Neil Redfearn has a history of near-misses with Leeds United. He never forgot the transfer that wasn’t at the height of his playing career: cash-plus-Alfie Haaland in exchange for his signature. George Graham made that offer to Barnsley, but Barnsley knocked it back.
On at least two occasions the manager’s job at Leeds (or the head coach’s role as United’s owner defines it) was just as close to his fingertips. He sits today where he might have sat in 2012 and again as recently as five weeks ago; in the throne and in control of the senior squad at Elland Road.
Redfearn made way with good grace last month when Massimo Cellino overlooked his work as caretaker and brought Darko Milanic in from Austria but part of him must have felt aggrieved. A few weeks on, he and Cellino would like the chance to re-run the weekend when Milanic stepped on a plane and embarked on a tenure of six games and 32 days.
On the night when Milanic and Cellino shook hands, Leeds were nicely in form. Redfearn had seen to that, more suited to the job and the strain it carried than he had been in either of his other two spells as caretaker.
Tomorrow, at Cardiff City, he takes responsibility for a team who are 18th in the Championship and in need of the same calming hand. Redfearn’s promotion has been popular at Thorp Arch. It would have been popular at the first time of asking.
Redfearn does not resent Cellino’s brief dalliance with Milanic. It is enough for him that a full-time run in the head coach’s job has come his way at all.
His contract is not signed yet but after tricky negotiations this week he has no expectation of further problems. This is a permanent position now, in his eyes and Cellino’s.
“It was hard to let it all go last time,” Redfearn said. “We were on a good run but it wasn’t a problem. I understood the situation and I just gave Massimo the opportunity to make a decision. I didn’t try to put myself in the position.
“My four games as caretaker were for me to help him. I could see the bigger picture. I’ve been in discussions with Massimo all the way down the line and I know what he’s trying to achieve here.
Back then, he was trying to protect me by putting me back in the academy.
“But things change in football. You’ve got to grasp your opportunities when they come along. If that means me picking everything up now and kicking on, so be it.”
Cellino’s motivation for choosing Milanic over Redfearn was partly down to his fear about the implications of ending Redfearn’s day-to-day involvement with the academy. He also liked Milanic’s cosmopolitan attributes – the ability to speak numerous languages in a dressing room of mixed nationalities, and a background in European football.
At close quarters Cellino soon took issue with Milanic’s style.
Too negative and too liable to incur defeats. He has a “losing mentality”, Cellino said. But Redfearn? “He gets results.” The 49-year-old got them in his four games as caretaker: 10 points from 12, the difference now between 18th position and a place in the Championship’s bottom three.
“I felt for Darko because he never had the rub of the green when he needed it,” Redfearn said. “Not when games were close. I watched the game against Wolves last weekend and the team started really well. From looking at that, there isn’t a great deal wrong. We’ve just got to find the extra bit needed to win games.
“I’ve proved that with these players we can get results. They’ve shown me they can do that so there’ll be no let-up.
“Tomorrow I want to get after Cardiff. I want to get at them and I want Cardiff to know they’re in a game. There’s a bit or pressure down there – pressure we can maybe cash in on if we’re positive.”
Positive was not a common description of Milanic. Defensive, cautious or simply negative, his football was less pleasing on the eye than Redfearn’s. “People’s have opinions about how coaches play and I think it’s wrong,” said Redfearn charitably. “All I’d say is that I want my side to have the ball and be comfortable with it.
“Don’t be afraid of making mistakes because you will make mistakes. But show people you care. Play with pride.” Redfearn cares about the club. Leeds are a source of pride for him. His lifelong connections to the club have been laid bare this week, revealing that for all his years of service to Barnsley, Leeds are his team and have been since his days growing up in West Yorkshire.
In the mid-1990s, Leeds almost became one of the multitude of clubs Redfearn signed for. Barnsley rejected Graham’s approach for him on the basis that they expected, wrongly, to survive in the Premiership during the 1997-98 season.
“I nearly played here,” Redfearn said. “When I was at Barnsley, George Graham tried to sign me. He offered money and Alfie Haaland but Barnsley knocked it back because they thought they were going to stay up – apparently.”
Experiences like that taught him to keep an open mind about the chances that came his way and others that passed him by. It is plain to see that Redfearn is more rounded, more robust and more confident now that he was when Leeds first considered naming him as Simon Grayson’s long-term replacement in 2012.
That spell was mixed and fraught in parts, and the permanent job went to Neil Warnock instead. Warnock said Redfearn was “relieved” to pass the responsibility on. It could be asked of Redfearn – and has been asked – whether it is rash of him to be accepting a position which two coaches have already lost this season after six competitive games in charge. In Italy, they call Cellino the manager-eater. They call him a lot of things.
But in their discussions this week, Redfearn found him to be more reflective and anxious for stability. “He brought that up more than me,” Redfearn said.
“A mistake people make is to set out with a certain goal – one certain goal. If you do that then sometimes you miss out on the journey and the experiences. I’ve picked up a lot of those along the way – some good and some bad. It’s stood me in good stead I feel.
“Massimo understands that it’ll take time for these players to gel. What he wants is progress. I think that’s all he wants – to see the players gel and a side to coming together. A side who prove that they’re capable on their day.”
The players. It was telling that in so many of his comments, Redfearn made a point of speaking about them. Football gets lost at Leeds, hidden behind the politics, the turmoil and the possibilities. Redfearn has been spoken about more than most this season; arguably second only to Cellino.
“The next round of discussions we have, I don’t want them to be about me,” he said. “They need to be about the club and the players.
“It shouldn’t ever be about the guy who’s in charge. It should always be about the players on the pitch. It’s should always be about Leeds United. However it works out for me is how it works out.”