It is in times of adversity when true leaders emerge. While those all around are losing their heads, making rash decisions and shouting the odds, it’s a rare breed of individual who can keep a calm and rational mind, while inspiring those around them to rise above the malaise and on to better things.
For a while it seemed that in Brian McDermott Leeds United might just have that individual; sure, there were doubts and unanswered questions in respect of certain players and tactical decisions – there always are, but a combination of his reasoned rhetoric, medium to long term thinking, and the circumstances that’ve hindered him from the outset was enough to buy our manager as much leeway as English football’s most beleaguered fan base could offer.
But things have been going wrong, and not just recently, not even since Rochdale, but as far back as mid-December. Since the 3-0 victory at The Keepmoat Stadium, McDermott has only overseen one victory, a fortuitous and wind assisted one at that, in Yeovil. That’s a solitary victory in a run of 13 games that stretches over a period 12 weeks. The humbling at Spotland and the humiliation at Hillsborough were not so much blips, but an extension in the downward trajectory the club had been heading in; Leeds were already on a run of four games without a win on the back of abject showings against Barnsley, Blackpool, Forest and Blackburn – things weren’t right and the manager wasn’t tackling matters.
Having redeemed our lack of width by playing a 5-3-2 system, McDermott was guilty of taking his eye off matters on the pitch during the Christmas period as he became pre-occupied and lustily spoke of his plans in the January window. The approach to those four games felt like ‘plod on and make do’ as opposed to part of the ongoing evolution and progress of the team. Hopelessly jaded players continued to play while squad players remained nothing other than that, all while Brian spoke of how he was looking forward to replacing some of those in the starting line-up the moment 2014 raised its enticing head. Hardly the way to inspire a team through the hard slog of the festive period.
The momentum the manager built was at first checked, then destroyed and has never subsequently looked like returning. This should’ve been a hiccup, but it hasn’t been; the new arrivals Brian lusted after should’ve sparked new life into a flagging season, instead they’ve strangled the life out of it. From the outside looking in, it appears that in the midst of poor performances, scapegoats have been made and blind acts of loyalty established.
No manager should have to work under the kind of circumstances that McDermott has for so long; that he has done so is inexcusable and the blame for that lies squarely at the feet of GFH. The crass, reckless actions of Cellino have done nothing but aggravate the situation, but sadly, rather than be the shining knight, the antidote, the calm, reassuring head in the midst of the disarray, McDermott has become complicit in it.
Einstein defined insanity as ‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’, if those words hold true, then it feels at a time when all those around him have lost their heads, so too has McDermott, his aura of calm and rationality exposed. More pointedly, as already touched upon, leaders don’t just keep their heads, they inspire others and this evidently hasn’t happened.
As much as the virtues of Cellino will continue to be debated, his ‘sacking’ of McDermott was something of a gift to our manager. It mobilised the general feeling of patience and goodwill towards Brian into torrent of large scale, passionate support – if Rochdale wasn’t to prove a “driver”, nor Sheffield Wednesday, then the events of that weekend served to hand the spark and the momentum that had been so long lacking. Following a typically disjointed opening, McCormack’s 45th minute equaliser lit the fuse and Leeds steamrollered Huddersfield the next day – a strong manager would’ve capitalised on that, McDermott hasn’t.
Joyous supporters streamed out of the ground that day, enthusing about the second half showing, delighted that the team had reacted, had stood up and played out of their skins for their absent manager. In retrospect, it now looks as though the performance was a response to the occasion and the atmosphere, rather than primarily one inspired by the man absent from the dug-out. There certainly hasn’t been anything like it since.
From the moment of his hurried reinstatement, McDermott has been on shaky ground, the weeks that have followed, essentially an audition to a famously impatient man, his one chance to convince Cellino of his virtues. But the talked up play-off charge has never looked a remote possibility: a fortunate win at Huish Park was followed by a miserable showing at Brighton, a game only notable for Leeds’ inability to even once test the goalkeeper; promises of “going for it from the start” at The Riverside manifested into another dire attacking show, then when Leeds finally did discover a little attacking verve at Loftus Road, a stifling lack of ambition after the break served to fritter away three points that were there for the taking.
As for yesterday? Well, that simply an affirmation of every shortcoming that’s typified McDermott’s stewardship in recent months. Kebe and Stewart, the much trumpeted saviours of the season were again abject – the fact that the latter has been even more anonymous is a real worry with the 3 year contract ahead of him – but even more to blame on this occasion was the defence.
While Kebe and Stewart appear undroppable, Zaliukas, despite being the outstanding defender at the club before the turn of the year has been completely frozen out. While his displays at Spotland and Hillsborough were diabolical, so were those of almost every other player involved, yet Pugh aside, the rest continue to figure; Peltier also, while often terrible at right back has in the past, proved himself a consistent performer at centre half. To many minds, this is the pairing that should’ve been starting games in the absence of Pearce, instead we had Wootton and Lees, the former, yet to convince in any run of games, the latter, an absolute shadow of the player he was.
While football is a team game, every goal yesterday was a damning indictment of the back four that McDermott put out there. Lees on three occasions inside the opening ten minutes was caught flatfooted by his opponent and could barely even be found in the same postcode as the scorer as each goal went in, while Wootton’s pathetic attempts to prevent Zak Knight’s effort defy description. With that goal, the game was over, and come the all too late replacement of Kebe and Stewart, so too you suspect was the love affair between fans and manager – Brian shook his head as supporters cheered Kebe’s exit, supporters shook their heads that it took so, so long to happen.
Bolton played a game defined by slick passing and movement, while Leeds’ game became increasingly typified by hopeless hoofing. With 25 minutes remaining, McDermott introduced Smith to play upfront with Wickham; had Warnock ever paired those two, I can only imagine the reaction. All this from a side that could ‘afford’ to start with Byram and Mowatt kicking their heels in the dugout. Eleven months on and we’ve barely moved on at all…
God only knows what the future has in store. The only certainty is that in spite of his latest outburst being aimed at the players, rather than the manager, Cellino won’t entertain keeping Brian in the long term. If the picture changes and the Farnan group are thrown a lifeline via an Italian courtroom and a Football League, then I’d still be hard pressed to hold them to their promise of keeping McDermott at the helm.
I feel tainted and unsavoury even typing these words, but sadly, sentiment has all but deserted football in the modern game. Brian, it’s been a pleasure having you at the helm in so many ways, but Leeds United needs more than wise words, it needs a fearless leader if is ever going to prosper again. Nice guys rarely prosper in football management, let alone in this rather unique football environment.
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