Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Cellino's gamble on Milanic

Let's be clear about one thing at the outset - Neil Redfearn wanted the Leeds manager's job on a permanent basis.

He was buoyed by the way the players responded to him in both training and matches during his four games in charge.

And he felt that, at 49, and with many years as academy boss and two previous spells as caretaker under his belt, he was ready to step up.

Massimo Cellino's logic in appointing Darko Milanic and overlooking the caretaker was that he wanted to keep Redfearn at the academy and at the club long-term (because he does have a bit of a habit of sacking managers or head coaches).

This argument stacked up only if Redfearn was happy with the arrangement. And the fact is he wanted the top job.

That makes this is a big gamble by Cellino, arguably the biggest of his tenure at Elland Road so far.

Redfearn has been strongly linked with the top job at his former club Barnsley, where he enjoys hero status from his time there as a player.

There hasn't been any contact between the parties yet, but if the Tykes do decide to replace under-pressure Danny Wilson, you can be pretty sure that Redfearn's name will be at the top of their wanted list.

That could mean Leeds losing one of their most loyal and respected servants, a man who knows the club inside out and who undeniably did a great job for them as caretaker. Record: played four, won three, drawn one.

It's why Phil Neville, admittedly not the most popular pundit among Leeds fans for obvious reasons, made pertinent points about the Milanic appointment last week.

"They've already got somebody there with the quality and the experience, who knows what the club's all about," he said.

"If they are a club who want to bring through their own players, well this lad's been doing it for the last however many years."

There have been a lot of departures at Elland Road in recent months - Benito Carbone, Andrew Umbers, Graham Bean, Dave Hockaday - the list goes on.

But Redfearn could prove particularly difficult to replace.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Trouble with Mr Bean at Leeds United

Up until today, I thought of Graham Bean as a behind-the-scenes administrator at Leeds United: a solid, suited Yorkshireman who quietly got on with the business of signing off contracts, paying bills and dealing with the Football League.

That image changed dramatically when the 53-year-old came out all guns blazing after a quite spectacular falling out with Leeds United's irascible Italian owner, Massimo Cellino.

Bean, 53, took to Twitter, using his little-known account, @FootballFactors, to publicly lambast Cellino.

He wrote "never seen morale so low anywhere (as Leeds)" and "relieved to be out of the mad house".

I spoke to Bean this evening (more of that later) and his anger was still palpable. I could picture him with his sleeves rolled up and fists clenched as he spoke.

Of course Cellino is not averse to apparent impulse sackings.

We saw that when he fired Brian McDermott before he had even taken over the club; we saw it when Benito Carbone was ditched as a technical consultant; we saw it when Andrew Umbers, who had been brought in to oversee cost-cutting at Elland Road, was ruthlessly dispensed with.

The falling out with Bean was still very unexpected though. After all, this was a man who was performing an awful lot of the administrative tasks at the club and who seemed to be quietly effective.

Bean - the Football Association's first ever compliance officer, and before that a policeman for two decades - had signed off the deals for 15 new players after being brought in on a 12-month contract as a consultant by Cellino.

The reason for his dismissal appears, on the face of it, very trivial.

This is the story. Bean agreed to Reading's request to move their league game against Leeds next week back 24 hours, from Tuesday to Wednesday.

This was because the Royals’ game against Wolves this weekend was moved from Saturday to Sunday so it could be shown live on Sky TV, and the Berkshire side wanted an extra day to recover.

Bean argues the Football League would have insisted the game was moved anyway.

He told me: “It was three months ago, and he (Cellino) was on holiday.

“Reading asked ‘Can we move the game 24 hours, from Tuesday to Wednesday’. It was the middle of transfer window and I had a thousand and one things to do.

"I agreed. The League would have made us do it anyway.

“Yesterday he (Cellino) found out about it. So I get a phone call from a lackey of his (a club employee in the accounts department) to tell me I’d been fired.”

Bean says he’s been told that Cellino was “apoplectic” when he found out about the fixture change, and was “foaming at the mouth”.

When I put Bean’s comments to Cellino, he replied: “I don’t give a fuck. I have to run this club my way. I don’t like to talk about private matters. Ciao.”

It's easy to view the Italian's actions as irrational.

But there are explanations for his actions.

First off, Cellino is incredibly competitive and completely absorbed by the club. He wouldn’t have wanted to give Reading any mercy at all after their Sunday fixture against Wolves.

He's also long harboured a suspicion that the League fixtures are weighted against his side.

When he was in the process of buying Leeds last season, they were in the middle of a long run of consecutive away games in the Championship, which he just couldn’t fathom - and he promised such a thing would never happen on his watch.

