It was this week last year that Leeds United careered from one era into the next. Andrea Radrizzani bought the club and Garry Monk resigned as head coach, all in the space of 48 hours. Radrizzani’s first two days as owner were two of his longest to date.
Monk, unconvinced by Radrizzani and unhappy with the prospect of a short contract extension, became Middlesbrough’s manager two weeks later. Left behind was Pep Clotet, his Spanish assistant. Most of Monk’s backroom team went with him to The Riverside but he and Clotet parted company; Clotet to try his hand as manager of Oxford United.
Clotet has rarely spoken about the sudden end of Monk’s tenure, a decision made at the stage where Leeds seemed to have settled their temperamental equilibrium. The Championship play-offs slipped away in the final month of Monk’s sole season in charge but he and his staff finished in credit. Their total of 75 points met the average needed for a top-six finish. In a freak year, Fulham took sixth place with 80.
Leeds wanted to renew Monk’s contract for another 12 months. Monk took stock and quit after some terse discussions with Radrizzani. “It was a little bit of a shock,” Clotet said. “I always respect what Garry decides and he always thinks about what is best for his career and for his team. He’s a very good manager.
“For me it was a pity. I really wanted us to have a go the next season. I thought we had built something and put the steps in to keep going. I thought the fans were happy with what they saw and they knew we fought until the end.
“Garry was dealing with the new owner and I’m pretty sure he tried 100 per cent to build a project in Leeds. There must have been some things which he thought were not how he wanted to do it. You have to respect that. But we all said so many times, with Garry, how good it would be to repeat that season and do it better.”
The reasons for Monk’s departure depend on whose version of events you listen to. As debatable is why Leeds, from such a strong position, lost control of their campaign and dipped into seventh, winning one of their last eight games. To the naked eye, the players appeared to blow themselves out. In the background there were disciplinary issues involving Pontus Jansson and suggestions that the defender was at odds with Monk and other players. Some at Elland Road also claimed that Clotet’s relationship with Monk became strained.
Clotet remembers the atmosphere differently. “We always had very good communication with the players, especially Pontus,” he said. “I had a lot of confidence in Pontus. I think he always put the team in front of himself.
“The fact that we didn’t manage to finish in the play-offs, people always try to look for some sort of thing (problem). But in general we were very happy with how the camp was.
“We were doing top-two results for a lot of the season. We finished on 75 points and didn’t make the play-offs. This season we would have made it. That’s normally the average. The play-offs got really expensive in terms of points and that’s what’s really hard to accept. I felt we didn’t end up where we deserved.”
My family loved it and my son Max, he still sleeps in Leeds pyjamas. We left a good platform to build on. I thought we left the club in a better situation than we found it.Pep Clotet
That Leeds were in a position to qualify for the play-offs at all went against expectations. Monk, in the summer of 2016, inherited a limited squad and an unsettled club. He was soon beset by a bad start which left Leeds in 22nd place after six games. It was rumoured that Massimo Cellino, United’s then owner, was minded to sack him had Leeds not dug three points out of a midweek game against Blackburn in September. “From the point of view of the owner, he was always very supportive,” Clotet said. “We trusted the process and the owner was good with us. He never stressed us.
“You always have the temptation to say ‘this is not working for us, let’s change it’ but Garry said ‘no, we stick with it until we make it work’. You must have a Plan A and a Plan B. At that time our Plan B was to do Plan A right.”
At a critical stage, Monk tinkered to a degree. He settled on a 4-2-3-1 formation and nurtured a spine in his line-up: goalkeeper Rob Green, two hard-nosed centre-backs in Jansson and Kyle Bartley and a striker in Chris Wood who transformed his fitness and his game and became a 30-goal forward. Just as significant was a tactical change which, by using Jansson and Wood as free men, stemmed the flow of concessions from set-pieces which had dragged Leeds down in the opening month.
From there, Clotet’s memories of top-two form are not so far from the truth. Leeds piled up results before Christmas and again in the lead-up to Easter. Elland Road saw 14 homes wins. Monk’s team became a drilled and templated side with a definite style and a definite manner of winning games. “We had a really good keeper, we had really good central defenders,” Clotet said. “We were decent at full-back and in midfield, and we had that little bit of spark to link the midfield. Pablo (Hernandez) was doing that for us.
“There was nothing special but the squad was very well balanced and that gave us a lot of points. Sometimes it looked like maybe we’re not that good but that became a strength. The roles were clear, the job was always the same. Everyone worked so hard.”
Clotet said Leeds set out at the start of the season with the intention of bettering the previous year’s 13th-place finish. Seventy-five points was set as an attainable target. Leeds were well on their way by January but dithered in the transfer window and the first month of 2017 ended on a sour note with defeat to Sutton United in round four of the FA Cup. Monk took the blame for fielding a weak line-up.
“It’s a game we should have won, that’s clear,” Clotet said. “But the squad was coming from a really tough Christmas where we put ourselves in a really good position. Some changes had to be made. I felt more disappointed when we lost at Liverpool (in the quarter-finals of the League Cup).
“January is always difficult and the January market always has a lot of risk. The value’s not really there. The fact is the (team) had got strong. I wouldn’t say that because of January we didn’t end up better in the league.”
Leeds peaked with a 2-0 win over Brighton in March and then fell away badly. A 3-3 draw with Norwich City in April condemned them to seventh place. Monk left and Clotet, having not been considered for the vacant head coach’s job, saw out his contract at Elland Road, moving on a fortnight after Thomas Christiansen took charge. “I spoke to the club and said ‘whenever you want to talk to me, I’m here’. I had no problem. I always said I respected that (Radrizzani) had come in new and wanted to take his own way.”
Clotet’s time at Oxford was short, ending with his dismissal six months later. He and Monk – sacked by Boro a month earlier – were reunited at Birmingham City before the end of this season, early enough to guide Birmingham away from relegation. Leeds, in the meantime, took the depressing path back down to 13th.
“The whole year I was there, I look back at it with a lot of joy,” Clotet said. “It made me very fulfilled. We put in so much and did everything we could.
“When you analyse it and take the picture as a whole, it was positive. For me it’s been one of the best seasons of my life. My family loved it and my son Max, he still sleeps in Leeds pyjamas. We left a good platform to build on.
“I thought we left the club in a better situation than we found it. That’s the best thing we can say.”