Ross McCormack talks to Phil Hay about his time at United, McDermott, Cellino, promotion and what really happened on Mad Friday.
Like the Champions League, the Yorkshire Evening Post’s player of the year award has never been retained. Before this season, no player had won it twice. “That’s because everyone leaves,” Ross McCormack says. He’s joking, of course, but he’s not entirely wrong.
Rio Ferdinand, Alan Smith and Max Gradel – three players who received the award a few short months before quitting Leeds United. McCormack was nearly part of that list, put up for sale in 2012 until the club lost Robert Snodgrass and realised that they were in danger of bleeding their squad dry. Tomorrow, before United’s game against Derby County, McCormack will take the YEP’s trophy for a second time.
It had to be. The striker has been player-of-the-year-elect since November and a guaranteed nominee. That Ryan Hall – culled by Leeds for disciplinary reasons before Christmas – came second in the poll made an strangely salient point about how highly the squad around McCormack is regarded. The best that can be said of the Scotland international is not that he was the obvious choice this season but that in each of the past seven or eight years, his overwhelming impact would have run every winner close.
At Elland Road his 29 goals put him in a bracket with Jermaine Beckford, Lee Chapman, Peter Lorimer and John Charles. Of the last four players to score 30 times in one season, only Charles did so in league games. McCormack needs two goals to emulate Il Gigante Buono, a forward whose contemporaries described him as the best they played against. McCormack has earned similar appreciation in the Championship.
His unbroken form is not entirely unheralded. Twice before, at Leeds and Cardiff City, he has been in the ball-park of 20 goals but this season is nothing like his last, an experienced he dismissed as a “complete waste” a year ago. United made nothing more of this one but McCormack found himself immune to their mediocrity; less dour and unhappy than he was while Neil Warnock held the managerial whip. “I’ve had something quite special here, something I’ve never really had before,” he says. “I’m comfortable and happy and that comes from knowing you’ve got a manager in place who believes in you.
“A manager believing in you doesn’t mean he uses you a bit or says good things about you in the press. It means that if you have a bad game, you know you’ll start the next one. Too many bad games and you’ll get dropped, that’s football, but you’re not going to be pushed aside unfairly or made a scapegoat of. It makes a difference to how you feel and how freely you play. It’s made a difference to me.”
Brian McDermott, United’s manager as it stands and for as long as Massimo Cellino allows, has pinned everything to McCormack. The 27-year-old has started all of his games in charge bar one, a League Cup tie against Chesterfield. He signed a four-year contract last August, the longest deal a club like Leeds would ever offer a player who is highly valued but in his late 20s, and he took the captaincy in January. As for the value of his strikerate, ex-Leeds forward Mick Jones cut to the chase last week, saying: “If it hadn’t have been for his goals, they would have gone down.”
Leeds have not always looked to him with such gratitude. Simon Grayson signed McCormack in 2010 but took a year to involve him fully, though McCormack held no grudges about that. “Circumstances went against me,” he says. “I got injured on my first start and when I came back, Becchio had scored a few, Snodgrass was playing well, Max (Gradel) was playing well and Jonny Howson was playing well. There wasn’t a place in the team, simple as that.
“To be fair to Simon, any time I went to ask why I wasn’t involved he said ‘keep your head down. You’ll be a big player for me next year.’ And he stuck to his word.” It is not in dispute that McCormack’s relationship with Warnock was strained and less cordial.
McCormack wants McDermott to remain in place as manager next season – “Everyone knows what I think of him,” he says – but McDermott’s future, like many things, is Cellino’s business. The Italian has been brash and outspoken since buying out Gulf Finance House last month yet reticent in his own way. Even on Saturday night, he was in two minds about McDermott; unsure as to whether United’s standing in the Championship and their implosion since Christmas should end the 53-year-old’s tenure. McDermott’s deal has two years left to run.
“The manager deserves a chance,” McCormack says. “People from the outside don’t see it but when you’re managing of a club, you need a one-man band running it – someone you can turn to and get an answer from instantly.
