Former United captain Sol Bamba returns to Elland Road with Cardiff City on Saturday, hailing the work done by ‘honest’ Garry Monk and says he hopes the Whites get into the play-offs. Phil Hay reports.
It would be easy to tell Sol Bamba that he picked the wrong moment to bail out of Leeds United, packing up as the club were about to turn the corner. The play-offs might lie ahead this season and, beyond that, the Premier League but the months since he left have crystallised the conversation he had with Garry Monk before he cancelled his contract.
“You have to ask yourself how much I’d be playing right now,” Bamba says. Which was essentially the point Monk made to him when he suggested that Bamba, United’s captain at the time, become a free agent at the end of the summer transfer window and make himself available to other clubs in the Championship. Cardiff City signed him on a free transfer in October and their visit to Leeds on Saturday brings Bamba back to Elland Road.
The centre-back was fourth choice when Monk moved to release him; a club captain with very little chance of playing. As Monk told Bamba, he had experienced a similar scenario as captain of Swansea City: 15 appearances in his penultimate season as a professional and one League Cup outing in his last. “He told me it wouldn’t be good for me,” Bamba says, “and I know he was right. It happened quickly so I was surprised to be going but I appreciated his honesty at the time and I appreciate it more now.”
Monk was worried about a player as senior as Bamba confined to the training ground kicking his heels. “We spoke about Swansea and about how it had been for him there,” Bamba says. “My first reaction was to say ‘things might change, you could get injuries or players could go out of form.’ He said ‘but what if it doesn’t change? What if it’s still like this in six months? It’ll catch up with you and you’ll go crazy.
“In my head I was sure I’d always support the team, always be behind them no matter what. But I guess you don’t know how you’d think if you felt like you were on the outside and never getting back in. In a way he’d seen that and I was still only 31. He did what was best for both of us, and for Leeds. It’s great management when you think about it.”
The pecking order at Leeds has vindicated Monk’s decision. The club are short of cover at centre-back but untroubled by it while Pontus Jansson and Kyle Bartley are rampaging around the 18-yard box. That pairing has been so immovable, barring Jansson’s suspensions, that Liam Cooper has started only five games and cover, in any case, was what Monk told Bamba he should not allow himself to be. The problems of August – frailty against set-pieces and repetitive errors – were dealt with quickly in the weeks after Bamba moved on.
In Leeds’ final game before his contract was severed, a 3-1 defeat at Nottingham Forest on August 27, the Ivory Coast international did not even make the squad. It was an anxious period in which Monk’s attempts to settle into his job as head coach were hampered by the club’s form. Bamba moved on with United sat above the relegation places but he felt even then that Monk would get a grip of the season.
“I’d be lying if I told you I thought they’d get promoted this season. Even now I think they’ve gone further much faster than any of us expected. But I knew they’d be fine. I’d have backed them for top 10, definitely.
“I loved being at Leeds, honestly loved it, but there was a lot of politics in my time there. I didn’t like the politics. But last summer (when Monk was appointed) felt different and looking in from a distance, you can tell that it’s not been a problem this season. It’s all about the football.
“I liked the manager (Monk) straight away. Day one he said to us ‘I’m going to make you into a team. I’m going to make you organised.’ He just needed to get past a difficult start and wait for everything to sink in. I don’t have a bad work to say about him and if I’d still been there now, it might have gone as he said. I wouldn’t have played as much as I have at Cardiff.”
Cardiff and a newly-appointed manager in Neil Warnock took Bamba into a relegation battle; a battle which Warnock, true to form, is making a good fist of winning. City have put eight points and several clubs between themselves and the bottom three and Bamba scored the winning goal on the first of his 16 league starts, at home to Bristol City.
He marked his card slightly with a dismissal at Ipswich Town in December, losing his temper and exchanging words with both Warnock and the fourth official before leaving the pitch, but the transfer engaged him. “That (Ipswich) was bad on my part, not like me, and whatever the circumstances I shouldn’t have done it,” he said.
“But I’ve loved being in the middle of a relegation fight. I don’t mean it’s what you aim for as a player but like chasing promotion, it’s something to motivate you.
“I think a few of us found it difficult at Leeds last season with nothing much to play for (United were effectively out of the running of the play-offs by mid-January). You feel like you’re just ticking off games.
But I knew there was a job to be done at Cardiff and we’re all digging in. We definitely need the points as much as Leeds on Saturday.”
United’s intention this weekend is to wipe away thoughts of Sunday’s defeat at Huddersfield and begin making the most of two inviting home games, the second against Bristol City on Tuesday. Monk is proud of a record which shows no back-to-back defeat since early September and the first fixture which followed Bamba’s exit.
“It’ll be nice to be back but you switch all that off as soon as you get focused on the game,” Bamba says. “It’ll be tough for us because they’re excellent at home but will try to make it difficult for them too. Whatever happens on Saturday, I still feel both clubs will be fine this season.
“I’d be as happy as anyone if Leeds get into the play-offs. I just won’t be giving them any help!”