After 32 years at the coalface of English football, the crisis enveloping Leeds United is amazing even Nigel Gibbs.
The club’s assistant manager was not sure if he still had a job at midday on Saturday. All he knew was that no-one had told him otherwise. He reported to Elland Road as usual and by the time he reached the stadium, control of United’s squad was his.
Little in Leeds is ever simple and the 24 hours leading up to the end of the club’s movie-script mauling of Huddersfield Town were like nothing Gibbs has seen before. Late on Friday he learned that Brian McDermott had been sacked. As he walked down the tunnel at the end of Saturday’s game, he was told of a nonsensical statement from Leeds announcing that McDermott was still their manager. It had been published during the second half, inexplicably.
Online and on-street havoc provoked by the illigitimate demise of McDermott contributed to the sound of crunching gears as Leeds tried to reverse the decision in the hours before their game against Huddersfield. A 5-1 win earned by a team set up by him throughout last week and handled in the end by his assistant did no harm either in bringing an ounce of sanity to Elland Road’s poisonous boardroom.
“It’s Brian team, his performance and his victory without a doubt,” said Gibbs, a caretaker for the day. “I spoke to him before the game. All he was worried about was the performance and the points, as he always does.”
It can be assumed on that basis that McDermott has not abandoned his job completely. But Gulf Finance House, United’s owner, has burned bridges with the 52-year-old by allowing a situation to develop where an Italian businessman bidding to buy the club felt able to dismiss the incumbent manager before a takeover was complete.
With Massimo Cellino, building bridges must be impossible. Ridding Leeds of McDermott was part of his plan, whatever he says now.
The shambles at Elland Road was such that Gianluca Festa, the former Middlesbrough defender and an ally of Cellino’s, stepped in as United’s caretaker as gloom and anger spread on Friday. He held the post overnight and Gibbs was left to guess about his fate. Only when United managing director David Haigh called Gibbs three hours before kick-off did the responsibility for a West Yorkshire derby against Huddersfield fall to him.
“It was very strange,” Gibbs said. “An unusual day.
“I was coming to the game anyway because I’d had no contact from the club. David Haigh phoned me and asked me to take the team with Neil (Redfearn) assisting. So I did.
“It was difficult, I have to say, but the team were prepared by Brian on Friday. That was his team and the shape he’d worked on. It was all quite late but we’re professional, we’re football people and that’s what we do.”
A riot was predicted at Elland Road and pre-match protests took place outside the East Stand, though a rattled Cellino was seemingly absent. The mood erred on the side of solidarity, never straying into violence.
The ground was mobbed and the goals came from Ross McCormack, Alex Mowatt and Jimmy Kebe, three players who McDermott has personally championed.
Someone up above fought his corner and 31,000 down below defended their club’s dignity, telling Cellino that he will run his circus with great difficulty if the Football League allow him to try. It led to spectacular backtracking from the Italian who by late evening was voicing support for McDermott.
Mark Robins, Huddersfield’s manager, gave Gibbs a not-on-my-worst-enemy pat on the shoulder before the game and was sympathetic at the end, even after watching his team throw in the towel and suffer the torment of a fine McCormack hat-trick.
“When there’s uncertainty over ownership, the waters become a bit choppy,” Robins said. “Brian will bounce back however it falls but I feel for him.”
Until the end of first-half injury-time, Robins did not expect to be speaking as the losing manager. Huddersfield opened the scoring on 24 minutes when Danny Ward made the most of a hole on the right side of United’s defence and lashed a volley inside Paddy Kenny’s far post, and chances flowed. Kenny saved an overhead kick from Murray Wallace with his legs and Nahki Wells bundled the ball wide with Kenny stranded on the edge of his box.
It was not a finish befitting a £1.2m forward; little about Wells’ performance was.
“We had enough chances to be out of sight before they scored,” Robins said. But with two minutes of first-half injury-time played, Sam Byram’s long pass confused Huddersfield’s defence and McCormack reacted to a scrambled touch from Kebe by hooking a bouncing ball into the net from close range.
It had to be McCormack, McDermott’s recently-appointed captain who spoke out in support of him during the night of the long knives on Friday. “He’s got a fantastic relationship with Brian and it was a captain’s performance,” Gibbs said. The best of it was to come.
Robins said his team were “reeling” from the timing of the equaliser and they never recovered.
Kebe scored again five minutes into the second half by lifting a clever flick from McCormack into the net. McCormack claimed his second goal on 62 minutes after Rodolph Austin and Sam Byram led a searing counter attack and completed his hat-trick 11 minutes later when Cameron Stewart pierced the left side of Town’s defence.
Huddersfield were done, beaten senseless, and Mowatt drew blood for the fifth and final time nine minutes from the end.
Town’s ’keeper, Alex Smithies, ran senselessly from his box in search of the ball, flattened Anthony Gerrard and invited Mowatt to float a chip into an empty goal.
An injured Gerrard took Smithies’ name in vain as McDermott’s echoed all around.
Amid the mayhem came Leeds’ first win in nine games. That, along with a quiet attempt to deny McDermott’s dismissal, made the crowd think that a compromised management team might have life in them yet, implausible through it sounds.
“We all want Brian as the manager,” Gibbs said.
“The players, the staff, everyone.” Cellino too, or so he claims. When in Rome and all that.