Darko Milanic’s prospects at Leeds United can be gauged on factors like his track record, the owner he is working for and the beast of a club he is trying to revive. But nothing will influence his tenure more than the attitude and reaction of the squad at Elland Road.
Massimo Cellino has given his view on Milanic and Milanic has given his take on Leeds but in the past seven days one question has gone unanswered: what are the players making of this appointment? Nine games into the league season, the Slovenian is effectively their third head coach. The team he inherited should be privately hoping that Milanic is also their last.
Sam Byram has learned to cope with to shifting sands at Leeds. Since his debut in 2012, the 21-year-old has played for four different managers or head coaches and twice under the temporary leadership of Neil Redfearn. Milanic’s arrival is nothing new for him but Byram, like others at Thorp Arch, must be ready for an end to the blood-letting.
So far this season, Hockaday has managed six competitive games and Redfearn handled four before returning to his full-time job as academy manager last week. Milanic’s reign began with a 2-0 defeat at Brentford on Saturday, a result that ended a four-match unbeaten streak but which Byram refused to blame on the change of boss. Reading at home awaits tonight as Milanic experiences his first evening under the lights of Elland Road; the first of many, he hopes.
“It can’t be a bad thing having the same person at the head of it all long-term,” Byram said. “It means you know where you stand and you know how you coach likes to play. You establish ideas over a period of time and the players have a chance to buy into that.
“Including Redders, this our third manager already this season and I guess footballers have to accept change and live with it. You take the game as it comes and you adapt quickly but it’s got to be easier to settle into consistent performances and results when you’ve got someone here who’s definitely in charge.
“The best teams in the league don’t have massive changes every week. They play with a similar style and normally the same personnel. That way players get to know each other and build partnerships. But at the same time, things do change. You’ve just got to deal with that.”
Milanic’s preparation for Saturday’s game at Brentford was somewhat against the clock. Leeds trained three times with him, including a light session on Friday, before spending the afternoon before the fixture travelling south by coach to London.
The 46-year-old made two changes at Brentford, recalling Byram in place of the suspended Gaetano Berardi and preferring Alex Mowatt to Casper Sloth. His team were out-performed and out-worked at Griffin Park, relying on goalkeeper Marco Silvestri to keep the scoreline to 2-0.
“You’ve got to look at the players and how we performed,” Byram said. “There wasn’t a lot of time for the manager to change much so it wouldn’t be right to come in and blame him. It just came down to the day - how they played, how we played. They were the better team.
“It’s been hard to get a big training session in because we were travelling down to Brentford on Friday but in what we’ve done, he (Milanic) has brought new things to it. It’s good to do things that are new and fresh.
“We had a meeting on Monday about the Brentford game and he mentioned that we were passing sideways too much and not being effective; not enough passes forward. We played a lot of safe balls and sometimes you need to take risks, like putting the ball into the channels for the strikers to run onto. Play more attacking, basically.
“He’s not hard to understand at all. He gets his point across well and his English is good so there’s no communication barrier. Tonight he wants less touches on the ball and quicker passes forward. Brentford were happy to keep the ball with their back four and then play it out but Reading literally get it forward as soon as they can. They’re a very fast, attacking team and he wants us to match that. We need to be a fast, passing team too.”
There were signs of that mentality under Redfearn, who started his latest stint as caretaker with no expectation of taking the head coach’s job permanently but he was increasingly hopeful of winning Cellino’s favour when Cellino opted to bring Milanic on board. United’s owner was nervous about the idea of shifting Redfearn from his highly productive youth-team role.
Byram, who came through the academy on Redfearn’s watch, said he understood why moving the former Barnsley striker into a more senior position might not have appealed to Cellino.
“With Neil, he does such a good job in the academy that you could ask whether it’s a good idea to take him out of there and put him as the top man,” Byram said. “If things started to go wrong, I don’t think anyone would want a situation where he left the club. His job in the academy speaks for itself.
“You’d have to ask him whether he wanted the head coach’s job, I honestly don’t know, but the job he does in the academy is so good that you sort of feel that he’s well suited there. In his four games we played really well. There’s always room to improve but (against Huddersfield) we played as well as anyone in the league so I don’t think there’s a massive amount to change. I just think it’s a case now of the new coach getting his ideas across and working towards how he wants us to play.”
Byram is at the centre of that process after returning to the team at Brentford. He and Berardi have traded places at right-back due to a series of suspensions served by them both but Byram took the shirt for Milanic’s first week in charge with Berardi banned for the second time. He spent part of yesterday talking to new assistant Novica Nikcevic about improving his crossing from the right flank.
“I hope the position can be mine for the rest of the season,” Byram said. “It’s been strange so far because me and Berardi have both been in and out. I got a red card at Watford and I don’t think I’ll ever be happy about it because I genuinely didn’t do anything wrong, but complaining about it won’t achieve anything now. I’m just glad to be back in the team.”