Mirco Antenucci’s contract has never been far from the public domain and his reluctance to think about it is understandable. Parts of last season were consumed by discussions about the clauses and bonuses contained in his deal.
It is, nonetheless, as relevant an issue as it was back then. Antenucci is eight months away from the end of his contract and awaiting the offer of an extension. Last season Leeds went to controversial lengths to avoid activating a clause which would have bought him 12 more months but a groundswell of opinion says the striker might be worth another year.
Antenucci’s form since August has earned him that approval. Even in the short reign of Uwe Rosler, when United’s former head coach saw him as an impact substitute, the Italian was one of Leeds’ most effective players. His performance at Huddersfield Town two weeks ago, when Antenucci scored one goal and teed up another, was his general impact rolled into a few minutes.
Antenucci became a father earlier this year and would doubtless like some security. He is 31, however, and his age was a reason why Leeds were anxious to prevent him from scoring the 12 goals he needed last season to automatically extend his contract to 2017. He finished with 10 and barely played during the run-in. United were accused of actively sidelining him to guard themselves against that clause.
Leeds’ current head coach, Steve Evans, described Antenucci as a “revelation” but conceded that because the forward is into his 30s, a decision on his future would be delayed until later in the season. “It’s maybe a little bit early to decide,” Evans said, “but if he continues to play like he has for me, I’m sure Mirco will be around.”
Antenucci hopes so. “I would like (a new contract) but it’s not my decision,” the Italian said. “For now I ‘ll just put myself on the pitch, give good quality for the team, for myself and wait for a call –or not.
“I’m focused on my work. I don’t think about the contract. I focus on the work and focus on Leeds, every day here at Thorp Arch.”
Antenucci looks and sounds more settled at United than he has in the past. His problems last season were not limited to contractual matters – he was one of the six players declared unfit before a defeat at Charlton Athletic in April and subsequently accused of feigning injury – and previous coaches struggled to find him a place in the team.
Rosler’s preferred system relied on a lone striker and the regular selection of Chris Wood kept Antenucci out. It was similar to the situation last season when Neil Redfearn, Leeds’ former boss who returns to Elland Road as Rotherham United manager tomorrow, switched to a 4-5-1 formation and played Steve Morison up front. Since Rosler’s dismissal and the appointment of Evans, Antenucci has started every game and scored twice. His statistics for the entire season show five goals from nine starts.
“It’s difficult for any player to not play every match, or to play only or 15 or 20 minutes,” Antenucci said. “It’s difficult for the fitness and your mentality.
“Any time you play you try to do your best but it’s not the same. But I respected Rosler’s choice every time. I respected it because he was the coach.”
Rosler said Antenucci asked him during the summer not to crowbar the striker into the starting line-up by fielding him as a winger. “I’ve played in the striker position for 12 years,” Antenucci said. “Twelve years in that one position so it’s difficult for me to play wide and to be good – or to be as good as I can be. It’s not my place. In the striker position, I can do my best. That’s what I think.”
There is a feeling among United’s foreign contingent – most of whom were new to England and Leeds last season – that the atmosphere has been healthier since the summer. Gaetano Berardi has said so and so too goalkeeper Marco Silvestri. Antenucci admitted that certain issues last season created the “wrong situation” and soured the mood.
“I’m happy because the feeling is better,” Antenucci said. “It’s good. Last year, two or three things weren’t true about me. It created the wrong situation, you know? Now the people know that on the pitch I put all of myself, always my best. I hope to continue in that way.”
Neither he nor any of the six players involved in the mass withdrawal before Charlton have spoken in detail about that saga. Redfearn, who was in charge at the time, was open in saying that he doubted whether all six were genuinely unfit. The club in contrast backed all six to the hilt. Former chairman Andrew Umbers said there was “no question in my mind that these injuries can be contradicted”.
“I don’t want to talk now about that, about old problems,” Antenucci said. “This is a new season, a new coach, a new place. We have to continue in that way and think like that. Now we are happier but also because of the results. They create negatives and positives too. The results have been better.”
Antenucci described Evans as a “good boy”; a very firm compliment delivered with a smile. “With time we will see but his way is good.” Rosler’s sacking, he said, was a situation for which the players should share some blame. “But there is an owner, a president, who makes the decision,” Antenucci said. “We have to do the best for Leeds.”
Under Evans, they have done better; eight points from five games which while unspectacular is an improvement on Rosler’s average. United’s goals at Huddersfield and in a previous win over Cardiff City were brilliant and clinical, something which has rarely been said about the club’s finishing this season. Tomorrow’s game is against the Championship’s bottom side.
“Now it’s better after two victories,” Antenucci said. “We have to continue in this way because before the results weren’t good for us – one win, one loss, one draw, that way. We need to continue and we have a good opportunity at home to Rotherham.”