“The channels you had to go through under GFH to get an answer about anything were ridiculous. Everything had to filter up so many levels and then down again. Take my contract last summer for talking’s sake. It took months to agree when really there was nothing to sort out. It wasn’t like I was asking for too much money or they were offering too little. It was basically done. But it took forever for someone to say ‘right, get it signed’.
“Under this guy (Cellino), I hope it’ll be recognised that in a settled environment, the manager’s proven he can win the league. He’s got to be given a chance to do his job properly, get his own players and put his stamp on the team. He deserves that at least.
“In the four years I’ve been here, I don’t feel we’ve ever spent much on players. Most of the teams who win promotion buy wisely and heavily. Even Burnley – people say they didn’t spend money but they spent half-a-million on Ashley Barnes so they’ve thrown a bit about. In life, you get what you pay for.”
McCormack’s own position is as questionable as McDermott’s. He is contracted for another three years but falls into the category of Championship players who Premier League clubs on limited budgets are bound to bid for.
Common sense says that McCormack in such good form is as likely to reach the conclusion that he is punching below his weight in the Championship.
“There’s no point in me sitting here saying that I don’t want to play in the Premier League, because I do,” he says. “I want to play there as soon as possible, But in my head there’s a lot to take into consideration.
“I think about the feeling of being at Elland Road on the last day of the season, winning promotion and being captain. That would surpass just playing in the Premier League for any old club, and I don’t say that lightly.”
But surely he would be reluctant to stick around for another season in which Leeds finished a mile beneath the play-offs? “Obviously,” he says. “We’ve had that for a couple of seasons now – started well and then faded away. I don’t want another year like that. Even if you’re not going up, you want to be close. It’s no good being done and dusted by the start of April.”
He says that parts of this season have “done your head in.” “The three months after Christmas, we didn’t look like we could buy a win,” McCormack says.
“I’d like to explain why but I don’t know. It was hard to be part of because you can feel the season getting away from you and you know the table’s not looking great. You don’t take a lot of pleasure from that.
“It’s really up to the owner to show his hand now and let everyone see what his plans for next season are. Because if the quotes from him are right and he’s said he doesn’t expect promotion next year, that’s not something us as players want to hear or hang around for. At the end of the day, you want to go up and be part of a promotion here.”
In his barnstorming conversation with a Leeds supporter – recorded without his knowledge and broadcast on the Internet – Cellino alleged that McCormack had appeared at Elland Road on transfer deadline day in January, demanding to leave in the aftermath of an attempt by Cellino to sack McDermott. Cardiff had bid for him, following on from an earlier approach from West Ham United, but Cellino refused to negotiate with either club.
McCormack does not dispute that he drove to Elland Road on Mad Friday but he contests that version of events. “I’ve heard reports that I went to ground and asked to leave but the truth is I didn’t meet Massimo,” he says. “I met someone working for him, some lawyer who people got to know a bit about (Chris Farnell), but I didn’t speak to Massimo. So that’s definitely not true.
“It wasn’t in my mind to leave and anyway it was about eight o’clock at night so I don’t see how a deal could have happened. I’m in Leeds and Cardiff’s miles away. There’s no way I could have got anywhere in time. But at the same time, clubs were bidding for me and no-one was telling me anything. I didn’t know if I was staying or if the club were about to try and sell me. I wanted some answers. No-one was able to give me them so I drove to the ground. It was a weird, weird night.”
McCormack accepted long ago that players make their own way in football. He began chasing the dream as a kid on the streets of Pollok in south Glasgow, a Celtic supporter. He trialled for Celtic’s Under-10 squad but was rejected for being too small so joined Rangers instead after a coach with his junior side, Hillwood Boys Club, began working at the Ibrox academy. Some would think of it as playing for the dark side. McCormack was happy to take his chance.
“Glasgow’s different to a lot of cities in the world,” he says. “Everything’s football. Every decision you make as a kid is about football – when and where you play, which teams you’ll go to watch, how you’re going to get your next game. Looking at the rivalry you might not think it but we’re all the same up there. We all want the same thing – to play.”