BY KEVIN O’NEILL
There is an old saying that if you throw enough mud, some of it will stick.
And that just might be true in the case of the resoundingly controversial and largely derided Leeds United chairman Massimo Cellino, who despite a worrying penchant for hiring and firing managers at a bewildering rate, might finally have stumbled across the answer to Leeds’ prayers with the summer appointment of former Swansea City boss Garry Monk.
About time too, one might suggest, after the unpredictable former Cagliari owner made some wholly dubious appointments and football-related decisions since his takeover in the early part of 2014.
On his arrival, he memorably announced that Leeds fans were ‘tired of eating shit and closing their mouths’.
And soon, he was at the forefront of a series of messy and somewhat embarrassing events with the manager he inherited, the former Reading boss Brian McDermott.
In the end, McDermott left the club in May 2014 to be surprisingly replaced by the untried David Hockaday, whose previous managerial experience was garnered in non-league football with Forest Green Rovers.
His tenure, it seemed, was always destined for disaster and in keeping with most predictions, Hockaday was gone in just under two months.
Then, Cellino – who sacked 36 managers in 22 years in Cagliari – went through five more appointments (including Neil Redfearn twice) before finally settling on Monk last summer.
So, quite naturally, when Cellino is involved there can never be certainty for what lies around the corner.
And that’s one reason why many Leeds fans are taking the club’s current upsurge in form – which has propelled them right into the promotion shake-up in the English Championship – with more than a pinch of salt.
Even still, five wins from the six games before the international break served as cause for optimism that brighter times could lie ahead for the Yorkshire side.
And while those wins were set against a backdrop of high uncertainty regarding Cellino’s continued involvement in the club, the fact that off-field matters have not impeded Monk and his players is truly admirable, with Leeds building up good momentum before the international break butted-in; an impressive 2-3 away win against Norwich City – one of the favourites for promotion – the latest feather in the cap that left many observers wondering if, in fact, the current Leeds resurgence is more than just another short-term shot-in-the-arm.
The Leeds supporters, however, know a thing or two about having their bubble burst.
Back in the 2000/2001 season, the club reached the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League on the back of former chairman Peter Ridsdale’s speculate-to-accumulate approach to running a then Premier League club.
Yet, for the first time in their history, which includes three top-flight titles (1969, 1974 and 1992), Leeds were toiling in England’s third tier by 2007 – from where it took three seasons to climb back to the Championship.
So, while it’s hard not to be somewhat buoyed by the team’s recent form, it is hardly surprising that many Leeds supporters are not getting carried away by current events.
Notwithstanding that, Leeds has had enough doom and gloom placed at its door in recent times without this writer raining on their parade too.
And while it’s not nearly time yet for the Whites to start thinking about celebratory parties, the vast improvement in the team’s form cannot go unmentioned.
And for that, it appears, much of the credit goes to the centre-back pairing of Kyle Bartley and Pontus Jansson, who have formed a teak-tough, solid base from which the rest of the team has flourished in recent months.
It also helps that behind them is the now veteran goalkeeper Rob Green, who despite having a few high-profile ricks to his name in a lengthy career, presents as a vastly experienced custodian capable of aiding the cause more than the occasional blip could suggest.
The full-backs also – the youthful and very promising Charlie Taylor to the left and on the other side the recently signed Luke Ayling – have shown consistency and capability in a much more settled Leeds side than in recent seasons.
But it’s from the heart of the defence – and the non-stop effort of midfielder Eunan O’Kane (signed from Bournemouth) and this season’s marked improvement from New Zealand striker Chris Wood – that Leeds have become a far tighter unit; much more resolute and most definitely a harder nut to crack.
No more, it seems, do Leeds heads visibly drop to the floor when they go behind, a worrying trait that engulfed the side in recent campaigns. Instead, a sense of togetherness and true belief that they are as good as – if not better – than most Championship opponents has taken hold of a group of players seemingly on the way up.
