Rightly or wrongly the feeling at Leeds United is that Thomas Christiansen might prove himself before long. The right idea, the club maintain, but the wrong time for him to be carrying the weight of the world at Elland Road. Almost a case of too much too soon.
Managerial sackings take a variety of forms, from mutual-consent partings to Brian McDermott communicating with Massimo Cellino via his solicitor, but Christiansen sitting down with United’s players for breakfast on Tuesday was as gentle a goodbye as any head coach will have. No bad blood and no resentment, even after the worst of months.
Christiansen fell into the category of what Freddie Shepherd, haunted by the experience of sacking Sir Bobby Robson at Newcastle United, called “shooting bambi”: a man who Leeds no longer had faith in but could not criticise on a personal level. The club liked him and the players embraced him, to the extent that they were able to meet amicably at Thorp Arch two days after Christiansen had been shown the door.
His appointment did not work, though. By any measure it equates to the failure in the time he was given. Christiansen saw fewer games than Steve Evans and two more than Neil Redfearn, and the two best gauges for any manager – how much better the team was under him and how much individual players improved – both gave a low reading on Saturday night. The decision was staring Leeds in the face, much as it gave the club no pleasure to take it.
Leeds need his [Heckingbottom’s] potential to kick in quickly if this season is to be anything other than a stepping stone to another year in the Championship.Phil Hay
Where Christiansen scored highly was on accountability, showing the self-awareness to admit he was in a corner after a 4-1 defeat to Cardiff City.
His resigned honesty on Saturday night – “if it’s their decision that they want to find somebody better then I’ll go away with my head high” – made you ask yourself if he already knew or if the smoke signals were starting to rise, but it could not be said that the Dane wandered blissfully into a hail of bullets.
A touch more arrogance might not hurt his career but it is always better to fall on the right side of cockiness.
Accountability matters in football. A club is a free-for-all without it. Bristol City, who came out the other side of the storm surrounding Lee Johnson last season, recently introduced personal handbooks for all of their players, providing information about every aspect of the club: useful contacts, social media policies and the specific details of dressing-room fines. Mark Ashton, their chief executive, said the guides were intended to create a “no-excuses” culture.
“For the first time everyone knows the rules,” he told The Guardian a few weeks ago.
Christiansen carried the can for a wretched first month of 2018, a period of overwhelming misjudgements. The misjudgements were not all his, not even close, but the timing of his dismissal felt right nonetheless. His sacking pushes the well-worn reset button at Elland Road but it also shifts accountability: to Paul Heckingbottom, his replacement, but also toward an owner, a director of football and a regime who need their second-choice as head coach to click.
Managerial appointments are a test of judgement and Christiansen was a mistake. It is hard with the benefit of hindsight not to reflect that the 44-year-old, to all but those with an encyclopedic knowledge of European football, was plucked from thin air. The choice of Heckingbottom caused predictable divisions: underwhelming for some, disappointing for others.
What he has in his favour is the confidence of large numbers of people within the game – most with no dog in this fight – who think he will go on to be a top-level coach. Barnsley were failing to make him look like one, with one win in 16 games and three at home in a year, but there are agents, other managers and players who rate his potential. He is a stricter character than Christiansen too. One of his first requests after taking the job this week was to see the players’ disciplinary charter which, in light of four red cards in five games, was plainly achieving nothing.
Leeds need his potential to kick in quickly if this season is to be anything other than a stepping stone to another year in the Championship. Heckingbottom said it on Tuesday: the five games in front of the club are defining now and the longer shot that promotion has become does not mean his initial results can be as bad as Christiansen’s most recent. But he is stepping in at the most difficult time, with players in short supply, form non-existent and the fixture list squaring up to him. The hand he has been dealt merits some realism about how easily he can bring the season round, and how quickly.