In 1982, Bolton Wanderers – to use John McGovern’s words – were basically skint. Newspaper reports named Pele as the club’s prospective new manager but in reality the board at Burnden Park had more conservative ideas: McGovern as player-boss and the sale of Bolton’s midfield.
Peter Reid left for Everton and Tony Henry followed suit, moving to Oldham Athletic. McGovern had no money and no alternative but to hoist a group of teenagers into his team. Neil Redfearn was one of them; a fresh-faced 18-year-old at the start of a thousand-game career.
McGovern didn’t realise at the time but the young midfielders he depended on possessed natural coaching stock. Today, Warren Joyce is manager of Manchester United’s reserve squad. Steve Thompson, the former Blackpool coach, works as assistant boss at Huddersfield Town.
On Monday, Redfearn took a leap of faith by agreeing to become Leeds United’s next head coach; a job that needs “miracles”, according to the outspoken Johnny Giles.
McGovern, himself a former Leeds midfielder, remembers Redfearn as a confident, vocal and self-assured lad.
“He had his opinions,” McGovern says, “and he liked to tell you what was in his head. If he had something to say he’d speak his mind but mostly in a constructive way.”
Which is Redfearn as Leeds have come to know him – and perhaps a reason why he of all people might find a way of keeping Massimo Cellino happy.
In six months with Cellino as owner, Elland Road and Thorp Arch have been virtual graveyards.
Aside from a handful of senior back-office staff, there is almost no-one at the club with any profile who has survived as Redfearn has since Cellino bought Leeds in April. The senior coaching team has changed no fewer than three times; other individuals – Benito Carbone, Graham Bean – were in vogue for a while but sacked before long. Redfearn is not quite the last man standing but he is fairly close.
Yet six months on, he has the ear and respect of the ‘Il mangia-allenatori’, Cellino’s unflattering nickname.
“Even as a young lad, he had a naturally strong character,” McGovern says.
“You’re either born with that or you’re not and even though people change over time, your personality usually stays the same.
“I found out myself that managing a football club takes a lot of courage.
“There’s pressure from above – financial pressure and chairmen or owners who make life difficult – but it’s also your job to make hard decisions.
“Sometimes you’ve got tell people things they don’t want to hear or don’t like but to be fair to Neil, he wasn’t afraid of doing that when I had him at Bolton.
“There’s a knack to knowing your place and paying people due respect but I think it’s easier to cope in management if you’re prepared to fight your corner. Neil won’t be scared to fight his.
“How the owner (Cellino) reacts to that is obviously a different matter but there’s probably some mutual respect there.”
Cellino looked to Redfearn for instruction and advice in the earliest weeks of his reign as owner. At the start of May, Redfearn took part in discussions about the first-team squad while Brian McDermott – the first of three managers or head coaches sacked by Cellino – was estranged from the club and effectively waiting for the Italian to fire him.
Redfearn was United’s fall-back as caretaker after David Hockaday lost his job in August and while Cellino chose not to appoint the 49-year-old on the strength of his four games in temporary charge, it was inevitable that he would step up from his role as academy manager after Darko Milanic’s dismissal on Saturday evening.
Cellino describes Redfearn as “special” and “part of the family”. It is certainly true Cellino trusts him and listens to him like few others at Leeds. “He’s ready to make the jump up,” Cellino said on Monday. “I need to stand by him.” They are now in the process of agreeing the terms of Redfearn’s contract, the appointment of a new assistant and the way in which the academy will be restructured.
Redfearn has taken a while to rise to this job. He managed briefly at Scarborough almost a decade ago and operated as caretaker of Halifax Town and York City but the last six years of his coaching career – most of it, in fact – have been devoted to youth-development at Thorp Arch. The academy’s good health during that period explains why he and Cellino are agreed that Redfearn should return to his development role if his reign as head coach fails.
Andy Ritchie, the former Leeds striker who played with Redfearn at Oldham, backed him for the head coach’s job a month-and-a-half ago, before Cellino chose to take Milanic from Sturm Graz. Ritchie’s opinion of Redfearn echoed McGovern’s, talking highly of his attitude and his nerve.
“I suppose I’m biased because I know Neil well but I wouldn’t be worried about him taking the head coach’s job on,” Ritchie said.
“As a bloke he’s extremely cool under pressure – and I say that having watched him in the most pressurised of circumstances. He’s got big shoulders and a safe pair of hands.”
Redfearn was gracious about Milanic’s appointment on September 23 but it was no secret that he wanted the job himself. “I’ve got a taste for it,” he said after the last game as caretaker, a 3-0 win over Huddersfield Town.
He was enthusiastic again when Cellino asked him to replace Milanic on Saturday – but equally insistent that certain assurances were required.
In amongst the excitement ahead of this weekend’s match at Cardiff City, he might also feel a touch of anxiety. Cellino was accused of meddling with Hockaday and Milanic, and though Redfearn was free to pick his team as caretaker, he is answerable to Cellino in a different way now.
The idea that he will resume work with the academy if he fails as head coach is reassuring in theory but could be difficult in practice.
“Having landed the top job, it will not be in Redfearn’s mind to lose it again.
“The job at Leeds is about as hard as it gets at the moment,” McGovern says, “and you have to ask if anyone can make it work, certainly in a short timescale.
“But I think Neil’s as well-equipped for it as a lot of people would be.
“He evidently knows how to coach, he knows the club well and he didn’t look out of place as caretaker.
“He’s got the right sort of characteristics – brave enough to do what he wants and brave enough to stand his ground if anyone starts questioning him. I’m not saying it’ll work because nobody can say that but I know what he’s like.
“Back when I was at Bolton, I played five 18-year-olds in my team. We were short of money, basically skint, so lads like Neil were the answer. I used to argue with his father a bit about what was best for him but he was always going to do well.
“I could have told you that football would be his life.
“It’s funny how things work out. There’s Neil at Leeds, Warren Joyce with Manchester United’s reserves, Stevie Thompson at Blackpool and Huddersfield.
“They were obviously quite a crop in a coaching sense. Neil’s a good guy and a lot of people will be wishing him luck. He’ll probably need it.”