Former boss Brian McDermott was putting on a brave face for the media even as the club prepared to swing the axe. Phil Hay reports.
You questioned first of all whether Brian McDermott would turn up. Then you wondered if his press conference for today’s derby against Huddersfield Town might turn into a farewell speech. And in the end you asked why no-one else at Leeds United showed the courage to confront the many questions McDermott struggled to answer.
At 1pm yesterday Leeds had a manager in a state of bewilderment, as uninformed and beset as the boss of a Championship club could ever be. By 8pm they had no manager at all; a “shocked and devastated” McDermott had been told that a takeover of United left no the end for him. Deep down, he knew the sack was coming.
The strain at Thorp Arch was evident yesterday afternoon as Gulf Finance House, United’s owner in Bahrain, worked towards a sale of shares to Massimo Cellino, but McDermott faced the media anyway. Before long he was asked to consider the possibility that today’s game at Elland Road might be his last.
“I’ve no idea about that,” he said. “The only thing that matters to me is the game against Huddersfield. As a football manager, every time could be your last time. That’s how it works.”
That’s how it works when you have Cellino on your shoulder, a businessman with a habit of treating coaches ruthless. He had not even been confirmed as United’s new owner before he followed through with the semi-veiled threat that McDermott would be shown the door as soon as GFH gave the Italian the keys to it.
Yesterday was transfer deadline day but at the training ground you would not have known it. McDermott spoke briefly about interest in Paul Green and the possibility of Luke Varney leaving for Blackburn Rovers, and an offer for Zac Thompson – the largely-forgotten youngster – came in this week. Ross McCormack, it seemed, was staying for now and Leeds rejected an offer of £4m from his former club Cardiff City before last night’s deadline passed. He was valued, McDermott was not.
As for signings of his own, McDermott expected none – or none that he wanted. Throughout the second half of the January window it was apparent that the shambles of Sport Capital’s takeover unfolding and collapsing in front of him would give him little if any chance in what remained of the market. Queries about transfers were few yesterday, on a day when football was talking about nothing else.
There were whispers around the training ground of possible Italian arrivals, echoing much of what has been said in Cellino’s homeland about how United’s squad would look if he took charge. Imports from Italy are highly likely on his say-so and a change of manager was a certain consequence of a buy-out by him.
Cellino, who has owned and run Cagliari since 1992, was quoted yesterday as saying that he needed a “coach not a manager” and earlier this week he made an unsuccessful attempt to place Gianluca Festa, the former Middlesbrough defender, on McDermott’s bench for United’s 1-1 draw with Ipswich Town. The message could not have been clearer.
In his final press conference McDermott kept a dignified silence about all that had gone on behind the scenes and the nightmare of working for a club in talks with a buyer who blatantly wishes to sack him, in spite of his record, his contract or his potential. Sympathy? “No thank you,” McDermott replied or words to that effect. He has it all the same.
“Football management, it can happen anywhere,” he reflected. “Look at Malky (Mackay, at Cardiff City). Look at Brian McDermott at Reading. That’s management. But I love the job and to be the manager of this club is an absolute privilege.
“I don’t have answers (about the takeover) and the ownership situation is what it is. You need to ask the owners about that. Everyone knows it needs to be sorted. But I know where I am. I’ll tell you. We’ve got a big game against Huddersfield coming up, the players have trained really well this week and we’re looking forward to it.
“You’ve got to make the most of every single game you’ve got, especially when you’re manager of Leeds United. It’s never a pain to be manager of Leeds United. You go through things but I’m resilient and I’m tougher than I look. I swear to you, I don’t want any sympathy. I’m manager of Leeds United. How can you want sympathy? It’s a privilege, and absolute privilege. I walk into the ground for every game and think of all the things that have happened there over the years. No-one has to have sympathy for me.”
The swell of public opinion still says that the sacking of McDermott at this juncture is an unmitigated disgrace, in spite of the way the club’s results have tailed off and imploded in the past month. The messy failure of Sport Capital’s takeover – touted for the best part of two months as a sure thing – and the arrival of Cellino at GFH’s table gave McDermott some mitigation for United’s performances, not that excuses from him have been prevalent.
It was hard for to know who to turn to for help this week. He had discussions with David Haigh – United’s managing director, an executive with GFH subsidiary GFH Capital and the most prominent member of the Sport Capital consortium – acting chief executive Paul Hunt and an official at GFH in Bahrain. But GFH itself voiced doubts about McDermott’s suitability last month and Cellino took the same attitude. Having agreed a deal with the Islamic bank, the Italian quickly begin calling the shots and firing them. Even if the Football League oppose his buy-out, its resistance will come too late for McDermott.
Asked about his state of mind prior to his dismissal, McDermott said: “My state of mind is focused, completely and utterly, on the job in hand. The job in hand for me is football, nothing else.
“The only circumstances I’m looking at are the Huddersfield game.
“That’s what I do. Because I’m a football man and this is about football. It’s about our supporters. You have to be professional.
He was quizzed about Cellino but sensibly declined to comment. He was also asked whether he expected to be manager on Monday morning. “I signed a contract, a long-term contract, and I’ve got two and half years on that,” he said. That deal was given to him last April, 36 games ago. “As a manager of a football club, you can’t guarantee anything. The most important thing is that we get a result (today). That will make life easier. This is how football is in this day and age. Anything I can’t affect, I can’t affect. But I appreciate the support I’ve had since I turned up here. It’s been fantastic. These supporters are proper. They’re a one-off, they really are.
“I’m going to really enjoy the game against Huddersfield. It’s a derby, and for me it’s a privilege to be walking out in front of that crowd. I can’t wait.”
But Cellino’s trigger finger denied him even that simple courtesy.