A former manager of Leeds United was once heard to say that an assistant should be as loyal as his wife. It helps to have someone watching your back, without the fear that they might stick a knife in it.
In Steve Thompson, Neil Redfearn has an assistant he can trust. The two men go back a very long way, to a time when they were teenagers chasing playing careers at the same English club. That they are close friends still, 30 years later, says a lot in an industry which tests and breaks the best of relationships.
Thompson’s appointment as United’s number two, confirmed by the club yesterday afternoon, felt almost as long in the making. Redfearn asked Leeds to tie him down immediately after his own appointment as head coach on November 1 and he has worked a hard and lonely shift in the weeks since then.
“I like putting out cones,” Redfearn joked last month but the lack of support for him was glaring, at a stage where the club’s season was listing. With Thompson in place – on a deal which, in line with Redfearn’s, runs to the end of the season and offers the option of a second year – United’s boss has the staff he needs.
“It’ll be much easier in training now,” Redfearn said. “We can break things down and work on specific areas, rather than just giving the players a generic message. You need a specialist and you need to work as a pair.”
Redfearn never toyed with the idea of approaching someone else, even as Thompson’s arrival from Huddersfield Town dragged. Huddersfield played hardball when Leeds first asked about him, demanding compensation for one of their two first-team coaches, but they blinked eventually and let the 50-year-old leave for nothing in the end. Thompson watched United train at Thorp Arch for the first time yesterday morning.
“It must have been quite tough for Neil,” Thompson said. “He’s been on his own, dealing with a big squad and lot of players. It’ll be my job to take a bit of pressure off him. The two of us can bounce off each other.
“This is a fantastic opportunity for me. When a manager wants you and it’s Leeds United, all the signs are there. No-one had to persuade me. The only thing I wanted was for it to be done in the right way and it was. I thank Huddersfield for that.
“I know this division (the Championship) and I know what it takes to get out of it so hopefully I’ll be a good asset – firstly for the manager to take a bit of weight off him, and also to develop the players we’ve got here. For my first day I said to Redders ‘let me look at the players and get an opinion of them.’ From what I saw, there’s some fantastic ability out there.”
In employing a good friend (the best man at his wedding), Redfearn did not have to convince Leeds or the club’s owner, Massimo Cellino, that Thompson was qualified. Prior to joining Huddersfield this summer, Thompson worked as a first-team coach at Blackpool for eight years, promoted to that position by former Blackpool and Leeds manager Simon Grayson.
When Grayson left Bloomfield Road to take charge of Leeds in December of 2008, Thompson was expected to follow him here. Instead, Ian Miller and Glynn Snodin joined United’s backroom team. Six years on, the chance came again.
“There were negotiations back then but there was a breakdown between the clubs,” Thompson said. “There was a chance I could have been coming but unfortunately it fell through.
“Simon promoted me from within at Blackpool and I still speak to him regularly. I had some great times there.”
Thompson’s record at Bloomfield Road shows two promotions: one from League One during Grayson’s tenure and another, more unlikely rise into the Premier League while Ian Holloway was manager. Blackpool also reached the Championship play-off final in 2010. From time to time Thompson would step in as caretaker. Blackpool like Leeds have seen some upheaval.
Earlier this year he accepted an invitation to work as assistant to Mark Robins at Huddersfield. Huddersfield lost the first game of this season, 4-0 at home to Bournemouth, and Robins quit the following morning. From then on, Thompson was been part of a gang of four under Chris Powell; one coach too many in some people’s eyes. Alex Dyer replaced him as number two.
“It was a strange start,” Thompson said. “Robbo brought me in and then left after one game. I hope that wasn’t down to me! Chris came in next with Alex Dyer and they’ve been great with me but sometimes when you’ve got four around the first team, it’s a lot of numbers. They’ve got Steve Eyre there too. You don’t get to do as much as you would like. “So this is a great opportunity for me. Leeds are the original sleeping giant. People say that about other clubs but this is the one.”
It’s a sleeping giant that suffers from day and night terrors. Thompson won’t need Redfearn to tell him how perilous coaching jobs at Leeds have been since Cellino’s takeover in April. “I’ve been used to a few rollercoasters in my career,” Thompson said. “Don’t worry. We all want the same thing. We’ll try to galvanise the lads here and make sure they to enjoy coming to work. We want to do the best for them and we want them all to go on and make life-changing money – hopefully with Leeds.
“It’s about natural progression. The young lads – as good as they are, sometimes they’ll feel strong as a bull and sometimes they’ll feel weak as a kitten. Sometimes you need to pull them out and recharge their batteries a bit.
“But from watching training, they can all handle the ball and their technique’s fantastic. With a little bit of guidance, we can get the place going again. You just have to set realistic targets.
“The good thing about me and Neil is that we’re not yes-or-no men. If he asks for my opinion then I’ll give it to him. But once we come back out the door, we’ll agree on everything.”
Redfearn called Thompson’s arrival a “fillip for the club”. It is certainly a relief for him. United’s head coach has been isolated since taking on his job, lacking proper, backroom support. For the past two months he has sought help from goalkeeping coach Neil Sullivan and fitness coach Matty Pears, and some from senior players in his squad. None of that is a substitute for a bona fide assistant, especially with Leeds 19th in the Championship.
“I’ve leant on some of the senior lads, like Stevie Warnock and Michael Tonge,” Redfearn said. “Michael Tonge’s been different class. But they’re players and they need to concentrate on playing.
“Sometimes you can miss things that are right in front of your nose and you need eyes and ears on your side to point them out. You need an extra opinion and Steve brings a wealth of experience. He’s knows this division and he’s been promoted from this division. I know the type of guy he is. Anyone else wouldn’t have been right for me.”