Brian McDermott’s memories of 13 months as Leeds United manager are divided in two: on one hand the time when anything seemed possible and on the other, the period when the club derailed and his job was lost.
Whether McDermott would be welcome as a guest at Elland Road – a guest of the owner who dispensed with him two years ago – is questionable but he has not been back since a bitter parting of ways which required no end of pulling teeth. In the interim he has worked as a scout for Arsenal, the club where he started his playing career, and tomorrow he will return to Leeds as manager of Reading. “I’m really looking forward to it,” he said. “Genuinely.”
The 55-year-old is candid about the days he spent at the coalface in Yorkshire. He does not want anyone to humour him by describing his tenure as successful, even if a certain part of it was. His analysis of the club’s results, particularly in the last few months, is that they “weren’t good enough, simple as that.”
“There was a lot going on,” McDermott said. “There were difficult circumstances. But you can’t put the results down to difficult circumstances. I’m not into making excuses.”
On paper, and with hindsight, some of those scorelines are as damning as they were at the time: an FA Cup defeat at Rochdale, a 6-0 rout at Sheffield Wednesday, five goals conceded to Bolton and four to both Reading and Bournemouth.
The second half of the 2013-14 season was brutal but the environment at Leeds was as deserving of criticism and the club incurred it. As McDermott says, he goes down as a very small part of their history. But he moved on with a large amount of sympathy.
“At Leeds United you’re following people like Don Revie, Howard Wilkinson,” McDermott said. “You’re at the club who produced Eddie Gray, Billy Bremner, Peter Lorimer. I was proud to be manager there, very proud, but I was there for 50-odd games so let’s not pretend I was anything more than a small part of all the history.
“You can’t look back and say I was successful. I have to admit that. You can’t look back and say I did what I wanted to do there. From my point of view it’s a shame but it’s the reality too. What I would say is that I did the best I could at that particular time. I invested everything in the job and at Christmas (in 2013) things were looking good. The three months after that were horrible.”
There is always something happening at Leeds and McDermott’s short tenure was indicative of that. He took charge in April 2013 with United and a squad previously managed by Neil Warnock running too close to relegation. Wins over Sheffield Wednesday and Burnley in his first two games dealt with that threat quickly.
The summer that followed was hit and miss; a productive pre-season tour of Slovenia and a few signings tempered by the realisation that GFH, then United’s owner, was not about to seriously bankroll transfers. Around £1m was spent on Luke Murphy but by the end of August, McDermott was worried that GFH was about to sell striker Ross McCormack to Middlesbrough.
Nonetheless, by the end of 2013, Leeds were in the Championship’s play-offs positions. They drew 1-1 at Blackpool on Boxing Day and missed the chance to go fifth. “I’d won the league before at Reading and at that point I felt comfortable, the same as I did when it was going well for Reading,” he said. “We weren’t a great team by any stretch, there was no pace in that side, but it felt right. I couldn’t see what was coming next.
“We lost late on at Forest and at home to Blackburn. Then we had a horrible result at Rochdale and a horrible result at Sheffield Wednesday. It was a big shock, the way it fell apart, and it still is because it felt like it was working.”
McDermott was in the middle when Massimo Cellino began piecing together a takeover of Leeds in January 2014, shortly after a buy-out mounted by Sport Capital, a group led by club director David Haigh, collapsed.
McDermott was infamously sacked by Cellino on the last day of the month but reinstated in haste after GFH admitted that the takeover was not complete and angry Leeds fans chased the Italian’s taxi around Elland Road. Tomorrow, before kick-off, a group of supporters will march from the city centre to the stadium in protest against Cellino’s ownership. A returning McDermott might ask himself how much has really changed.
There were other issues too; the late payment of wages in March as GFH and Cellino haggled over short-term funding and the refusal by GFH to countenance the signing of Ashley Barnes from Brighton, primarily because of his stats on the computer game Football Manager. The Bahraini bank did allow McDermott to sign Jimmy Kebe and Cameron Stewart on loan but their debuts in the 6-0 rout at Hillsborough were as much of a failure as the transfers themselves.
Looking back, McDermott knew then that he would not survive for long under Cellino.
“I’m not stupid and it was pretty obvious to me, before and after Massimo bought the club, that I wasn’t going to be there beyond the summer. When you’ve been sacked once, it’s going to happen twice. That’s how it felt to me.” Did he feel that his authority was weakened among the players as a result of ‘Mad Friday’? “It didn’t help. But that’s how it was.”
McDermott and Leeds agreed to sever his contract in May 2014, a year after he took the job. He and Cellino were no longer on speaking terms by then and communicated via solicitors.
At the end of the season and before that deal was done, Cellino, who considered McDermott’s salary to be excessive, voiced his frustration when he found his manager absent from Elland Road. “Where’s Brian?” Cellino famously asked. At the time McDermott was with his late mother in hospital.
McDermott said he bore no grudges about that scenario or his departure. “Massimo? No, I’ve got no resentment about anyone at Leeds, honestly none. I look back on my time there with fondness and I think more about the encouraging times than I do about the other things. I think about us being in the play-offs at Christmas. It’s a shame it didn’t go further.
“I said then and I still think now that there’s too much talk about owners these days. Leeds need stability and a focus on the football. They’re in a cycle where a bit of euphoria or a few results lead to another crisis or another manager leaving.
“Steve (Evans), what’s he? Manager number five since I left? It’s too many. Whatever anyone says, it’s too many. I’m pretty sure the owner would agree with that himself. It can’t work like that.”
Evans, the incumbent head coach at Elland Road whose own future is unclear, said on Tuesday that he hoped to see McDermott receive a warm reception from the crowd tomorrow. The game is something of a dead rubber – 14th versus 15th, with Reading and Leeds tied on 51 points – but McDermott said he was looking for “a good game.”
As for the reaction from the crowd, McDermott said he had no expectations. “I don’t think I did enough there or was there long enough to expect anything of anyone,” he said.
“The supporters are tremendous, fantastic people, but there’s no reason for the crowd to give me a good reception. I did my best at that time and I think that’s all you can ask. It wasn’t easy. Things went on there that I’ll probably never experience again. But I’m looking forward to going back.”