Support for Brian McDermott from both players and backroom staff has been unwavering during tumultuous times. Phil Hay reports.
However abandoned Brian McDermott felt as he fought for his job at Leeds United, he never had cause to doubt the support of his players or his backroom staff.
Confidence in McDermott was hard to find at Elland Road on the night when his employment as manager briefly ended but he has discovered over time that United’s squad are as defensive of him as the supporters who railed against his sacking on the first weekend of February.
Ross McCormack, the club’s captain, spoke out in defence of McDermott within hours of his aborted dismissal and Jason Pearce – another of Leeds’ most established players this season – talked of his relief at the 52-year-old’s survival following a 1-1 draw at Queens Park Rangers on Saturday.
In between mad Friday and last weekend’s game at Loftus Road, McDermott has seen enough in his squad’s performances to believe that their mixed results are no reflection of a lack of faith in him. It could not be said that Leeds are beset by a squad refusing to play for their manager. Their comments give the opposite impression.
Five of the players who started at QPR were players signed by McDermott. One of them, midfielder Luke Murphy, is his most expensive signing to date and the first for almost a decade to have cost Leeds £1m.
Murphy has more reason than most to feel in debt to United’s boss and he was as pleased as McCormack and Pearce to see McDermott come safely through the havoc which threatened to end his tenure after less than nine months.
“It was a situation that no-one deserved to be put through,” Murphy said.
“He deserves the utmost respect for what he’s done in his career and the way he dealt with things was first class. His standards never slipped and he kept his head held high.
“We were definitely glad to see him stay. He brought me in and I’ve got huge respect for him. I owe him a lot. I was sad to hear he’d been sacked but when he was reinstated, that was good news all round.”
McDermott was dismissed by a lawyer representing prospective Leeds owner Massimo Cellino on the evening of January 31, less than 24 hours before a derby between United and Huddersfield Town at Elland Road.
While members of the Leeds board worked to re-instate him, the squad were managed in the interim by assistant boss Nigel Gibbs and routed Huddersfield 5-1. Even the decision to give Gibbs temporary control was a late one. The previous night, Gianluca Festa – a close friend of Cellino’s and a man who had watched training sessions at Thorp Arch that week – and first-team coach Neil Redfearn had been told that the responsibility would be theirs.
“That whole weekend was really weird,” Murphy said. “I was out for some food on the Friday night and I had no signal or Wi-fi on my phone where we were eating. I didn’t have a clue what was going on.
“It was only when I got out of the restaurant that I found out what had happened. It was strange.
“But what’s happened off the pitch hasn’t affected us (the players) at all. We’re staying well out of it. There was a lot going on a few weeks ago but since then it’s been business as usual.
“It’s all fine and things are very calm, just like they were before. There aren’t people watching training or anything like that. Everything is back to normal and and nothing has changed.”
The same is true of the league table. Leeds were eight points behind the Championship’s play-off positions on the Monday morning when McDermott’s reinstatement was confirmed and the club are the same margin adrift ahead of successive home games against Bolton Wanderers and Reading.
McDermott has a reputation for mounting decisive runs – built in his three seasons at Reading – and United strengthened his hand late in the day by signing Jack Butland and Connor Wickham towards the end of last month. A move for Nathan Ake, Chelsea’s Dutch Under-21 international, was rejected on Friday.
“The club still believe,” said Murphy. “Otherwise they wouldn’t have brought in two massive names. They’re international players and it was a statement that the club and manager aren’t settling for second best. We really want to push on and get promoted. The manager’s done late runs before and he knows what’s needed to get into the top six.
“This is obviously a different team but he’s putting his ideas across and we’re taking on board what he knows to try and get the job done.
“It’s an old cliché but until it’s mathematically impossible, you have to believe you can get in the play-offs. Otherwise there’s no point trying to achieve anything.
“We’ve got a few home games coming up now and that gives us a chance. Our home form has been good so these four games could be crucial.”
The postponement of United’s league match against Charlton Athletic on February 15 left them without a home fixture for more than a month and they will line-up at Elland Road this weekend for the first time since McDermott reclaimed his job as manager.
The past five weeks have taken Leeds to Yeovil, Brighton, Middlesbrough and QPR and those four away matches yielded a total of five points.
Bolton, meanwhile, come to Yorkshire on Saturday encouraged by two straight wins over Watford and Blackburn Rovers and the decreasing threat of relegation.
“It’ll be nice to get back to Elland Road,” Murphy said. “We’ve had four tough away games in a row but in hindsight I think we’ve done okay of late.
“Bolton will be tough opponents though. We went to their place earlier in the season and got a great result. They know they won’t be in for an easy game but they’ll come here believing they have nothing to lose.”