Thomas Christiansen was unveiled as Leeds United’s new head coach yesterday. Despite being a relative ‘unknown’ the Dane says he is the man to lead the Whites back to the Premier League. Phil Hay reports.
It was three years to the day since David Hockaday sat where Thomas Christiansen was sitting, in front of the media on floor four of Elland Road’s East Stand. Massimo Cellino staked credibility on Hockaday, just as Andrea Radrizzani has staked it on Christiansen, but Leeds United’s latest head coach brought some self-awareness with him.
Hockaday’s image was not helped by his overly-confident reaction to the claim that his appointment was an off-the-wall choice. Christiansen, the former APOEL coach who signed a two-year contract with Leeds last week, was sensible enough to accept that his career and credentials were little-known when news of his arrival broke on Thursday.
“I don’t have the same name as a Ranieri or other coaches who’ve been named,” he said, having won Radrizzani over at the end of a search in which United’s chairman dabbled with the idea of courting David Wagner and Jaap Stam. Wagner and Stam were new to first-team management less than two years and raw by the standards of the Championship. Their respective runs to this season’s play-off final set a trend which Radrizzani wants Christiansen to follow.
Christiansen – once a striker at Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona and a manager whose record starts and ends with three good years in Cyprus – has seen others coaches with modest profiles take up jobs in England and inflate their reputations. Experiments of that nature, of which Hockaday was one, have never worked at Elland Road but Leeds are no longer the vacuous club they were in 2014. Christiansen, 44, is joining at a time when United and Radrizzani have a fixed notion of what they are doing, if no guarantee that their plan will work.
“You see nowadays that clubs will take younger coaches,” Christiansen said. “It’s not because the older ones are no good but because you want to innovate and bring in something new; another way to think or to be more dynamic in training. It’s also good to see new faces, not always the same. I believe in what I can bring to the team and the club. This is why I’m here. At my previous teams I got the highest (performance levels) from most of my players. That’s why we achieved what we did and made history with both teams.
“I was in Europe last season with APOEL and we had a historic season. We beat important teams such as Olympiacos and Athletic Bilbao. But being in England has always been a dream for me. I’ve always followed English football and it has been a target. I’ve said many times I would like to be in Spain, Germany, England and now I have this big opportunity.”
Christiansen is Radrizzani’s answer to Garry Monk, whose performance in 12 months at Elland Road was widely respected, save only for the implosion in the last month of the season which cost Leeds a play-off place. The 38-year-old, who has since taken charge of Middlesbrough, hinted that he was unsuited to a structure of management being implemented by Radrizzani, a structure made clear by yesterday’s press conference.
Christiansen had managing director Angus Kinnear to his left – largely quiet but forthright still in describing the Dane as “single-minded, capable, humble and very ambitious” – and Victor Orta to his right, the club’s new director of football.
Orta’s authority and influence was obvious, a bullish presence in comparison to Christiansen’s softly-spoken style. Orta promised Christiansen the final say on transfers – “it is stupid for the head coach to bring in a player he doesn’t want” – and said he was impressed by Christiansen’s attitude. “All the people want to win promotion,” Orta said. “For me, this is only words. I prefer if he promises me hard work and commitment.” Radrizzani, who intends to delegate responsibility as owner, was not in attendance.
Christiansen has some recent plusses on his CV: the Cypriot title at APOEL last season and an appearance in the last 16 of the Europa League. Prior to that, he made enough of an impression in two seasons at AEK Larnaca to persuade APOEL, the island’s most powerful club, to recruit him last summer. The opinion that Cypriot football bears a mediocre comparison to larger European leagues is not lost on Christiansen but he found APOEL to be a demanding beast. The title and a creditable European run failed to earn him an extension to his contract in Nicosia.
“You have to be consistent,” he said. “Football in Cyprus is not England. It’s lower down but they have good teams. APOEL have shown that in the last few years, they’ve been in Europe and played in the group stages. Last year was historic, what we achieved with the team. There were also moments where we sold our best players, in crucial moments like (Tomas) De Vincenti before our two games in the play-offs for the Champions League. We sold him at the wrong moment and then Carlao in the winter period. That was very difficult but we managed to take the championship and get the performances we did in Europe.
“You must always have your own ideas. If you have to go out (leave a club), at least go out with your principles and your way of doing things.
That was very important at APOEL. Everyone, when they go there they’re influenced by the media or the board to take decisions but I was straight. That’s why at the end I was respected by everyone – the fans, my players.”
Christiansen spoke of learning from Cruyff at Barcelona but admitted that “at that time I was 18 and didn’t have the same pressure. For sure what will help me is what I learned in APOEL. It’s a very difficult club.
“If you see the situation during the last four or five years, they sack two or three coaches each year. You can understand the pressure, that if you lose two games in a row you’re more out than in.
“I’ll be new in this league but I’m very flexible.
“I have my ideas of how I want to play but I have to adapt to different circumstances, the league and the players we have in this squad. And of course, the opponents.
“This is my work and it’s what I understand. At my previous teams I’ve done it and succeeded, not only with the results but also in handling the squad and having a good atmosphere.
“It’s difficult but I was able to do it.”