Phil Hay: It’s time to stick or twist with Leeds United boss McDermott

Brian McDermott and Massimo Cellino

Brian McDermott and Massimo Cellino

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Leeds United’s owner Massimo Cellino needs to decide whether to stand by Brian McDermott or put him out of his misery and bring his own man in.

You know that Brian McDermott is manager of Leeds United because he’s where the manager should be: sat behind a microphone or stood in front of the dug-out. The proof that he still has a job is the absence of any evidence to the contrary.

Massimo Cellino has left him be, in a way which should prepare McDermott for the worst. Leeds have been Italian-owned for three weeks and Italian-funded for far longer than that, but for all of Cellino’s spectacular rhetoric, he says most about his manager by saying nothing.

A colleague of McDermott’s, sacked by a different club a few years ago, said he knew his time was up when his chairman stopped making any effort to reassure him behind closed doors. In public, the party line was rigid and supportive but privately the man who mattered kept his distance.

McDermott will relate to that. He has received what can only be described as deflated votes of confidence from Cellino – “He is our employee, we are paying him. Why should I get rid?” – but United’s owner is not breaking his back to seek McDermott out and lay his cards on the table. They arranged to meet this week but didn’t. They are due to meet next week and must. McDermott has dangled for long enough. Either cut the string or pull him up. There is nothing guarding the 53-year-old now, other than a contract which would cost Cellino more than £1m to pay up. There is little protection for anyone at Elland Road. Employees there expect a bloodbath over the next few weeks, the combined effect of a new broom and an abomination of a season, but in footballing terms the revolution starts with the manager. And it starts once Cellino decides if McDermott has any part in it.

The decision is more benign than it was when Cellino tried and failed to sack McDermott in January. This time he needn’t worry about supporters chasing his taxi in and out of Elland Road, or about his safety at the following home game. McDermott’s personal guard is diminished and less reactive than it was. His dismissal would cause disappointment with some but the mood won’t stretch to outrage. Drastic change is unavoidable at Leeds; people have come to accept that, whatever form it takes.

It could be argued that the constant frailty of McDermott’s position has radicalised some who previously resisted the idea of replacing him but really, he is a victim of performance. Lose games like Leeds do and play as Leeds play and the masses start to question what it is about a manager they like. McDermott has a decent streak about him, a decent man who exposes himself to a prying media with as much openess as you could ask for in the circumstances, but clubs don’t pay for decency. They pay for effective management and they pay for results. And these days, they deal ruthlessly with deficiency.

When Soccernomics, the unique analysis of football and finance published in 2009, compared the performance of different coaches in England between 1974 and 2010 it did so with those who had worked in management for five seasons or more on the basis that in a shorter period “luck plays a big role.”

True or not, the attitude in English boardrooms has moved in the opposite direction; so far, in fact, that time, stability and continuity are managerial cliches. Virtually no coach experiences those things. They barely exist. All you find are differing levels of chaos in which managers survive for as long as they can. Even Manchester United have joined the party.

In parts of his dicey tenure at Old Trafford, David Moyes was let down by his club. But what killed him was the repetitive trend of players and tactics doing the same. McDermott has suffered that way since Christmas, which is why Cellino doubts his ability. It is also a reason for the Italian to gut United’s squad, safe in knowledge that players who failed Neil Warnock and are now failing McDermott cannot blame inaqeduate management. For them the truth lies closer to home, and their futures elsewhere.

Some close to McDermott feel he was weakened by Cellino’s attempt to sack him in January. McDermott himself has questioned whether his squad began to think that they were working under a soon-to-be-gone coach. The impact on McDermott’s authority is difficult to gauge but the statement issued by Paddy Kenny’s agents on Thursday raised a red flag, questioning the goalkeeper’s absence at a time when he is supposedly fit.

It turns out that Kenny was taken ill this week but it is also true that he has been absent from United’s squad on days when he was available.

That said, statements like Thursday’s rarely drip from an on-the-same-page club.

More and more, the set-up at Leeds makes your ears prick. On Thursday, McDermott said that at Christmas he was confident of finishing inside the play-offs. But revisit his quotes after United’s defeat to Nottingham Forest on December 29 and he describes a top-six place as a “tall order” without serious investment in players. It makes you question how much confidence was ever there. Serious investment hasn’t occurred under him but most of his signings he made are struggling to blossom. If that comes down to luck then it is extremely bad luck.

Back in January, Cellino had a plan. On deadline day he wanted to sign as many as seven foreign players. Given that he intended to replace McDermott at the same time, it goes without saying that those transfers were arranged without his manager’s approval. Cellino is said to have changed tack since then. He is thought to favour a coach with experience of the English leagues and a transfer policy to match. But if January was typical of his ownership, what Leeds need is a manager who can adhere to and handle his strict control. He can delay no longer in announcing whether McDermott is that man.