It's perhaps fair to say that Cellino should have spoken to Bean to get his reasons for the fixture switch though, rather than summarily axing him.

Bean also says there was a clause in his contract stipulating that if there was a breach, then 14 days would be allowed to remedy it, which has obviously not been adhered to here.

Bean also made a fair point when he pointed at the lack of people to help Cellino run the club when he tweeted: “no more signings – who is there to do the paperwork?”

After being informed of his dismissal, Bean says he called Cellino to confront him about his decision and the way it had been handled.

Now, I for one would have been paid to listen in to this particular conversation.

Bean says he told the Italian exactly what he thought of him, using some choice Yorkshire language, and he admits the C-bomb was dropped at least once.

Cellino was apparently quite taken aback and told Bean to “watch your mouth”.

Bean is still angry and promises this won't be the end of the matter. So, as my dearly departed nan used to say, watch this space.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Milanic '95%' to become new Leeds boss and should be confirmed on Sunday

I've had quick contact with Massimo Cellino tonight and he says it's "95% sure" that Darko Milanic will become the new Leeds United head coach.

The club's Italian owner says he will know for sure on Sunday. Presumably this is when Milanic should have sorted out his severance deal with his current club, Sturm Graz.

Privately, Cellino admits he made an error in appointing Dave Hockaday - too inexperienced a manager and lacking the profile and probably the personality for such a big role.

He realised he needed a more experienced boss to come in, which inevitably meant spending more money.

The search led him to the 46-year-old Slovenian, who was an international player of some standing, and who has had success as a manager with Maribor in Slovenia, and then with Austrian side Sturm Graz since the summer of 2013.

And this might sound flippant, but it really isn't - Milanic is also not a bad looking bloke. This will not have escaped Cellino's attention.

He regularly commented on how ugly Hockaday was and even insisted this had held him back in his coaching/ managerial career.

There were other candidates for the job, of course. Cellino tried to get Oscar Garcia, and thought he had succeeded, only for Watford to beat him to the signature of the 41-year-old Spaniard.

He also met former West Brom manager Steve Clarke, but wasn't convinced the Scot really wanted the job.

In fact Clarke admitted he wanted to manage a Premier League side.

Cellino joked that Clarke had once been assistant to Gianfranco Zola (at West Ham), so can't have been taught very well.

The two Italians famously fell out when Cellino owned Cagliari and took Zola there as a player.

The 58-year-old also met former Leeds boss Simon Grayson - and his agent. The eccentric Italian joked that he wasn't sure who was the manager and who was the agent, because the latter spoke more than the former.

Cellino admits he's baffled and frustrated that managers (or head coaches) in England all seem to have agents, and that they exert so much influence.

He insists things are different in Italy.

Anyway, it looks like Milanic is the man, so long as he can sort out the final details of his severance with Sturm Graz, and we should know on Sunday.

Another chapter begins at Elland Road, with the club about to appoint their first foreign coach.

Cellino insists that Milanic will have a talented and improving squad of players to work with if he comes in. The Italian has been impressed with their recent progress under caretaker boss Neil Redfearn.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Invictus Games: The wounded warriors who refused to surrender

There was the briefest moment of bewilderment, confusion and uncertainty, before reality set in.

Then screaming, panic and pain.

“I lifted my left hand and felt my fingers hanging off, tapping against the back of my hand, which was just a bloody stump,” remembers JJ Chalmers.

“And my right arm was gone, it just wasn’t there. That’s when I realised there was nothing I could do for myself, other than call for help.

“That’s when I started thinking ‘oh man, what have you got yourself into here?”

A massive commotion was going on all around. Blood, dust, fear.

Eventually someone arrived to help and patch him up, before having to go and help other casualties.

Two of his fellow marines had been killed, along with their Afghan interpreter.

“It was the scariest thought in the world, being alone,” Chalmers admits.

He was only thinking of survival until he heard the unmistakeable, heavy whirr of a helicopter overhead, and at that point he knew he wouldn’t die on that patch of ground.

John James Chalmers, 23. He had been a Royal Marines commando.

The best of the best, the elite. Doing a job he loved, alongside men he admired, pushing himself to the absolute limit, each and every day.

A few days later, he was lying in his bed in hospital. The right side of his face had almost collapsed; he had lost two fingers and had the others wired back on; his right elbow had disintegrated; his legs were badly injured.

“I was lying there thinking ‘what’s to come? What is ahead of me?’”

Screaming in the dark

Senior aircraftman Mike Goody was having to live at home with his parents again after being blown up by a roadside bomb in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in August 2008.

