Yorkshire Evening Post chief football writer Phil Hay on Tuesday sat down with Leeds United chairman Andrew Umbers. Here is the full transcript of that interview.
PH: The obvious place to start is with the six players who were declared injured towards the end of last week. Do you believe that all six were unfit to play and do you believe that they were unfit to travel?
AU: I spent two hours at Thorp Arch this morning, extending the conversations I’d had on Wednesday after the Norwich game, on Thursday and on Saturday. Neil Redfearn and me get an injury list every single day. Harvey Sharman - our head physio who’s extremely good and talks to the players night and day - puts on an email exactly what’s going on.
With Cani, when we signed him we knew he had a problem with his knee. He’s got tendinitis. He rang Harvey on Thursday night and said ‘the knee’s not good after training.’ Harvey said ‘come in early before training on Friday and let’s assess it.’ He assessed it and Harvey said ‘no good’. Cani went for an MRI scan this morning.
With Silvestri, we all know that he got an injury against Norwich. Harvey wasn’t sure if he had chipped a bone. He wasn’t able to train last week, or what training he did he wasn’t really able to move. He was doing significant physio work and it wasn’t successful. On Thursday Harvey told us by email and by phone that he was unlikely to be able to play. He’s had an MRI scan this morning too. There’s significant bruising but no chipped bone. He’s done light training this morning but I mean gingerly training.
With Bellusci, we’ve had a problem with his hamstring all season. He’s still having treatment, he’s also gone for an MRI scan and we knew on Thursday that he was injured.
With Del Fabro, whether he was in the squad for Charlton or not is to be debated. But he took a very heavy knock on Thursday, reported into Harvey at 9am on Friday and said it was painful. He’s got a contusion, it’s swollen. He couldn’t play or get on the bus.
With Doukara, again he’s had a groin injury all season. It’s got better but it still needs significant amount of work. Antenucci had treatment on Wednesday, treatment on Thursday and treatment on Friday. He might be back next Monday. He might be light training by Friday.
More importantly, Harvey Sharman kept us all informed on Thursday and Friday so when we read what was said in the newspapers and on social media on Friday night, it was no surprise to me that these guys weren’t playing.
I’ve spoken to each of them individually and collectively. Individually there’s no question in my mind that with Harvey’s expertise and our information, their injuries can be contradicted. These guys were genuinely injured. They want to wear the white shirt and play for Leeds United, whether they’re in the squad or on the periphery of it. If they’re picked, they want to play. And they’re very upset because everything has been personalised. Their loyalty has been challenged. I am satisfied that’s not the case.
PH: The owner, Massimo Cellino, said it was a “weird situation”. Silvestri’s father said he, in his words, thought it was a “silly protest” from some of the six players. Neil Redfearn said that as of Friday morning, he thought it was likely that all six would be available - and with at least four of them he was unaware of any problems. That all contradicts your version.
AU: Harvey spoke to Neil firstly and he speaks to him morning, noon and night. He treats all the players. He’s frighteningly honest, he’s frighteningly good and that’s a fact. Massimo is not here anyway.
PH: So when Massimo says you didn’t find out about the injuries until Friday night, that’s untrue?
AU: Massimo doesn’t get any of our injury lists. He’s not allowed to. Firstly he’s not on email but he’s not allowed to get involved day-to-day. Those are the rules and regulations that he signed up to. He wouldn’t know. He’s reporting what he sees.
PH: But if he says that the chairman hasn’t found out until Friday night, he must have spoken to you. That’s the inference and a contradiction.
AU: No, he doesn’t know. I don’t speak to Massimo every day. What I keep him in touch with about are things like an awards ceremony where Lewis Cook is up for an award, or certain things on the cash-flow side just to let him know. He owns this business. I keep him in touch with the strategic stuff but not the day-to-day stuff.
PH: What does it say though about the credibility of the club or public trust in the club that the assumption was that with those six players, it was a downing of tools or a collective withdrawal designed to undermine Neil Redfearn?
AU: I don’t think anything is designed to undermine Neil Redfearn. Neil is first-team coach, he’s no different to John Carver, Sam Allaryce or Mark Warburton - all of whom are going to the end of the season to renegotiate their contracts. He’s no different to that. You have to remember that I’m in charge of the business side of Leeds United, not the footballing side. I want to be clear about that.
PH: But a club chairman has to oversee both, surely? Isn’t that the job?