Jansson, in particular, has been something of a revelation since the 25-year-old arrived at Elland Road from the Italian side Torino, having previously won three league titles for Malmo FF in his native Sweden.
So much so that many Leeds fans are desperate for the club to pin the dominant Swede to a more permanent contract in January, with Jansson seemingly attracting Premier League interest in the first few months of a season-long loan; a move, no doubt, championed and promoted by Monk’s assistant, the Spaniard Pep Clotet, who previously worked with Jansson as the assistant manager of Malmo.
Bartley too, is currently only in town on a loan deal (from Monk’s former club Swansea City), as is the case with midfielder Matt Grimes (Swansea) and creative attackers Pablo Hernandez (Al-Arabi SC) and Hadi Sacko (Sporting Lisbon).
For many, the six-month loan signing of Hernandez, a four-time capped Spanish international, looked like one of the summer’s finest pieces of business outside the Premier League, given his reputation for subtle creativity and intricate attacking play; qualities that can go amiss in the rough and tumble of the Championship.
That Monk was able to use his past relationship with Hernandez, from their time together at Swansea, to persuade the Spaniard to give the Championship a try, should be seen as some form of compliment to Monk, as a manager.
For not only was Hernandez prepared to experience life in England’s second tier to be reunited with Monk, but he also gave up what can only be assumed was a more easy-going and luxurious way of life in Qatar to again try his luck in English football.
Recently, there have been one or two groans from Leeds fans when the busy playmaker gives the ball away, but generally, it appears the majority of Leeds observers are more than happy to suffer the occasional give-away, considering the ample amount of time Hernandez spends in possession, trying incisive passes and moments of creativity that most colleagues wouldn’t dare attempt.
The noises from the club are that permanent transfers for the loanees, or at least some of them, are high on the list of priorities to help Leeds sustain a serious promotion challenge. For example, it has been reported that Leeds have the option to purchase Jansson for the sum of £3.5million once the defender reaches 20 appearances for the club.
Whether United can get such a deal over the line before the substantial clout of Premier League clubs muscles in remains to be seen with former Leeds player and manager Neil Redfearn recently expressing concern that Jansson might not be with the club much longer.
“The problem with people on loan, is that they are in the shop window. It’s just £3.5m for Jansson. Don’t think they aren’t looking, some of these Premier League sides, it’s small potatoes to them,” Redfearn warned in a recent interview with Yorkshire Radio.
Indeed, many Premier League scouts will surely have taken note of Bartley’s impressive showings, as well, with the former Arsenal youngster looking like he’s finally found the perfect setting to showcase a talent that was always there, but which hadn’t quite come to the fore anywhere on a regular basis.
Since 2010, Bartley had endured several loan moves, including to Rangers, before joining Swansea in 2012, where he played under the guidance of Monk.
That the promise his early season form for Leeds has shown has been slightly overshadowed by his central defensive partner should not diminish the impact Bartley is also having on the team’s performances. But again, with the temporary nature of his current deal in Yorkshire, Leeds fans will be concerned that his longer-term future could be spent away from Elland Road, if the club fails to tie him down to a permanent deal.
“The additions of Bartley and Jansson have made a huge difference to the side,” said Leeds United blogger Jack Dudley.
“The team has lacked defensive stability for years and for once things seem much more assured. Jansson, in particular, has made the biggest difference – he really plays for the fans and the club, and has rapidly become adored at the club. His attitude towards everything seems to be spread around the team and there seems to be such belief among the players. But while I firmly believe that a top-six finish and a place in the play-offs is attainable, my biggest concern for Leeds is a lack of depth in the squad. If either Bartley or Jansson gets injured, I think the balance of the whole side could suffer. And the same, to be fair, applies for Chris Wood up front,” he added.
