Friday, 3 April 2015

Leeds United's 'mad Thursday' explained

Not for the first time in Massimo Cellino's Leeds' reign, fans were left scratching their heads yesterday and asking 'what was all that about?'

At the start of the morning, news came through that assistant manager Steve Thompson had been suspended. This was a shock, to say the least.

Thompson had been given a letter, signed by Nicola Salerno, informing him he was suspended (with the word suspended spelt incorrectly) and that his contract, which expires this summer, would not be renewed.

Then, just as Neil Redfearn was about to attend his weekly press conference ahead of the Blackburn game on Saturday (understandably, he had considered cancelling it, before deciding he would front up to discuss a decision he had known nothing about), I wrote this story for The Sun revealing that the manager had been told he was not allowed to pick his top scorer, Mirco Antenucci.

The two stories, combined, gave a feeling of chaos, of a club in disarray. They weren't two random events that just happened to coincide though.

They were linked. And this is why.

Earlier in the week, Redfearn was told by chairman Andrew Umbers, in no uncertain terms, that he was not to select Antenucci because of a clause in his contract triggering an automatic one-year extension should he score 12 goals.

This would mean the striker staying at Elland Road for a further two seasons beyond the current one, as well as receiving a cash bonus.

This incentivised contract was seen as good business when it was agreed, as it would guarantee that the player would be rewarded only if he achieved. It was seen as insurance for the club. Everyone's a winner, or something like that.

Only Antenucci did get very close to reaching the stipulated target, and the club decided it didn't like the incentive any more. Antenucci is already 30; he has done fairly well although not outstandingly well in his first season; and the club's ownership situation is now up in the air.

These incentivised contracts are not unusual in football. And, even though it seems bizarre, this would not be the first time a club has wanted to avoid playing someone about to activate a clause.

But what is rather poor form is the fact that Umbers told Redfearn he could not disclose the real reason for not selecting Antenucci.

This put the manager in a difficult position. It's not hard to see why. Just consider if, at a press conference or in a post-match interview, he was asked why he had not selected the club's top scorer, a striker who had netted in his last two matches.

He would have to lie. And that sat uneasily with an honest man of integrity like Redfearn - one who also has a clause in his contract stating he has full autonomy over team selection.

So this caused tension between Redfearn and Umbers. The manager said he would not go along with what he had been told, and that if he couldn't pick Antenucci, he would at least be honest about the reason, saying it was a board decision.

In response, Umbers told Redfearn he must not do that and there would be consequences should he do so. Was Cellino aware of all this and ultimately behind the decision?

That's a question I could not answer definitively.

Then there was something of a stand-off between Redfearn and the board.

The club was obviously loath to suspend or sack the manager. He has done an excellent job this year, has brought through a fine crop of young homegrown players and is held in high esteem by the club's fans.

So what was the next most severe thing they could do?

Thompson was informed in the letter that he was being suspended because of the way he had been 'carrying out his duties'. But this doesn't wash.

Surely it was Redfearn's place and his alone to decide on the way his assistant was carrying out his duties? And he has always said that he was delighted with what Thompson had done.

And the form of the team, the morale of the team, has been excellent in 2015.

It's hard to escape the conclusion that this was a way of clipping Redfearn's wings, of showing him who was boss, of rebuking him, without taking the ultimate step of targeting him directly.

It's fair to say that Cellino was not sure about Thompson's appointment in the first place and that it took the persistence of chief operating officer Matt Child to push his signing through.

Cellino was always slightly suspicious of him after that as well. Perhaps it was because the Italian thought the appointment impacted on his own relationship with Redfearn and his own involvement in the football side of things, but that's speculation.

For his part, Redfearn has always spoken highly of Cellino, most recently in an interview with the BBC last week.

They genuinely get on and have a rapport. Having spent time with Cellino myself, I can vouch for the fact he can be extremely charismatic and inspirational. When he's in the mood, he can carry people along with his passion and vision.

And that can be powerful. At times like those, you genuinely think Leeds United could be onto big things with him at the helm.

Cellino can also be very astute and perceptive about people, and extremely knowledgeable about football.

But. And there are some serious buts. He can be extremely erratic and irrational. We have seen this when he has sacked people on a whim, in a fit of pique. Or when he has persisted with fights that were probably not worth fighting.

He also has an unfortunate trait of wanting to be the centre of attention and I wonder whether he has enjoyed watching the club's success in 2015 from afar, while he is sat in Miami and not involved on the ground at Elland Road or Thorpe Arch.

At times, he has seemed reminiscent of a child who has had a lavish birthday party laid on, only to find out he is ignored when it takes place.

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