AU: No, the authority that’s been given to me is purely on the business side, not on the football side. But in the last four or five days, particularly with the issues that have been directed at me professionally and personally, obviously I’ve had to get involved. This club has a communication issue. It has a communication issue with its stewards, its fans and its sponsors and that has to improve.
PH: There is a trust issue too, clearly. Sections of the public don’t trust what the club does and says. That true, isn’t it?
AU: I think, with respect, there’s been a trust issue here for donkey’s years. Fifteen years maybe. It’s always the Leeds United way. However, what Massimo has always said, what I’ve always said, is that we respect the fact that the fans pay money. The fans own Leeds United and in a way they own the club. The fact is that we need to be able to communicate better. It was handled appallingly (last week) and within 10 minutes of training finishing at Thorp Arch on Friday, before they got on the bus at 2pm, it was tweeted that six players weren’t playing. So of course there’s a conspiracy. That’s how these things start. The use of social media is something this club has not addressed. It something we’re going to address because clearly what we do behind closed doors, the decisions that are made, the fans need to be able to trust us to do it properly.
PH: Do they believe that? Do they believe that the people at the top here are fit to run the club or responsible?
AU: I hope they do. With the mess financially we inherited, with the players who were let go or sold at the start of this season, we’ve made significant changes on the football side. On the financial side we’ve significantly reduced the debt, we’re restructured the framework of the club and we’ve tried to re-engage with the council, the business community. We’ve only started and we’ve got a long way to go. Trust isn’t built overnight. All we wanted was a clean slate and that clean slate was get ourselves stable financially and stable on the football side.
PH: It doesn’t look stable on the football side.
AU: I respect the fact that many people don’t think we’re stable on the football side. But when we get into the close season we can explain ourselves, explain the strategic plan. From a fans’ perspective, they’re not that interested in the business side. They’re interested in the football side. They should remember that we’ve let lots of players gone and signed lots of new ones. There are always integration issues. In hindsight I think there are things we would do better. I’ve talked to the president (Cellino) about how we need to do things better next season and in the close season to make sure we’re completely ready for next season.
PH: Will Neil Redfearn be head coach at the start of next season?
AU: That is Mr Cellino’s decision.
PH: Who will advise him on that and what advice would you give him?
AU: Massimo’s owned a football club for about 25 years. He’s extremely able on business and in my view he’s even better on the footballing side. Whatever decision he takes will be for the benefit of Leeds United. Neil Redfearn I think has done a good job
PH: As chairman do you think he has done enough to deserve another contract? If it was your decision, would you give him another contract?
AU: It’s not my decision.
PH: Can comment then on how he’s performed, given that the club were in relegation trouble but have been safe for the best part of two months?
AU: Look, Neil has got us into a position of safety in the Championship. When you judge someone on performance, that’s a tick in the box.
PH: There’s a perception outside the club, among us in the media and the fans, that Neil has been undermined in his position as head coach. Things have been made more difficult for him. Do you disagree with that or accept that it might be true?
AU: When you sign players, you have appearances, goals, longevity, promotion - bonuses, all four of them. We have that with almost every one of our squad; various things where on a certain amount of appearances, goals or where we’re positioned in the league, individuals get a bonus. I can think of a dozen players where it’s like that. Neil’s aware of those contractual obligations and from time-to-time we remind him of those obligations. But in no way do we - and this includes when Massimo’s here - tell him who to put out on a Saturday or a Tuesday night.
PH: That seems to allude to Mirco Antenucci’s situation. Is it the case that you, Massimo or anyone else at the club told Neil or suggested to him that he shouldn’t play Antenucci because of a clause in his contract? Was that ever suggested, was it ever touched upon?
AU: Neil was aware that Mirco scoring two more goals gives him an extra year on his contract. We didn’t make that public but Neil was made aware of it.
PH: That implies that the club didn’t want Antenucci to play?
AU: We in no way said ‘don’t play him’. Absolutely not. You’ve got to pick the best players otherwise the fans pay for a ticket and don’t get the best team. They’ve got a right to complain about that.
PH: But do the club want Antenucci to have another year on his contract? He’s into his 30s. Are the club trying to avoid that?
AU: Mirco Antenucci is contracted to Leeds United for next year. What we do with Mirco and his contract is between us. We want him to stay because we think he’s a fantastic striker who’s got better and better as he’s got more used to the Championship - and though the coaching of Neil Redfearn.
