An email went round Leeds United on Monday warning staff that anyone responsible for leaking news of the ‘injured six’ would be disciplined for gross misconduct (and presumably sacked).
It’s standard procedure at football clubs and Leeds have been here before. At the start of 2012 an internal investigation was carried out into reports about Robert Snodgrass undergoing surgery to remove his appendix. The source of the story was never identified but both examples show how defensive clubs can be when sensitive information seeps out.
Leeds are more than entitled to conceal the fitness of their players. Wrong-footing the press and other clubs is an age-old tactic. What annoyed them about the Snodgrass leak was that it came 48 hours before a game at Barnsley. The club were out of form at the time and, coincidentally or not, took a heavy beating at Oakwell. But with Snodgrass in hospital after complaining of stomach pains, there was never any argument about the severity of his condition.
Events at Thorp Arch last Friday were altogether different. The injuries which Leeds say six players sustained before their game at Charlton were the bones of the controversy but not the crux of it.
At no stage was anyone trying to tip off the opposition. The leak was symptomatic of a wider culture of disharmony at Leeds, a culture which threatening emails won’t change. Marco Silvestri aside, United’s line-up at The Valley on Saturday looked as strong as it would have done with every player present. Brian Montenegro was the only out-and-out striker on the bench so in that respect the squad fell short but Charlton’s advantage man-for-man was negligible. Leeds were on for a win until the 75th minute, as fluent as they’d been since the end of the international break.
The leak about the missing six had far more to do with incidents preceding last week: with Steve Thompson’s suspension, with Mirco Antenucci’s contract and with the overwhelming perception that Neil Redfearn, United’s head coach, is being dangled for as long as it takes for Massimo Cellino to kick him out.
Redfearn is said to have been philosophical about the absentees; sceptical about the severity of some of the injuries but happy with the cohesion and attitude of the 19 players who boarded the bus to London. “Buzzing” was how one individual described the mood in the hotel on Friday night, strange as that sounds.
What certain people around him were unwilling to accept was another irregular episode which compromised him most. If all six injuries were genuine – and the club contend bitterly that they were – then Redfearn is one unlucky punter. When players aren’t dropping out en masse, he’s losing an assistant who, after three steady months, decides to do something to someone. In the midst of that he’s being told by Leeds to remember the incentives in Antenucci’s contract but decide for himself if those incentives matter. These things keep happening and floating to the surface.
It smacks of a badly fragmented club, whatever chairman Andrew Umbers says about staff at Elland Road “enjoying the last few months.” Some of them will be happy and some of them will be immune from everything. But it’s extremely easy to find others who are demoralised by political division. They might not say so to Umbers or Cellino but they say it to us. Some feel undervalued and some feel neglected. It cannot be a healthy environment – inside the club or outside – when the instinctive response to six players crying off is to link them to Cellino and ask if they are purposely undermining Redfearn.
On Tuesday, with the dust settling on that story, I went to speak with Umbers at Elland Road. The transcript is on record and in full on the YEP’s website and anyone reading it can take the quotes as they find them.
In Umbers’ defence he answered every question he was asked and answered without rancour. He had none of the aggression of Ken Bates whose wife once spent an interview at Thorp Arch looking like she wanted to stab me but Tuesday’s exchange was still played with a politician’s evasive bat. Certain responses were unsatisfactory and others unconvincing. His attitude is fairly plain: the current strategy is right for the club and so is Cellino. I told him afterwards that I doubted both of those claims but a hack on a local newspaper is hardly the oracle. Suffice to say that Cellino has had his honeymoon period (much as it resembled a package holiday to Grozny).
What caught me by surprise was the renovation work which has gone on in parts of Elland Road’s East Stand. I was shown around the general offices, many of which have been upgraded at great expense in the past few months. The carpets look like football pitches and the walls are decorated with huge murals of crowds and players; evocative images of that sort. Employees will move in once Cellino sweeps back from his disqualification next month.
It would be tenuous to draw a correlation between improved staff quarters and a strong football team but the improvements were not what you expected of a club whose owner seems at regular junctures to be on his last legs. They do not tally with the reputation of a club that often appears to take guidance on their next move from a ouija board. It’s actual infrastructure and, alongside many other things, Leeds need masses of it. They need foundations.
Which little by little brings us back to the injury leak. That news did not slip out because the odd individual has an axe to grind, even if Leeds want to tell themselves that. It slipped out because the club are sapped of trust and collective spirit. Coaches are wary of the people above them and players are wary of each other. Lower-level staff do what they do without knowing where they stand. Plugging the leaks is United’s prerogative but it’s not the answer to any of that. The club would be better off asking why it is that so many in-house feel compelled to speak up.