Saturday, 11 April 2015

Calm to storm at Leeds United: How did it come to this?

Rewind to the start of April and Leeds United appeared to be sailing in calm waters.

Unbeaten in five, safe from relegation and with their young players to the fore: a rare opportunity to relax and look forward to next season with some optimism.

That was until the storm of 'mad Thursday', with assistant manager Steve Thompson suspended without explanation and news emerging that the club's top scorer had effectively been put in mothballs.

Since then there have been three defeats in a row, the position of manager Neil Redfearn is in doubt, and there are fears that the futures of young guns Lewis Cook, Sam Byram, Alex Mowatt and Charlie Taylor could lie elsewhere.

So how did it come to this?

To try and understand, we need to go back to the end of last year, to December 30th to be precise, when Leeds United had just lost 2-0 away at Derby County. In truth, the scoreline flattered them, because they were completely outplayed.

They were 20th in the table, just one point above the relegation zone. And I, for one, thought they would be relegated.

It was at this point that Redfearn decided that if he was going down, he'd go down his way.

So at the start of 2015, out went the diamond formation and in came 4-2-3-1. Out went Bianchi, Doukara and Antenucci, and in came Murphy, Morison and Taylor.

Massimo Cellino has always told me he has never, ever, told a manager who to select. But he's also quite clear that he oversees transfers. And it doesn't sit well with the owner if a manager overlooks these signings.

Anyway. Back to the turn of the year and the turn in fortunes. One January signing, Sol Bamba, made a difference. And Thompson started to make an impact, too. Murphy and Bamba, in particular, paid tribute to the help he had given them.

And, perhaps most significantly of all, Redfearn started to get the best from the young guns he had nurtured through the club's academy.

Results picked up dramatically. Among the impressive results were wins over high-flying Bournemouth and Middlesbrough. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Leeds were one of the form teams in the division.

Then came mad Thursday and that optimism evaporated.

Underlying all of this, from day one, has been a tension between the foreign and English contingents at the club - or perhaps more accurately, between the staff of the Cellino era and the rest.

Despite the impressive results, the club's hierarchy were frustrated that the new signings - Montenegro, Cani, Doukara et al - were not getting a chance in the side.

Whether or not this came direct from Cellino, who was banned (and in Miami), I can't say. But the frustrations of 'the board' were conveyed to the manager.

Some of the foreign signings - Berardi, Bamba, Silvestre - mixed in with the rest, but the others didn't.

And suddenly there was not only Salerno at training - who Redfearn always got on well with - but his 'assistant' as well, a young man named Andrea.

The 23-year-old Frenchman first came to the attention of the Cellinos when he was working in a furniture shop in Miami. Mrs Cellino came in as a customer and was impressed by how polite this young man was, and by the fact that he spoke a number of languages.

Soon he was brought over to the club in an intern capacity, initially working in the club shop and then assisting Salerno, acting as his interpreter. He was given a modest wage and put up in a flat in the city.

Other staff understandably became bemused when he started to turn up in the boardroom for matches though. And at meetings. And at the Thorp Arch training ground, where he would ask questions and occasionally voice opinions.

Staff at Elland Road soon started to nickname him 'the spy' - and it stuck.

This is all perhaps something of an aside, although it adds to the slightly surreal picture at the club.

Tensions and mutual distrust between the two camps boiled over with the Antenucci affair. To recap, chairman Andrew Umbers told Redfearn he was not to select the striker because he was two goals away from triggering a clause that would give him another year's contract.

Redfearn said he would go along with this, but only so long as he could be honest about the reasons for not picking the player. After all, his form had picked up and he'd scored in his last two games. But he was told he mustn't do that.

When Thompson and Redfearn arrived for work on the morning of Thursday April 2nd, Bellusci and Antenucci were laughing. That seemed strange, but the reason soon became clear when Thompson was handed a letter, signed by Nicola Salerno, informing him he had been suspended.

Redfearn later spoke to Antenucci. "I stuck up for you, Mirco, and my mate got suspended," he said. "Now you're laughing about it."

Antenucci felt pretty bad about that. And, to be fair, his attitude, in both training and the matches, has been good and he earned a place in the side. Cellino, in turn, denied that Redfearn had ever been forbidden from selecting the striker.

When I spoke to the club's Italian owner last week, he revealed Salerno had tendered his resignation, but said he hoped to talk him out of it. It's hard to escape the conclusion that Salerno - who is described as a gentleman by pretty much everyone at Elland Road - felt very awkward about the events of the last fortnight.

So the club has no assistant manager, no sporting director and a manager on the brink.

The reasons for Thompson's departure are still not entirely clear. Cellino told me it was because he had called Salerno a 'retard' after the Fulham game, which Leeds won 3-0.

He also said he was still committed to the club and that they needed four or five new signings to mount a promotion charge next season.

In short, what we have is a situation of confusion, uncertainty and turbulence.

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