PH: If Neil Redfearn is not going to be head coach next season, what has the club done to look for a replacement - given that the season ends in 10 days’ time and the transfer window opens soon?
AU: We’re always looking to improve the infrastructure of the footballing and business sides of Leeds United. With regards to Neil, we’ve done nothing because it is Massimo Cellino’s decision as to what he wants to do with his staff. We’d be in breach of contract, in breach of trust if we did anything else. Neil’s a Leeds United man and he’s performed. He’s kept us in the Championship this year.
PH: So the idea that Neil Redfearn is as good as gone, the assumption that he’ll lose his job in the summer - you’re saying that’s wrong?
AU: You’re going to have to refer to Massimo on that when he comes back.
PH: On the subject of Steve Thompson, what were the exact reasons for the club suspending Steve from his position as assistant?
AU: Nicola Salerno had a responsibility to look after all the footballing side of Leeds United post Massimo’s disqualification. He took that decision. When we look back on it, was it timely? No. But it happened. The issues that Nicola Salerno had privately and professionally with Steve Thompson were issues that led him to make that decision.
PH: Has Nicola Salerno explained those issues in full to the club’s board?
AU: He came to us and said there had been a breakdown in communication. A breakdown of trust. One or two other personal issues. These matters will be remaining internal.
PH: Have the club properly investigated these issues? Are the allegations actually true?
AU: Of course we have. Steve Thompson had one boss, Nicola Salerno. That boss decided that Steve Thompson was not going to be part of our set-up. That was the decision he made and we supported that. He came to the board and we said ‘okay, but there will be issues that result from this decision.’
PH: So the board were happy to let Salerno take that decision on his own? Doesn’t a football club’s board usually have the final say on these matters?
AU: Those are the authorities vested with Nicola Salerno post Massimo’s disqualification. He made that decision.
PH: Have the reasons been explained in full to Steve Thompson or the League Managers Association who, we understand, are representing him?
AU: I’m not aware of whether they have or haven’t.
PH: In the letter to him he was told that his contract will not be renewed in the summer. Is it not prejudicial to make that decision when he’s suspended from his job, rather than sacked?
AU: In Nicola Salerno’s eyes, he wanted him suspended. I’m afraid that’s the end of it. It’s an internal issue and I’m not going to say anything else.
PH: The four young players who’ve been a shining light this season - Cook, Mowatt, Taylor, Byram - have contracts been offered to those players?
AU: At Cagliari Massimo Cellino built one of the youngest sides in Serie A. When Massimo came and bought Leeds United and sat down with everyone from Terry Potter, Steve Holmes, Andy Wood and Neil Redfearn to talk about the academy - about the under-15s, under-16s, the 21s - we made it a policy to play them. If they’re good enough, play them because we’re going to back you. Leeds United do not want to lose any of these young players. Leeds United will not lose any of these young players.
PH: Have contracts been offered to them?
AU: We’re in the process of working through player contracts for all of our first-team squad and also our scholars. I can only tell you that it’s going to be a very positive message.
PH: But the history of this club is of players leaving and of better players being sold. People won’t take that at face value.
AU: We’re not selling our best players. We are not selling our young players.
PH: Is that a point of principle on which you would resign if it happened? Because it won’t be your decision ultimately.
AU: I’m just aware of what we’re doing and what’s going on. I can’t tell you everything but I can tell you that one or two of these things were sorted out months ago. The fans can be assured - and they’ll judge me on my word - that you’ll see not only those young players but an improved squad by the start of next season.
PH: Massimo is due back here when his disqualification ends on May 3. Do you expect him back on that date and will he retake his position as president on that date?
AU: I’ve written to the chairman, the chief executive and general counsel of the Football League and asked permission for Massimo Cellino, as a spectator, to be allowed to come back for the Rotherham game (United’s last game of the season on May 2).
PH: In his capacity as owner?
AU: No, as a spectator.
PH: Can he not just buy a ticket?
AU: I’d like to think he’s entitled to buy a ticket and come in under human rights law. But we’ve really tried to abide by everything that the Football League have told us to abide by. All their rules, all their regulations, all their unwritten rules. I think we’ve done it successfully. It’s the last game, I’ve asked the Football League whether he can come back.
