Jimmy Kebe’s move to Leeds reunited him with Brian McDermott, the man the winger says is the right manager for United. Phil Hay reports.
The cost of flights to France and the price of tickets to watch a little-known Jimmy Kebe was some of the best money Brian McDermott spent.
His scouting trips in 2008 uncovered a potent winger, a long-term friend and an ally who still has his back.
McDermott warmed to Kebe because of the pace and craft he showed in the French lower leagues and his advice to Reading as chief scout was to arrange the transfer sharpish. But Kebe’s personality is equally intriguing; sharp, brave and staunchly loyal.
A video on YouTube records a mouth-dropping interview given by the French-born Mali international to local radio after Reading were beaten by Manchester City before Christmas in 2012.
Given a platform to speak, Kebe entered territory that managers prefer to avoid and most players consider off-limits, laying into Reading owner Anton Zingarevich for “not spending any money” and consigning the club to 20th position in he Premier League. And as for any criticism of McDermott’s role in a hard season? “That’s bulls***,” Kebe replied.
These are the players you need in your camp, particularly when pressure starts to bite. To that end, Kebe and McDermott have been reunited at the perfect time. Leeds United’s manager is in one of those periods where no amount of support is too much.
This week will rank as the most trying of McDermott’s tenure to date and, he must hope, the most trying he ever has at Elland Road. Signed eight days ago, Kebe was given a full picture of United’s circumstances when he made his debut in a 6-0 rout at Sheffield Wednesday. The result queried his own claim that promotion with United was his “only target”.
But he has faith in McDermott and plenty of it. The two men were, in Kebe’s words, “good for each other” at Reading and the 29-year-old thinks McDermott will be good for Leeds long term. That opinion is in spite of the four defeats leading up to today’s game against Leicester City.
“You know how it is in football,” he said. “You know how it is for a manager. You lose a few games and you’re under pressure. People say ‘we need to change this, we need to change that, we need new players, we need a new manager.’ It’s always the same, you need a new everything.
“But you have to think about it and look at it; like, really look at it. What is three or four games? It’s a bad run but every team has bad runs. In another three or four games we could be winning every week. So what then? Is everything so bad?
“He (McDermott) is a guy with big ambitions and what I learned about him at Reading is that he only cares about getting the best out of the team. He just does his job. He’ll get it right here, of course he will. I can say that for sure because he got it right before.”
The likes of Kebe at Leeds should help him to do so. Quick and inventive and deprived only of perfect match fitness, the winger was a prime signing last week. Leicester and Brighton wanted him but McDermott’s first conversation with Kebe convinced him to move north from Crystal Palace on loan until May.
Kebe has played sporadically for Palace this season and he was one of several players at Selhurst Park earmarked for a transfer during the January window. He still had no inkling that McDermott was planning to look to him again, obvious though that particular move was.
“I hadn’t thought about it so I was quite surprised when he phoned,” Kebe said. “But I know him very well.
“Reading were my first English club and he really gave me my chance in England.
“He did good stuff with Reading as a manager if you look at his past. He’s got big ambitions, big ambitions to do well.
“Back then I needed someone to believe in me. He gave me a lot of confidence by trusting me and letting me play. It wasn’t him saying ‘do whatever you like’ but he said ‘if this is the way you play best then go with that.’ I think I gave confidence back to him with the way I performed on the pitch and the work I did for him. So we’re a good partnership in a way.
“It was all straightforward in the end. As soon as he called me I said ‘yeah I want to come’. I was very happy to hear from him.”
A couple of days later Kebe was subjected to the debut from hell at Hillsborough. His little flickers of ability in the first half were one of the few things that McDermott was able to cling to as Leeds conceded six goals and came apart at the seams.
McDermott’s response was to call every one of his players into Thorp Arch the following morning and open the floor to views and opinions about why United’s form had crumbled. Kebe tried to be philosophical, saying: “It’s just three points, just one game.
“For sure we were embarrassed about the result and it hurts.
“But at the end of the day, it’s just three points. You make sure you do the right things in the next game.
“It’s a good group here. They’re working hard. They just need to believe a little bit more, maybe. Believe that we can actually make the play-offs. Because that’s why I came, it’s my only target.
“The team will start believing when we get a few wins in a row.”
That was Reading’s trick while McDermott and Kebe were in situ at the Madejski Stadium.
They won eight straight matches in 2011 – a run ended by Leeds at Elland Road – to reach the play-offs and claimed 15 victories from 17 games on the way to the Championship title the following year.
McDermott’s attention this week has been more short-term.
“Fundamentally, the only thing I’m concerned about is winning against Leicester,” he said on Thursday. Between his afternoon at Sheffield Wednesday and a game against the Championship leaders, Kebe will be fully reacquainted with the division by three o’clock this afternoon.
“It’s different,” he said. “There are more quality teams in the Premier League and the football’s much quicker.
“But the Championship is a much stronger division, a much harder division to be fair.
“You never get a free game. I spent four years in the division with Reading so I know about the division. And I like it to be honest.”