Garry Monk was on his way out of Sutton United in January, smarting from an FA Cup exit which owed much to his choice of team, when a Leeds United supporter took him to task.
The conversation was one-way and explicit: this is Leeds you are managing and Leeds expect more than a half-cocked line-up losing to a part-time club.
Monk walked on without saying anything, which was often his style. Apart from the occasional crossed word with journalists and a dig in the ribs of David Wagner, it was rare for anyone to get a rise out of him.
Leeds were fourth in the Championship on the day of their defeat at Sutton; a long way into the season, seven points short of second place and as far down the road to promotion as any manager since Simon Grayson had been.
The club appreciate good managers having seen the job carve up so many but there is little slack to be had at Elland Road when decisions begin to look like liberties.
Monk will be reminded of that when he sees on Sunday how warmly Leeds and Elland Road are prepared to receive him.
Football is a black-and-white sport, despite the shades of grey all over it. There were politics behind his line-up at Sutton – tangible dissatisfaction over a transfer window which had failed to deliver anything by January 29 – but on the face of it, Monk sold a very winnable tie by stripping his squad back and dredging up Paul McKay and Billy Whitehouse from nowhere.
There were politics behind his resignation in May too but the basic bullet points read thus: the summer arrived, Leeds advanced into a new era of ownership and Monk promptly quit. In three previous decades at Elland Road only Dennis Wise had quit.
As surprises go it wrong-footed Andrea Radrizzani, despite the realisation in the days leading up to the crunch that he and Monk were not altogether on the same page.
Leeds had until May 31 to take up an option to extend Monk’s year-long contract by a further 12 months. Monk beat them to the punch by resigning on May 25, the day before Radrizzani planned to exercise the option.
Radrizzani was described as “on the floor” when Monk’s message dropped but realistic about the pointless scenario of retaining a head coach who was asking to leave. Those close to Monk argued at the time that he felt undervalued by a short extension and expected Leeds to show more commitment to him after a convincing season as head coach.
Leeds said thorough discussions about a longer deal had been held up by Radrizzani’s buy-out of Massimo Cellino – an exchange of shares completed on May 23 – and insisted the plan to instigate the 12-month option was an interim measure designed to prevent Monk becoming a free agent. A club statement claimed Monk had been unreceptive to conversations about longer terms and said meetings between him and Radrizzani suggested he was “considering life beyond Leeds United”.
Monk intimated as much when Middlesbrough unveiled him as their new manager a fortnight later. Radrizzani’s buy-out of Cellino instigated immediate change at Leeds and nothing moreso than the appointment of Victor Orta, Boro’s erstwhile head of recruitment, as director of football.
“I sat down and discussed with Leeds what that new structure would be and to be honest it wasn’t right for me,” said Monk during a press conference on June 12.
“There were things that didn’t suit me so I made that decision.”
The timing of his resignation freed Monk from the shackles of compensation and gave Boro the right to speak to him without permission.
Notwithstanding the various contradictions, perception of this depends on how cynical football makes you. Monk took care of himself but the volatility of football management justifies some self-indulgence and it occurs that there was no-one looking out for him when he sat on the verge of the sack after six league games at Leeds. Failing coaches get the rope at a rate of knots while valued coaches get the bird for following their own mind.
Players are prone to the same extreme of emotions. But his refusal to give the Radrizzani era a chance, or at least the benefit of the doubt, was driven by his own interests, whether those interests came down to money, ambition or internal relationships. It was seen as such in the city he left and he cannot complain if vitriol dominates Middlesbrough’s visit to Elland Road on Sunday.
Much as the impetus under Radrizzani has dipped, and much as Monk could argue that the spine of his team has gone, that was the price of bailing out while Leeds were starting to stir.
If it all detracts from his popularity then it does not alter his record here: the highest number of home wins in the second division since Howard Wilkinson and the highest tally of points too.
A nearly-season conjured from a brief first summer as head coach, and with a squad which was never honed for promotion.
Individual talent was there in abundance but not the depth, which does not change the fact that Leeds played the part of Devon Loch on the final straight to the play-offs.
Monk might carry the can for an untimely fall-out with Pontus Jansson and his reluctance to let go of a system which left the club treading water at the end, but there was plenty to admire in the way Leeds re-engaged with the idea of competing in the Championship, as opposed to existing in it.
It will not afford Monk many niceties on Sunday but it stands behind him all the same.