The exit of Leeds United’s captain less than 24 hours after the closing of the summer transfer deadline window came as a surprise to many people. He tells his side of the story to the YEP’s Phil Hay.
Sol Bamba walked out of Leeds United as a player whose powers of defending were diminishing.
But history will remember him as a captain who had the nerve to stick his neck out. The end of the season was traditionally Bamba’s time, for speaking his mind and saying what needed to be said.
This season he failed to make it beyond the end of the first month and last Thursday, less than 24 hours after the end of the transfer window, he and Leeds parted company by mutual consent.
The initial confusion at finding himself so surplus to requirements gave way to a feeling of relief during time abroad with his family in France. The old rule applied: he could respect a coach who fronted up and spoke to him in black and white.
Some would say the writing was on the wall for Bamba when Garry Monk left him out of Leeds’ squad at Nottingham Forest before the international break, effectively categorising the 31-year-old as the fourth choice in a group of four centre-backs.
“I never went knocking on his door or asking questions,” Bamba said. “I never took my place for granted, even as captain.
“To me the captaincy isn’t a guarantee of playing. If a manager doesn’t think I deserve to be in the team then I always respect that opinion. It’s fine. But I can’t lie – I thought Forest was a wake-up call for me. I thought it was the manager saying ‘if you don’t play better you’ll be out of the squad’.
“After that game he spoke to me and he was very honest. He said it would be best if I moved on. There and then it was a surprise. It wasn’t what I expected when the season started.”
In the days that followed, Bamba began to see the situation differently. He had less than a year on his contract at Elland Road and did not like the thought of months spent twiddling his thumbs.
Leeds said at first that he was leaving for personal reasons but Monk offered more clarity on Thursday by saying that an out-of-favour Bamba would not have benefitted anyone.
“It wouldn’t be a healthy situation,” Monk admitted. Bamba confirmed that the decision was Monk’s but said he was grateful for his honesty.
“I’m much closer to the end of my career than the start of it so the worst thing for me would be to sit around at a club, thinking I’m going to play when the manager has no intention of playing me. I’ve no problem with Garry at all and I respect him for being open about it.
“Let’s be fair, if I’m not going to play then it’s better for me to leave. I’m not into sitting about just because I’ve got a contract. Some managers would leave you doing nothing without an explanation but he’s a really good guy. There was no personal issue between us, none at all.”
Bamba lost his place after United’s first three league games returned one point and that courtesy of an overhead kick from Chris Wood at the very end of a 1-1 draw with Fulham. Criticism of his performances was audible and Bamba did not disagree with it.
“I think anyone watching me knew I wasn’t close to the level I can play at at my best,” he said. “I wasn’t happy with my performances. They weren’t good enough.
“But it was early in the season and I felt confident I’d improve with more games. I was ready to fight and I knew in the summer that we’d have four centre-backs here. The manager told me he wanted to sign two more.
“But everything comes to an end and when it came to me agreeing to go, no-one got in the way of anything and no-one was difficult. It was all handled properly.”
Bamba did not see the length of Massimo Cellino’s time as owner of the club, joining on an initial loan from Palermo eight months after Cellino bought a majority stake in Leeds, but he saw the breadth of it: the ownership bans, the controversy, the disputes which went to the heart of United’s dressing room, particularly in the 2014-15 season.
Bamba was moved to speak candidly at the end of that season, criticising Cellino’s management of the club and the uncertain atmosphere which the squad were playing in. Those comments were largely repeated a year later when, as Steve Evans clung to the head coach’s job with his fingernails, Bamba bemoaned a lack of organisation which saw Leeds’ players depart for the summer without a start date for pre-season.
On the second occasion he was under contract and protected by that deal but first time around, at the end of his loan, a permanent transfer from Palermo was at stake. Cellino agreed to sign him regardless of Bamba’s outspoken interview.
“Without taking things too far, I felt it was part of my job to speak honestly,” Bamba said. “The lads were dying for me to say something because none of us were happy about how things were.
“I spoke out for them and I spoke out for myself. I thought ‘if I don’t say something, who will?’
“It wasn’t me trying to cause trouble. I just don’t like it when things aren’t right and sometimes that message needs to come from people on the inside, people like me. I tried to do it with as much diplomacy as possible but I was always going to speak my mind. That’s just me.”
One of the biggest controversies in Bamba’s first season at Leeds was the late withdrawal of six players through injury before a 2-1 defeat away at Charlton Athletic in April 2015.
Doubt was cast over the severity of those injuries and the spate of absences was widely seen as an attempt by the foreign contingent to undermine United’s then head coach, Neil Redfearn. Leeds defended the six bitterly and Bamba, who played in that game, also believes the group were hard done to. “At first all I knew was that we’d got on the bus and they weren’t travelling,” he said. “I had no idea what the truth was. Afterwards, I tried to go deeper into it because I wanted to know if they were lying.
“I spoke to them personally and they were adamant that they were injured. I spoke to Harvey (Sharman, United’s former head physiotherapist) and he said they genuinely had injuries. Maybe other players would have played through them but that wasn’t really the point. I had a really good relationship with Harvey and he wouldn’t lie to me. If they were faking it then he’d have told me.”
In 18 months, Bamba played under four different coaches. In Monk he says Leeds have acquired someone who can “do really good things for the club if the owner gives him the time”. Bamba was once a Leicester City player and says that four years on from his exit, the continuity of that club is still apparent; a lesson for Leeds in the pursuit of promotion.
“It’s a bit of cliche to use Leicester as an example but there are plenty of people there who I worked with and still speak to,” he said. “Yeah, there have been plenty of changes too, people coming and going like every club, but I still recognise a lot of the structure there.
“At Leeds there hasn’t been the same continuity. It’s a problem and it becomes difficult for everyone. Results haven’t always been great either, I know that, and as players you have to hold your hands up. But when people say ‘get it right on the pitch and the other stuff will take care of itself’, I don’t really agree. They both need to be right or it won’t work. You’ve seen that at Leeds.
“What I would say is that I think the club’s direction is better now that it’s been before. To me that’s down to the manager they’ve appointed. He’s played the game before at a high level so he’s easy to respect. He never puts on coaching sessions where you’re thinking ‘what’s the point in this?’ Everything is explained, everything has a reason. He’ll do really good things if the owner gives him the time.
“Every time a coach goes, things change. Staff change, players change, everything. I’m always happy to fight for my place but sometimes it feels like you’re starting afresh every two minutes. At the end of the day though, I’ve loved these 18 months. I’m not going to have a go at anyone. Leeds are probably the best club I’ll play for.”
Bamba already has options in England and options abroad and is taking a few weeks to consider his next move. The squad he leaves behind, 21st in the Championship ahead of today’s derby with Huddersfield Town, is one he thinks can make the play-offs this season, despite a poor start.
“The quality’s not really come through yet,” he said. “What I’ve seen of the team (in training) is much better than what you saw last month. So 100 per cent I think the play-offs are possible. It just needs performances like we got at Sheffield Wednesday.
“It’s sad not to be part of it anymore but the manager made it clear that I wasn’t going to be part of it anyway and I’m grateful for being told that and told early on. We can all move on with no hard feelings. That’s how you want it to be.”
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