Mike Goody was trapped under his vehicle for four hours The 22-year-old had been trapped under the wreckage of the armoured vehicle he was driving for four hours, before eventually being pulled free.

After that there were 14 operations to save his lower leg, but they were in vain and it had to be amputated. He was also suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and terrifying flashbacks.

It was an incredibly tough time for both him and his parents, Frank and Jackie. His mum Jackie remembers one particularly vivid night.

“Mike was in his bedroom and you could hear him screaming and shouting and banging on the door, speaking some bizarre language I later found out was Pashto, which he’d learnt out there,” she recalls.

“It was just a case of trying to calm him down and talk to him.”

Goody was struggling to cope though and sought solace in alcohol.

“A typical day for me would be waking up from an epic day’s drinking, cracking my first beer open within 10 or 15 minutes, then onto the next and the next,” he remembers.

“Then it was onto the spirits. Then I’d be thinking ‘how can I successfully kill myself?’ Not just a fleeting thought, but in-depth planning.

“I felt like I was a burden. If I wasn’t here, I wouldn’t be a burden any more.”

'Competitive beast' is back

Like many other injured servicemen, corporal Paul Vice was taken to the military rehabilitation centre at Headley Court in Surrey.

That’s where the possibilities offered by sport opened up in front of him.

Wheelchair tennis, swimming, athletics – he tried them all, before deciding he liked sitting volleyball, cycling and archery best of all.

His injuries were numerous and severe after he was blown up by an IED, or improvised explosive device, in Afghanistan in August 2011.

He reels them off: “Four hundred significant wounds up and down my left side, quite a bad head injury, severed carotid artery.”

Vice, now 31, can still clearly remember the explosion that tore him apart three years ago.

"I was walking along on a normal day patrol," he says "and saw two guys hunkered down in a field.

"Then I saw an oil drum poking out of the bottom of a wall. I knew what it was and ran, but not fast enough. I turned round and that was it. Boom. Game over."

Not quite game over though.

The sight of Vice pulling the cord of his bow using his mouth during an archery session shows his ingenuity and determination to overcome his injuries.

“Just because you are down, doesn’t mean you are broken or beaten and can’t compete,” Vice says. “Any marine is a competitive beast and you have to get back to that as quickly as possible.”

Rock stars take to the stage

Sport also rescued Goody, providing a salvation from alcoholism and suicidal thoughts.

He competed in a marathon and iron man competition and was within a whisker of being chosen for a trek to the South Pole with Prince Harry.

Then he rediscovered his love of a swimming.

As a teenager, Goody had competed in galas up and down the country and even hoped to compete in the Olympics one day, although he ultimately lacked the dedication to realise his dream.

Now he is giving the sport his all and has been selected to compete for Britain at the Invictus Games.

For Chalmers, sport reminded him what he was capable of.

“Not being arrogant, but I didn’t used to be an average human being,” he says.

“I was a Royal Marines commando. I was capable of a whole lot and pushed myself to the absolute limit. But in the past few years, to keep my head above water, the average became acceptable.

“Once you get involved in sport, you realise you are capable of a whole lot more.”

He took up cycling, got better and better, and started to compete.

“Getting on that bike, doing 45km and enjoying the pain and punishment and looking forward to getting back on and doing even better next time – that’s how I used to feel before I was injured,” he beams.

He has been selected by Britain for non-amputee cycling and will compete at the Lee Valley Velopark on Saturday September 13th.

Britain's captain for the Invictus Games is Dave Henson MBE, who will be competing in sitting volleyball, as well as the 200m and 400m.

The 29-year-old, who was blown up by an IED while serving with the Engineer Regiment in Helmand in February 2011, says the Games will be a chance to “come together and show we can’t be overcome or beaten”.

“And in front of everyone we care about,” he adds.

Goody is relishing the chance to “prove to myself and my parents and family that I can do stuff”.

His dad, Frank, a former military man himself, is not prone to outpourings of emotion, yet he admits it could be difficult to keep himself together when his son competes.

“I was terrified when I first saw his injuries,” he admits. “I wondered ‘will he cope?’ And, yes, he did cope. What holds him back? Nothing. He will go for everything.”

The Games will also provide an opportunity for the men to stand alongside their former colleagues once more.

“The thing I am looking forward to most of all is getting in amongst the lads again,” Chalmers says. “They’re the same sort of friends I had in Afghanistan.

"This group of people I am just honoured to know. They are my inspiration and should be everyone’s inspiration.

“The guys are rock stars and should be the most famous people in the world.”