At Leeds United, a nomination for manager of the month is as good as the prize itself. As Aitor Karanka caresses the trophy for January, Neil Redfearn can console himself by remembering that at no stage of United’s League One promotion season (one defeat from the first 23 games, eight points clear at the turn of the year) did Simon Grayson win it.
The statistics get worse. In all the years of manager of the month – 10 and counting – Leeds have received the award three times. Dennis Wise took it twice, though his low opinion of the Football League at the time tempted him to throw the trophies into the crowd. He was dissuaded on the grounds that they would make nice mementos in years to come and, more seriously, that an alloy replica of a Coca-Cola bottle would kill whoever it hit. Leeds still have them in a cabinet at Elland Road.
Ego aside, it matters not. Redfearn was the anomaly in January’s shortlist, a coach with a squad in 19th position alongside others with teams in second, third and fifth, and he can take his inclusion in the manner it was intended: as a meaningful nod of approval. For weeks he has been pushing the line that his players are turning the corner, getting a grip and starting to click. It must be nice to hear his own thoughts echoed by independent voices.
Redfearn is not a manager in name – head coaches are the fashion at Elland Road, as they are at numerous clubs – but United’s form in January came down to old-fashioned management. It came down to old-fashioned nerve and willingness on his part to exert authority. He is nobody’s poodle, regardless of whether his club want one. Leeds’ defeat at Derby County on December 30 presented a few obvious conclusions: the formation needed to change and certain players need to be dropped. The diamond was shot and members of the team were too. Tommaso Bianchi and Souleymane Doukara, to take two examples, had reached the stage where they were playing without form or justification. The wait for Adryan to light a fire was beginning to drag and the sum of the individual parts equated to relegation or something close.
Look back to quotes from that night at Pride Park and you’ll see Redfearn talking about “short-termism”. It’s not a popular phrase at Leeds – plans, players, debt and ownership are always discussed with a longer view – but it set the tone. Redfearn knows an emergency when he sees one. He’s been through relegation before and it was his urgent utterings in 2013 that convinced United to get their finger out, stand him down as caretaker and appoint Brian McDermott at haste. Too many people in the Elland Road boardroom were oblivious to the trouble ahead.
In the past month, Redfearn has challenged the idea that a head coach at Leeds is a puppet on a string. That perception is not groundless, and Massimo Cellino holds less sway in the importance of a coach than he does in the importance of a playing squad, but Redfearn is finding the middle ground.
He has less control over transfers than he wants, as his interest in Martyn Woolford showed. That deal went cold after word reached Millwall that Redfearn’s appreciation of Woolford was not shared by people above him. But it is equally clear that this team and strategy are his alone, dependent on players who were marking time and counting down contracts before Christmas. It’s to Redfearn’s credit that he’s following his own mind. A relationship with Cellino requires compromise and patience, along with a well bitten tongue. But a coach who banks his wage while rolling over is no better himself. The job at Leeds takes conviction and confidence to do your thing and live by results.
There’s a definite sign in Redfearn’s demeanour that he’s as free in the role as he’s ever been. Cellino is absent – physically at any rate – and the football is falling purely to him. When push came to shove, Leeds looked at an offer of £500,000 for Rudy Austin and said no. Gradually Redfearn is gaining a foothold, albeit in the knowledge that he and his assistant are effectively out of contract in the summer.
Leeds have options to retain him and Steve Thompson for another season, a decision which will fall to Cellino after his suspension ends. Months like January can only strengthen Redfearn’s hand. He’s not without flaws but in the context of the type of coach Cellino prefers to employ, he might hold it together at Elland Road as well as anyone. The other anomaly in a shortlist of Redfearn, Karanka, Steve McClaren and Mark Warburton is that only one of them would be game for this job.