PH: The perception on the outside is that he’s still be pulling the strings here, that’s he’s influencing much of what’s going on at the club. It often looks that way.
AU: He’s been in Miami for two to three months. You should ask the staff who’s been running the business and they’ll probably give you a different answer to what you think. On the football side it’s been run by Neil Redfearn. On the business side it’s been run by me. The staff have, I think, enjoyed the three months - or everything up to the last week. Of course Massimo’s watching what’s going on.
PH: He was at Elland Road the Friday before last. That’s not in dispute.
AU: Massimo came to have a look at the pitch. He didn’t come to do any work. He came to look at the new offices, just to say hello. There’s a lot of planning that we have to do for next season. He needs to take stock of what has happened with Steve, with Neil, with Nicola, what’s happening on the business side, what plans we’ve got for infrastructure around Elland Road. Our negotiations to do things with the council. Without making any decisions, he basically needs to understand what it’s like here now. The only way you can do that is if you’re here. He popped in for half an hour. Everyone was very pleased to see him.
PH: You mentioned Nicola Salerno’s situation. He’s clearly been away from the club for weeks. Massimo Cellino said he had resigned as sporting director. What is the position?
AU: Nicola is absent.
AU: He found social media and everything else too much. He took it all (the reaction to Steve Thompson’s suspension) pretty badly actually. He felt he wasn’t welcome. He’s a fantastic guy, a lovely guy, and he’ll remain absent. We’ll see what happens in the close season.
PH: Has Massimo at any stage spoken to you about potentially selling the club? There have been rumours of takeover throughout the time he’s been disqualified.
AU: I’ll answer that in a different way. He doesn’t want to sell the club and contrary to rumour, I’m not here to sell the club either. I’m here to manage it. I’m a Leeds fan, albeit people might find that slightly ironic, but I am. I’m here to make some hard decisions which benefit the club in the short, the medium and the longer term. There are always people who are interested in buying Leeds United, as there are with every football club. You just have to read about Aston Villa and others who are perceived to have an issue at the top. Massimo is not for selling, I’ve said it before. He’s not for selling but if you’re looking at a house that’s worth a pound and someone offers you four, you might be interested. But in football there’s so much noise. There’s nothing in reality which actually catches you. Has he spoken about it? People have got his phone number. I can’t stop them ringing him. But if we’ve ever talked about things like that in Miami, he’s made a commitment to live in Leeds. He’s made a commitment to put his children in Leeds. His wife came over. You don’t make those decisions and then just walk away. As the fans will probably gather from some his comments, he’s pretty colourful in the way he responds to that type of question. He’s made unpopular decisions. He’s already made many. But underlying, I think you’ve got a good steward of the club - someone who knows how to sort the mess out and build the footballing side.
PH: A lot of the 3,000 away fans at Charlton on Saturday were making their opinions plain. They were making it clear that they want him gone.
AU: It’s very sad. You set expectations and you manage expectations. We haven’t set many expectations and people might say that’s down to the fact that we don’t communicate. Part of the reason we don’t communicate is because we’re dealing with so many issues at so many times, we can’t. We want to tell people all the good news. In good time we’ll set the bar right in the close season. We’ll set the right expectations for the fans. When you hear chants that are personal and divisive, they affect the players on the pitch. They affect family. But look, they’re a minority.
PH: Of the 3,000 at Charlton, it wasn’t a minority. I accept that the fanbase is far bigger than that but the criticism from those 3,000 sounded unanimous.
AU: I hope in time we can win them all over. We’ll do our best to win all of them over. It’s not an easy job running a club when you have such passionate fans who have such great loyalty. You only do your best. Sometimes you have to be unpopular but you always have to think you’re doing the right thing. If we get communication and expectation-management right then people will see what we’re doing. But I accept that people want to see contracts signed. They want to see stability on the management and the football side. I get that. All these things are going to come.
PH: Has anyone told Massimo about the weight of objection to him and the things that are going on here? That weight of dissent we saw at Charlton on Saturday?
AU: He’s aware of it. He was told about it during the day. He’s adamant that what he’s doing is for the benefit of Leeds United and its fans. He’s adamant and more steadfast and he would ask for the fans to be more patient.
PH: With regards to his future as owner, a question that’s important to ask - in his time as owner or your time on the board, has any third party or potential buyer of the club performed due diligence on the club’s accounts?
AU: No. Categorically, 100 per cent no.