There’s a well-worn phrase about keeping your head while all around you are losing theirs. Thorp Arch is a fairly subdued place these days but Leeds United never live far from the edge.
The club have been without a head coach for two weeks and on Tuesday the chief executive of the Football League raised the threat level to owner Massimo Cellino by warning his fit-and-proper status might soon be called into question.
The Italian spent the international break in America, leaving the management of United’s first-team squad to caretaker Neil Redfearn. In that fortnight, the odds on the identity of the club’s next head coach have fluctuated spectacularly and without good reason. Roberto Di Matteo’s price fell sharply on Wednesday after Dominic Matteo was linked with the job. Terry Potter, Leeds’ little-known head of recruitment, appeared in the betting too, apparently the result of prank by some friends. “Somebody’s having a bit of fun,” said Redfearn kindly.
All that is besides the fact that in the first month of the season, Leeds sacked David Hockaday after six games in charge and scrambled six points from five Championship matches. There is mountainous pressure at Elland Road but very little on Redfearn. United’s academy boss cuts a calm, relaxed figure – calm enough to make you think that the uncertainty of the outside world might not be reaching the club’s players.
Tomorrow’s game at Birmingham City is Redfearn’s second as caretaker, or his second in this spell. He has taken up the role so often that his senior fixtures in charge already number six. He won’t say if he wants the job full-time and he claims that in all of their conversations, he and Cellino have not discussed the possibility. It’s suggested to him that he looks quite comfortable in his seat. “Should I be panicking?” he asked.
It has not always been this pleasurable for him. During his first period as caretaker, he took a battering from United’s supporters during a defeat at Coventry City and was, in the words of Neil Warnock, relieved to pass the reins on. In his second, he reacted to an injury-time loss at Charlton Athletic by telling United’s board in the politest possible fashion to get their finger out, make a permanent appointment and stave off relegation from the Championship. Those experiences are there for him to draw on now.
“You definitely learn how to deal with players,” Redfearn said. “You have to remember that it’s not just the staff who are changing. The players have to witness the change and go through it too – different ideas and different ways of playing, all the uncertainty. I’m very mindful of that now.
“Last time (away at Charlton) the club were in a far more difficult position. I could sense the need for something to be done right and done quickly. This time if I can get everything upbeat and get the place going, pick up a result or a couple of results, then whoever’s coming in will be in a much better position. If the first team’s winning then the whole club’s happy. I’m pro-Leeds United, you all know that, and I desperately want the club to do well. I also want the players to be ready for whatever happens next. I haven’t put myself under any pressure and I haven’t given myself any deadlines. I’m not in a position to do that anyway.”
Redfearn’s self-confidence was evident in his management of United’s 1-0 win over Bolton Wanderers last month. The team chosen was his, rather than Hockaday’s or even Cellino’s. Two academy players, Lewis Cook and Alex Mowatt, played in midfield and Sam Byram would have started at right-back were he not in the middle of a three-match ban. Suspension will keep him out at St Andrews tomorrow but Cook and Mowatt are likely to start again.
“I don’t think there’ll be a raft of changes,” Redfearn said. “The side against Bolton looked quite balanced to me. I thought we were good for an hour and just lost our way for half-an-hour. So the basis of what we’ll do tomorrow is probably there. Massimo wants the players to pass the ball more and be braver on it but that’s how lads like Alex and Lewis have been brought up in the academy. There’ll be days when it doesn’t work for them but that’s when they’ll learn.
“We’ve actually got a well-balanced group here and a group who are quite young. There’s a lot of scope in terms of how you could play, systems and styles. Underneath, there’s a really strong youth base for a head coach to pick from. To my mind, the club’s right at the tip of being something exciting and something really good.”
Cellino said this week that in spite of the flood of applications for the vacant job at Leeds, he could not see “anyone better” than Redfearn to hold the fort here and now. The 58-year-old did not go so far as confirming that Redfearn had a chance of taking the job full-time but he was confident enough in his caretaker to put 4,000 miles between them during the international break.
Redfearn described his job as one of “integration” on account of the 15 new signings made by Cellino during the summer transfer window. Eight of those arrived last month alone and with an average age of 24, the predominantly foreign influx could be seen as a threat to products of United’s academy. But Redfearn has naturally loyalty to the players he has produced and a high opinion of Cook, Mowatt and others. There was no sense against Bolton of him trying to accommodate as many new faces as possible.
“You put good players in good positions,” Redfearn said. “If a good player is a good player, it doesn’t matter if they’re from abroad, the academy or already at the club. If they’re good enough you’ve got to go with them. What has been healthy is our young players and the young players who’ve come in integrating well. They all bring something different to the table and that’s apparent when you take training. It might be two steps forward and one step back to begin with because there’s a lot of newness. But in the long-term, for the club, I think it’s exciting.”
The 44-year-old claimed he had no opinion on who would be best for the head coach’s job; only a view on what type of person it should be. “It’s got to be someone who loves coaching,” he said. “It’s got to be someone who wants to be a coach. But this club’s different. It’s got a real family feel. The supporters like to feel like it’s a family. They like the togetherness and to feel like everybody cares; like they’re all pulling in the right direction. It’s important to them and I understand that. Whoever takes this job needs to understand that. There’s a lot of scope here. It just needs pulling together.”