Darko Milanic had his family with him at Elland Road yesterday – the first time any of them had ventured to Leeds – and they were in the vicinity when word of his sacking spread.
It was left to Nicola Salerno, Leeds United’s sporting director, to deliver the news on behalf of Massimo Cellino and it was clear in that instant why Milanic came to England without his nearest and dearest in tow. Here one day, gone the next; a club where the survival rate of head coaches is at epidemic proportions.
Football is a ruthless game and those who work in it know the risks but regardless of Milanic’s compatibility with Leeds, Cellino’s treatment of him has been horribly harsh. Milanic gave up a job at Sturm Graz to come here – bought his way out of a contract, no less – and he was hacked down in no time, on the one afternoon when his family chose to attend a game. They might never forget their experience of the hours they spent at Elland Road.
Few others will lament Milanic’s dismissal but largely because they learned nothing about him, and the little he demonstrated in 32 days did not inspire a groundswell of confidence. No wins in six, three points from 18 and perplexing spells of indecision underwhelmed the Slovenian’s audience but the clue with Milanic was in his background. Cellino could see at the start that Milanic knew nothing about United’s squad and less still about the Championship. Four weeks was no time for a proper education, however annoyed Cellino felt with his initial performance.
It seemed from the outset that Milanic was feeling his way into the job, which is not to say that better results lay ahead. In his six games as head coach he was prone to leaving his players to sweat as pressure built and unwilling to trust in the ability of his squad to take the opposition to the cleaners. Yesterday’s loss to Wolverhampton Wanderers and a previous defeat at Rotherham United found Milanic sitting on his hands with Leeds a goal up and badly in need of another. Cellino said he first decided to sack the 46-year-old after last week’s 1-1 draw at Norwich City, a game in which United held back cautiously either side of Souleymane Doukara’s equaliser.
If that was Milanic’s natural tack – and those who watched him coach in Europe said he generally swayed towards defensive tactics – then his tenure was always going to misfire. The word ‘negative’ had started to stick by full-time yesterday. If, on the other hand, he is an adventurous man at heart then he will wish on reflection that he’d released the hounds immediately. Time is no longer a commodity at Leeds. The first three months of this season have shown us that.
Impatience rules and the impatience is Cellino’s. As Milanic flies home to relative obscurity, attention turns again to United’s owner and the line between eccentricity and irresponsibility. It was reckless on Cellino’s part to install David Hockaday as head coach in June and then shoot him after six games in charge.
It is incredibly inept to have sourced a replacement who survived for the same number of games and half the number of days. Cellino is turning now to an alternative he disregarded last month, the club’s academy boss Neil Redfearn. It contradicts the evidence of the past 12 weeks to hope that he knows what he’s doing.
“Three points from six games,” an irate Cellino said yesterday night as he confirmed Milanic’s exit. “That is relegation (form).” It certainly is. But the slide in that direction is not simply a by-product of the sport on the pitch, mediocre though much of it has been. The sea-changes, the meddling, the impulsiveness, the volatility; all of it has contributed to a season which cannot get going.
Every day is another drama.
Fifteen new players came to Leeds in the summer. All of them have dealt with three different coaches – Redfearn included – and three different personalities in as many months. Some who played under Hockaday were banished by Milanic. Some who played under Milanic might now be sidelined by Redfearn. Brought in from Italy, South America and Paraguay, anyone who felt far away from home to begin with doubtless will feel further away now. The scenario at Leeds is not a crisis, it’s an inevitability. And the only obvious solution is the delegation of authority and trust by the man at the top.
Cellino likes to be all things to all men, the ultimate worker. He has no chief executive and no desire for a chief executive. He sees the job of a chief executive as a duplication of his own and he prefers not to weaken his control. He spends countless hours working on complicated transfer deals – Adryan’s loan from Flamengo a prime example – but shows nothing like the same reverence towards coaches.
Players are beautiful, head coaches are not. It’s as if he thinks that footballers have skill far beyond his own but coaching he could handle. Coaching he could handle if only he didn’t have so much else to worry about.
The fact that Cellino has Redfearn to fall back on might be his saving grace. In all his time as owner of Leeds, Cellino has shown few people more respect than he has United’s academy boss. He likes Redfearn and rates him, and Redfearn, to his credit, is willing to speak his mind when he and Cellino talk. Those who know Redfearn are adamant that in his four games as caretaker, he picked the line-up he wanted to pick and dropped players as he saw fit. The squad had nothing against Milanic when the Slovenian beat the 49-year-old to the job full-time but they were largely supportive of the idea of Redfearn keeping the job. As a group, they can be trusted to play for him now.
Cellino and Redfearn sat together during yesetrday’s defeat to Wolves, a sure sign with hindsight that Milanic was on thin ice. Redfearn kept his distance from the first team during Milanic’s reign and would not have been present at Elland Road without an invitation. The crowd chanted for Redfearn as Wolves wore Leeds down and Milanic was duly fired around 6pm after a conversation between Cellino and Salerno.
These are increasingly delicate days for Cellino. His money and commitment have earned him legitimate popularity in Leeds but the next few months have the potential to get messy: a season on the edge, the repurchase of Elland Road unconfirmed, the shadow of the Football League continuing to hover and Giuseppe Bellusci facing allegations of racism. It is genuinely time for some reassuring news. As for Milanic, he leaves with the same mystique he brought with him in the first place. Who was he and what did he really have to offer long-term? How much of this was his fault?
“Everyone has pressure,” Milanic said on his first day in the job. “This is not new to me.”
Welcome to Leeds, Darko. And farewell.