Leeds United: Phil Neville’s comments were out of order - Hay

Nicola Salerno and Darko Milanic
Nicola Salerno and Darko Milanic
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Ex-Manchester United defender Phil Neville criticised Darko Milanic’s appointment but Phil Hay says the Slovenian has earned his chance at Leeds.

“It’s a disgrace,” said Phil Neville, and he wasn’t talking about Marcos Rojo’s ball retention. Welcome to England, Darko Milanic – or “a lad from Slovenia I’ve never heard of” as Neville kindly put it.

The two men played at the same European Championship in 2000 – Milanic as Slovenia’s captain, Neville as the left-back who condemned England in the group stages – but no matter. A real name from a real country please. None of this speaks-four- languages nonsense.

Milanic might be many things but Leeds United’s new boss is no empty suit. There are certain coaches in Europe – many of them old, some no longer active – who built up records in the eastern bloc with unrivalled establishment clubs but Milanic never worked behind the iron curtain. He’s a modern thinker with modern qualifications, as Neville should know. Neville’s been working towards the UEFA Pro Licence that Milanic received last year.

There’s a danger in football of being blinded by science and coaching badges only prove so much. They’re no substitute for innovation or vision but UEFA’s ‘A’ licence is the ticket nonetheless. You can’t manage in the Premier League without it (unless the Premier League decides that you can) and coaches these days strive for it, despite the commitment – a minimum of 240 hours of practical and academic work.

So Milanic is not a stupid appointment, to use Neville’s words. It’s a brave appointment and an unpredictable appointment but if Milanic is seen as under-qualified then you have to ask why. Because he isn’t English? Because he hasn’t worked here before? He’s got the right paperwork so scepticism about him can be nothing to do with his training. But the 46-year-old has no profile or reputation in these parts, an unknown name plucked from Austria. Very Massimo Cellino.

In all of this there’s an underlying tone of disregard for his past employment. It’s the idea of Slovenia as a footballing backwater where trophies are easy to come by. Especially if your club is Maribor.

There’s an element of truth in the second part. When Leeds toured Slovenia in the summer of 2013, we learned a bit about the pecking order of the PrvaLiga. The average Slovenian club has a playing budget of 400,000 Euros. Maribor’s budget is 2.5m Euros. Naturally, they take honours by the score and are always in Europe. It’s the job to have in Slovenia.

But Milanic won nine trophies in five seasons as head coach and a first domestic treble. It’s natural to equate his position there to the odds-on task of managing Rangers or Celtic but numerous coaches have made a mess of the Old Firm. Paul Le Guen did not survive one season at Ibrox. Tony Mowbray – a recent applicant for the job at Leeds – fell inside 10 months at Celtic. Maribor are no more inclined to tolerate a shambles. The club have standards.

That Milanic committed himself to a rigid, outdated 4-4-2 in Slovenia is not really relevant. He had the players for that formation and it worked. Opinion is more divided over how well it served him at Sturm Graz last season. Some say it was a pragmatic approach which kept the club out of trouble. Others saw it as a turgid style which earned him no kudos. He’s respected at Graz, though. In eight years as a player there, the club won multiple trophies. Take time to look and Milanic’s career is dotted with them.

The crux of Neville’s contempt for him – aired on Five Live – was the fact that Milanic had taken charge at Leeds at the expense of Neil Redfearn – another Pro Licence holder. It’s a fair point of view. Redfearn has given United excellent service – six years as academy manager – and there was more confidence and assurance in his third spell as caretaker than there was in his previous two.

He looked ready for promotion and if this wasn’t his time then a senior coaching role is more likely to come at another club.

It’s no surprise that Redfearn has grown as a coach. Years of developing players should convince anyone that they know the game and know the score. Cellino could have gone for him and said so himself. But replacing Redfearn as academy boss was 10 times the task of replacing David Hockaday. At least this time Redfearn is below a man who merits the top job.

Leeds cannot be indicted for failing to go British. They’ve been going British since day one. Aside from David O’Leary – an Irishman born in London to an English mother – Milanic is the first foreign coach of United since 1919. They went English with Neil Warnock to no avail and English with Brian McDermott without success. Cellino went English with Hockaday with no rhyme or reason and rued the day. In such a cosmopolitan dressing room, this was as good a time as any for Cellino to look abroad.

Predicting the outcome of Milanic’s appointment is a waste of time and effort. There are far too many variables at Elland Road to read his prospects with certainty, and Warnock and McDermott both proved that Leeds United is a different job; “another world” as Milanic said last weekend. But step out of the insular environment of English football and it’s fairly clear that he’s done the groundwork. The fact that the great and the good in this country know nothing about him is not his shortcoming or his problem.

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The problem for the Football League – which should not imply that the organisation has only one – is that Massimo Cellino’s tax conviction is constantly subject to change.

Leeds United’s owner has appealed the ruling against him and will have his case reviewed in Cagliari in December. Which causes a complication for the League. Disqualify him as a director now and its decision might be null and void before 2014 is out.

Cellino, conceivably, could lose that appeal. But even then the devil is in the detail. Under UK law his conviction for failing to pay import duty on a private yacht will be declared spent in March of next year, 12 months after the date of the Sardinian court’s guilty verdict.

The 58-year-old received a fine of 600,000 Euros and for a long time, a conviction leading to a fine was considered spent in Britain after five years. But the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 was amended in March, days before Sandra Lepore found Cellino guilty of tax evasion. Football League rules ban anyone with an unspent conviction for dishonesty from owning or sitting as a director at any of its 72 clubs. Spent punishments are disregarded.

The governing body has not actually laid its hands on a copy of Lepore’s written judgement yet so the argument over whether Cellino acted dishonestly in avoiding tax continues to rage in the dark but the confusion over Cellino’s status is like nothing it has seen before.

In short (and ignoring the fact that the Italian has other cases court arising soon), the League has less than six months before Cellino’s conviction is spent; six months to bar him, fight off any legal challenges, force him to sell his shares in the club and sanction a takeover. No chance, you would think. And definitely not with any co-operation from Cellino and Leeds.

It is not at all clear what the League wants to do with him. Its chief executive, Shaun Harvey, gave the impression earlier this month that battle lines would be drawn again if Lepore’s judgement was damning but the League as a body has said nothing. A fortnight ago there was doubt about whether Lepore’s written verdict even existed – not that the League had asked the court in Cagliari for it – but The Guardian answered that question with a detailed review of it on Wednesday. The League’s next move is a mystery and has been for weeks.

It should be shrewd enough to realise that another attack on Cellino will garner very little support in Leeds. He can be on the edge, as his dismissal of consultant Graham Bean proves, but people whose concern starts and ends with Leeds United have found things about him to admire. They like the players he has signed and recently, they’ve liked the style of the team. They like the fact that football actually registers with Cellino, pictured right, as a priority.

But beyond that, when he bought Leeds in April the club were deferring wages, late with their tax bills, refusing to pay any others and defaulting on loans. Taking that in hand must count for something. So two questions if the League decides to take up this fight again: is the primary concern Leeds United or is the primary concern the application of the rules? And above all else, what alternative to Cellino is anyone suggesting?

Leeds United head coach Thomas Christiansen. 
(Picture Jonathan Gawthorpe)

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