When push came to shove, Neil Redfearn had to speak. He toyed with the idea of cancelling his Thursday press conference but it went ahead eventually, an hour late. The alternative was silence and the misapprehension that the suspension of his assistant, Steve Thompson, was carried out with his knowledge or his approval.
Thompson’s suspension is a sacking in all but name. A letter given to him at Thorp Arch this morning told him that he would be suspended until the end of the season and released in the summer when his contract expires. He had no inkling and neither did Redfearn. Certain players knew what Leeds United were planning before the coaching staff found out.
Redfearn and Thompson go back many years. The were team-mates at Bolton Wanderers in the 1980s and Thompson filled the role of best man at Redfearn’s wedding. Redfearn talked of his “bitter disappointment” as he digested the departure of an assistant who Leeds took two months to appoint and three months to dismiss.
More than that, it frustrated Redfearn that Thompson had filled his post ably, in his eyes and the eyes of most of the outside world. Leeds were fourth bottom in the Championship a fortnight after Thompson moved east from Huddersfield Town but 18 league games with him and Redfearn in partnership returned 29 points. United have been safe from relegation for weeks.
“You’re trying to put together a winning team and that includes the staff,” Redfearn said. “The lads have been into what we’re doing here and you see that in the performances and results. They don’t lie. They’re facts.
“This goes against everything we’re doing. We’re trying to put something together under the belief that we’ve got the backing we need. Steve’s in shock but he did as he was told. The letter said ‘with immediate effect’ so he didn’t take training (today). I took it.”
Thompson was and is popular with most of Leeds’ players. Midfielder Luke Murphy credited him with rescuing his own season - forlorn in December but impressive ever since - and Sol Bamba spoke highly of him last month. Redfearn was particularly close with Thompson and valued his experience of coaching in the Championship, most of it gained at Blackpool.
Massimo Cellino, United’s disqualified owner, was altogether less impressed. It took concerted pressure from Matt Child - Leeds’ former chief operating office who quit the club last week - to secure the arrival of Thompson, seven weeks after Redfearn’s appointment as head coach and despite the fact that in the end Huddersfield were happy to release him for nothing.
Cellino is believed to have seen Thompson as the driving force behind the drastic change of formation and personnel which Redfearn instigated in January; a switch which provoked a major upturn in results but also rendered peripheral players who Cellino signed last summer and who he wanted to see more involved.
Leeds’ Italian owner is in the middle of a Football League disqualification and, under the rules of the governing body, is barred from influencing policy at Elland Road or exerting control over the club’s operations until his suspension ends on May 4.
Club chairman Andrew Umbers was asked to explain the precise reasons behind Thompson’s exit but the club issued only a brief statement, saying sporting director Nicola Salerno was responsible for the decision to suspend him. It caused surprised since many at Elland Road think Salerno - one of Cellino’s confidantes at Cagliari - will himself leave Leeds in the summer.
“Steve’s a mate, definitely, but he’s good football person,” Redfearn said. “He understands the game and he understands the division we’re in. We’ve been good for one another. We’ve worked well.
“With Steve and the effect I have on players, sometimes you need someone who goes in from a different angle. The perfect example was at Fulham (last month, where Leeds won 3-0). I went in at half-time and read the riot act but it still needed a calm voice that goes round individuals and gives them the right message. It’s the ideal partnership
“Steve’s been part of the team and if you want to deflate something, you start taking things away from the team. He’s proved successful at other clubs. It’s very rare that people lose their jobs when they’ve been successful.”
Redfearn is in a similar boat. After a commendable period as head coach, his contract expires this summer and the events of today make an extension of his deal no more likely. The 49-year-old said he needed to “have a hard think” about his future but he knows that others above him are considering it too. “Where before it (staying as head coach) was a no-brainer, now I’ve got to have a think,” he said.
For what remains of the season, or until something else gives, he will carry on alone, beginning at home to Blackburn Rovers tomorrow. Blackburn’s manager, Gary Bowyer, spent part of his press conference this afternoon talking about how Redfearn had “turned it around”, unaware of what was brewing at Elland Road.
“I’m coming to terms with the day and I haven’t thought that far ahead, about who’ll be with me in the dug-out,” Redfearn said. “I’ll just have to see how that goes to be honest.
“I love this football club, I love everything it stands for. I was brought up with Leeds United as a kid, under the Revie years and what they stood for - the principles and beliefs. It shaped me as a footballer.
“There are lots of things about this football club which are really good. But this situation is a difficult situation for me.
“On Saturday I’ll just make sure that for their sake and for the supporters who pay the money to come in, the lads are as professional and focused as they have been all season. And I’m sure they will be. But this just doesn’t help. The timing’s not ideal. It’s never ideal.”