Leeds United: Inevitable finale to a long and painful drama

Brian McDermott with Massimo Cellino.
Brian McDermott with Massimo Cellino.
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After earlier attempts to sack Brian McDermott this final act was bound to be played out sooner rather than later. Phil Hay reports.

Massimo Cellino’s first attempt to rid Leeds United of Brian McDermott was instant and ruthless.

Second time around, the process was painfully slow. Alongside regret and that sense of emptiness managers hate, McDermott must feel a touch of relief. His departure is closure if nothing else.

Quite when he resigned himself to this fate is for him to say and the weeks between January and Friday night were like creeping death but McDermott knew the game was up when Cellino began communicating with him in writing last month.

Their inability to speak said much about a relationship beyond repair, exposing a managerial charade at Elland Road. The job was McDermott’s for as long as Cellino allowed the game to continue.

The letters they exchanged were formal, terse and defensive; most likely written with legal advice.

The League Managers’ Association (LMA) assisted McDermott from January onwards and notes were kept detailing Cellino’s behaviour and comments; a dossier which would have been used to show an owner undermining his manager.

That McDermott and Leeds parted company without the need for a tribunal does not change the fact that he prepared for one.

From Cellino’s perspective, McDermott was never his man – not on January 31, when he tried to fire McDermott but lacked the authority to do so, or on April 7 when the Italian’s takeover of Leeds went through.

In moments of amicable reflection, Cellino talked about giving him a chance but in context it looked like a marriage of convenience. A matter of finance rather than football.

United’s owner is known to have been shocked by McDermott’s salary – around £750,000 a year – and the implications of sacking him with two seasons left on his contract.

Many at Leeds think McDermott would have left weeks ago had Cellino not walked into Elland Road to find an endless pile of unpaid bills on his desk. “The manager is the last of my problems,” Cellino told me at the end of April which, with the Championship season petering out, was probably true.

But yesterday was the first day of June and for all the focus on a crippling winding-up petition, football is climbing up the agenda again.

McDermott’s position could no longer be ignored.

The sad realisation for McDermott is that he failed with one of his few stated aims as manager of Leeds: to break the club out of the cycle of sacking after sacking.

McDermott saw United’s chronic instability – a trend which began long before his tenure – as the fundamental reason for 10 consecutive seasons in the Football League but after 14 months and 55 games he joins the list of casualties.

In Italy Cellino is renowned for changing tack and giving coaches the bullet. Leeds in their own way are not so different.

Instability was all McDermott saw at Elland Road.

In April 2013, he acquired a squad who were five games from relegation. At the time he received the usual promises and assurances from Gulf Finance House, United’s owner, but found many of them to be hollow.

Signings trickled into Leeds slowly during his first summer as manager and the expensive transfer of Luke Murphy from Crewe Alexandra came at the end of a week in which an increasingly anxious McDermott badgered his board for some support and some money.

If he had not been pre-warned about GFH’s style of ownership, he saw soon enough that the Bahraini bank had a habit of looking after itself before anyone else.

The pre-season groundwork was patchy and incomplete and against that backdrop, the season that followed proved incoherent; a year in which McDermott was always grasping for answers and solution.

As Reading’s manager his style was established and effective. At Leeds, his team and his tactics were never nailed down. He set out with a diamond midfield but dispensed with it a month into the term.

The employment of wing-backs took United into the play-off positions before Christmas – a stage at which McDermott believed the club would finish inside the top six – but a wobble around new year broke the facade and the air of confidence.

Rochdale away in early January was a severe aberration, an embarrassment which led the away crowd at Rochdale to tear McDermott’s players to shreds. The loss at Sheffield Wednesday the following weekend can be seen as the moment when United’s equilibrium went completely.

McDermott had spoken repeatedly about his need for out-and-out wingers and in the 48 hours before the derby at Hillsborough, he signed two – Jimmy Kebe and Cameron Stewart.

With those players at his disposal, there was no explanation for an untried and unfamiliar 3-4-3 system he adopted, minus the height and power of Matt Smith up front.

Wednesday worked the formation out and annihilated Leeds with six unanswered goals, United’s worst defeat for more than half a century.

It was two goals short of their heaviest ever.

McDermott never recovered from that. His squad were bullied mercilessly during the run-in, battered by Bolton, Reading and Bournemouth and beaten five times on the bounce in March and April.

The supporters appreciated his effort and admired his decency, never turning on him as they did on Neil Warnock, but over time their faith was lost.

Few of his signings settled in and he found himself returning in desperation to players and tactics that had failed him before. He also believed that certain senior players began to doubt him.

McDermott took the view that his authority in the dressing room had been severely weakened by his bizarre sacking and reinstatement in January.

United’s spineless defeat at Watford, a day after Cellino’s takeover went through in April, was as far removed from a statement of intent as it was possible to get. The defence of McDermott, his results and the football played under him is that for several months he worked to the sound of knives sharpening behind his back.

A senior official at GFH attempted to persuade David Haigh, United’s former managing director, to dismiss McDermott at half-time during the 6-0 defeat to Sheffield Wednesday, a demand Haigh ignored.

So chaotic has United’s recent existence been that it is easy to forget the attempt by Cellino to place Gianluca Festa – a close confidant of his – on the bench for a 1-1 draw with Ipswich Town on January 28 or the demand from GFH that McDermott submit his line-ups for approval before each game.

For too long, McDermott worked for a club who operated at a base level of professionalism. When wages for the playing staff went unpaid in March, he and his squad read about the crisis in the press.

They received no prior warning or communication from the club. When Benito Carbone, Leeds’ newly appointed technical advisor, appeared at Thorp Arch towards the end of April, McDermott was not told to expect him or informed of Carbone’s role.

“I know as much as you know,” he told the media week after week. More often than not, he knew less than that. Towards the bitter end there was a train of thought which said McDermott was there, hanging on for a pay-off.

Those of us who saw the strain he was under would say he was hanging on to a job he coveted and hated the idea of losing. Cellino refused to back him but made no immediate move to replace him either. They barely spoke.

The situation was stressful and humiliating, more than a seven-figure sum of compensation is worth and in the background McDermott had the personal worry of his mother in Stoke Mandeville hospital, suffering from cancer.

Far from taking a holiday last month, he travelled down south to tend to her. Cellino’s infamous question – “where’s Brian?” – would have been easily answered by a phone call. Even on Friday, the two men did not speak directly.

The mutual parting of ways prevented a highly awkward conversation at Elland Road today.

McDermott is a traditional English manager who knows and likes the English way. For as long as John Madejski held the power at Reading, McDermott was in his element.

Leeds took a different path with GFH and have done so again with Cellino, a volatile and single-minded boss. It will take a certain type of coach to work under the Italian and McDermott is not it. Some would say he failed at Elland Road. Many others would say he never had a chance. That argument will be settled by what McDermott does next.

Harrogate Town fans.

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