Of course, there’s little or nothing guaranteed in the ultra-competitive world of Championship football, where the mammoth 46-game schedule (not including three extra matches for play-off finalists) can sap the energy from even the fittest, strongest and most lauded sides, in the process stretching a squad’s ability and endurance to its very maximum.
To get through it successfully usually involves some shrewd mid-season transfer dealings by managers and the feeling around Leeds – with teams like Birmingham, Fulham, Bristol City and Sheffield Wednesday all within touching distance with only 16 games played – is that their own squad could do with some fresh additions at the turn of the year.
“I believe that every team needs to strengthen in order to have sustained success in the Championship especially now the emergency loan window has been scrapped,” remarked James Mahoney of the Leeds website, Through It All Together.
“We don’t require a mass introduction of players but maybe signing some of the current crop on permanent deals and possibly bringing in a striker and another centre-back would help, as we do lack strength in depth in those positions. Given that, it could then be enough, I feel, to push us over the line for a play-off finish,” he added.
To do so would be a wonderful way for Monk to remind everyone of his potential in the dug-out. For we are talking about a manager that steered Swansea to the last 32 in the UEFA Europa League and an eighth-place Premier League finish before proving unlucky to be sacked in December last year following an admittedly wretched run of form that saw the Welsh side record just one win in eleven matches.
Yet still, there seemed something unfair about Monk’s Liberty Stadium dismissal, especially when considering the great service he gave to Swansea in 13 years at the club, as a player, former captain and manager.
Given that his reputation and future prospects didn’t appear to suffer too much in the wake of the sacking, and that many felt Monk would soon resurface in the Premier League, it was a little surprising to see him accepting the Leeds job; not only because the team had failed to finish in the top half of the Championship since 2011 but also due to some reported unflattering remarks attributed to him about Cellino’s handling of previous Leeds managers.
Nonetheless, it has been quite impressive to observe how Monk has calmly and confidently gone about business since taking the job; withstanding some early season speculation that Cellino was about to sack him to really put his mark on a Leeds team that is gradually winning back the hearts of its large but long disgruntled fan base.
When he took on the task of rejuvenating Leeds, Monk said he was not a manager that ‘wants to go from club to club taking the easy route’.
And by even agreeing to work for a notorious manager-eater like Cellino, Monk immediately backed-up that proclamation.
But by taking on the task of restoring the image and pride of one of English football’s traditional but slightly injured clubs, he has put himself firmly in the spotlight.
That his own managerial career could suffer interminable consequences if he fails to deliver doesn’t really seem to enter his thoughts and perhaps that’s one reason why we shouldn’t be taken aback to see his confident edge reaching the hordes on the Elland Road terraces, which will surely be packed for the visit of league leaders and title favourites, Newcastle United, this coming weekend.
As James Mahoney puts it: “For a long time, it felt like Leeds had our way – on and off the pitch. We became resigned to the fact survival in the Championship was probably the pinnacle for the club. Then Cellino did something unexpected; he recruited a young manager with vision and a philosophy of playing attractive and disciplined football. So, a certain degree of confidence has returned to the Leeds United family, a feeling that we feared could never be felt again. With Cellino, you never really what’s going to happen and there is a lot of speculation regarding him selling the club. However, until that day comes and I watch his car vanish down the motorway away from the club, I won’t take any rumours seriously regarding his departure. Until then, we are all enjoying seeing the spirit and quality of the current team, and are confident about a top-six finish.”
While Monk’s work with Leeds to date has been admirable, it must also be remembered that his quiet revolution is still in its infancy.
For Leeds to truly benefit from his potential and that of his emerging team, one feels that Cellino will have to stay relatively serene in the background for the foreseeable future.
History, unfortunately, tells us that such behaviour has hardly ever been associated with the temperamental Italian, who all fair-minded football supporters can just hope will finally find the grace and good sense to allow Monk the required space and time to finish what has been, thus far, a bloody fine job of getting the once-mighty Leeds back on the right track.