more easily to players who have grown up with it. Tommaso Bianchi came into his own against Huddersfield and dictated a one-sided derby brilliantly. As a result Rodolph Austin had the freedom to bully Town with his marathon sprints. Mirco Antenucci cut loose up front and Giuseppe Bellusci – a cult hero in the making – invited the drugs testers to come knocking on his door.
“Passing is all we do through the week,” Redfearn said. “We do a lot of possession, a lot of grids and a lot of box work where we’re dealing with the ball under pressure in tight areas.
“If you do it often enough and stick with it, it becomes natural in a game. And it’ll get better and better with games and results.”
Austin scored the opening goal in the 20th minute, smashing a bullet of a shot through the hands of Alex Smithies after Joel Lynch botched an easy clearance, but Bellusci’s part in United’s second stole the show.
The centre-back, who produced an outlandish free-kick at Bournemouth last Tuesday, led a hopeful counter attack in first-half injury-time, breaking from his own box with only Antenucci in support. Huddersfield had numbers to deal with them but left Bellusci to each other and watched him meet Antenucci’s return pass with a deft chip which smashed off the crossbar.
The rebound dropped to Antenucci who volleyed it into the net.
“When Bellusci was charging forward, I was looking behind him thinking ‘who’s covering him at the back?’ just in case they broke on us,” Redfearn said. “The overriding feeling is that he’s a big centre-back, uncompromising. But the lad can play. He’s a good footballer. It was a great chip and Antenucci did well to keep it down when it came back off the bar. Between them it was a great goal.”
Huddersfield were better at the start of the second half but their day was summed up by substitute Jon Stead hitting the back of the South Stand with only Marco Silvestri to beat late on.
Souleymane Doukara scored a third for Leeds on 69 minutes after Bianchi pinched possession and Austin sliced open Huddersfield’s defence, leaving Doukara to step inside his marker and shoot low past Smithies.
Antenucci could have claimed a fourth on the break but Smithies scraped the ball against the edge of a post.
The comfort of a 3-0 advantage mattered. In the 73rd minute Gaetano Berardi earned a red card with a mistimed tackle on Harry Bunn, Huddersfield’s only impressive player.
Redfearn admitted afterwards that he could have replaced Berardi after an earlier booking but the right-back’s record this season stands at two dismissals from four appearances. His discipline is something for Milanic to fix. The rest at Elland Road is well in hand.
Leeds United: Silvestri, Berardi, Bellusci, Pearce, Warnock, Austin (Tonge 90), Cook, Bianchi, Sloth (Byram 73), Doukara (Morison 85), Antenucci. Subs (not used): S Taylor, Cooper, Adryan, Sharp.
Huddersfield Town: Smithies, Robinson, Lynch, Hudson, Peltier, Coady, Hogg (Ward 59), Butterfield, Bunn, Wells, Scannell (Stead 74). Subs (not used): Murphy, Dixon, Wallace, Smith, Majewski.