One of the things I’ve been most grateful for this season has been the banishment of the Elland Road I used to dread, as I trudged with weary duty there and back each winter.
Winter isn’t kind to the place. Short days and dark afternoons bring out the concrete and iron of which its made, exposing the breeze in the breezeblocks, reflecting cloud filled skies in desolate stands. There weren’t enough people around to huddle for warmth, and what was happening on the pitch was barely football. Leeds games were a kind of endurance test: how late could you leave it before relenting and going in? And how long could you last before retreating to the bar, or home?
It wasn’t like that this season. Banners, slogans and fanzones accumulated, disguising threadbare corners even while inviting more people in close to them. On the pitch, the ascent of Samu Saiz from curious substitute with promise to joy of all mankind’s desiring had fans rushing to their seats for kick-off, staying gripped until the referee blew for the end, even staying afterwards to salute not just Samu but all the players, and the coach, too.
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What Garry Monk brought to Leeds United last season was wins. A ‘winning mentality’, as he’d put it. What Thomas Christiansen brought, in the seven wins and two draws of August and September, was something that would never have computed with the Monkbot: fun. It was fun to watch Saiz, taking everybody on. It was fun to be in a full stadium. It was fun to sing the coach’s name, sing that Leeds were falling apart again. It was fun to be top of the league. It was fun to think that, no matter how bad things might get this season — if we missed out on the play-offs after all, say — at least those awful starless Tuesday nights of nil-nils or worse were gone forever.
Until last Saturday, when the manager returned who first perfected the dark nights of the lost soul, before Steve Evans made it high art. That Neil Warnock was in the away dugout was either coincidence or fate, but as I slumped on a row of empty seats and stared at the bare bleachers of Elland Road, as all the fizz and joy seeped pale from the pitch, draining through the well into Wortley Beck below, as cold sleet swirled and the referee refused to call time until Cardiff had a fourth, the old feelings came back.
They were just as unwelcome, and somehow worse, because I wasn’t angry the way I was when Steve Evans’ Leeds were emptying stadiums in the first five minutes. This was something like sadness and pity, a deep, deep resignation. One of those nights when you keep your phone on vibrate and in a pocket where you’ll feel it, waiting for the notification that the head coach has gone.
Christiansen lasted long enough — until last thing on Sunday — for me to hope that despite the lull back into old ways, this was just a blip, and Leeds United really was different now. Andrea Radrizzani had stuck with Christiansen through one extremely difficult spell, and now we’d just had a better and more focused transfer window than summer had been. Would they resist temptation and, knowing that “It’s not the end of the world” if Leeds don’t reach the play-offs, to quote Radrizzani this week, give Christiansen a chance to get his depleted squad back together, and see what he can do with Tyler Roberts?
No. “I waited for a long time before taking the decision and gave him many chances,” says Radrizzani. “Already at the beginning of January I was really keen to change. Victor [Orta] convinced me to hold on and give him one more, one more, one more; extra chances but at the end, something was missing.”
What isn’t missing now is Radrizzani’s opinion on the job Christiansen did, and although he tweeted at Look North to clarify that he didn’t mean to imply that appointing Christiansen was a mistake, just that he’s sorry he didn’t pick a coach who would work out, much of the rest of his lengthy interview with Phil Hay in the Yorkshire Evening Post bristles with the sort of complaints better left in the room at the end of a coach’s exit interview, rather than aired in the press.
Perhaps that’s unfair. As Massimo Cellino lurched from watermelon to watermelon, we cried out for some sort of explanation of what on earth he was doing. We got it, of course: not from him, but from Cagliari fans, whose shrugs and eye-rolls told us everything. It’s good that Radrizzani operates the other way, fronting up after a big decision to tell the fans what is happening. Amid his urge to explain everything, though, Radrizzani could learn from some local wisdom: ‘Least said, soonest mended.’
There’s a lot Radrizzani could learn, and that was always one of the worries. Cellino arrived here, like Ken Bates, with decades of cynical experience, patterns of swagger covering precise, repetitive failure. We don’t have that concern with Radrizzani, who has never owned a football club before, so we have that concern instead: he’s never owned a football club before. Helped by Christiansen, Saiz, his own enthusiasm and the millions invested in buying Elland Road, Radrizzani coasted through the early months of his outright ownership, until he hit January, just as hard as Christiansen did. Add up all the red cards since the Newport game, and you’ve still got less offence than the salute crest, and now there’s a sacked coach to talk about too. Radrizzani could have had Orta sign ten strikers in this window; nobody cares much about that now.
Radrizzani has had his say on where Christiansen went wrong, but there’s nobody to analyse his missteps over the last couple of months, unless there have been some very stern calls from Qatar that we don’t know about. All we have are mea culpas, and none of the quiet for which, through years of distress, we’ve longed for. While obviously I was judging him on the pitch, part of my wish to keep Christiansen for longer was simply that it would avoid a week like this one; Sky Sports News at the stadium, two-bit pundits sounding off, long interviews and drastic press conferences. It would have been disappointing had we missed out on the play-offs, but part of me would have taken mid-table under Christiansen this season, if it meant a quiet life.
Radrizzani’s chats aside, Paul Heckingbottom has handled this week well. I almost wish he’d skipped the ten-minute LUTV interview, and for a while there I thought he might; I was willing him just to take training and do the pre-match presser, as if he’d been here his whole life. That is, after all, supposed to be one of the benefits of the Director of Football — Head Coach system; when you change the coaching staff, it’s a transition rather than upheaval. The role of Head Coach is still too close to manager to get away with it, but perhaps one day we’ll see a change made with no announcement; just a new guy in the dugout on Saturday.
The new guy is about as good as we could have hoped for, given some of the old guys in the frame. All I wanted in summer was someone I’d never heard of, a surprise, to protect me from the Pardews, McClarens, Pearsons and Allardyces of this boring merry go round. Well, I got that, and I still wasn’t put off the idea; the presence of Jaap Stam and Mark Hughes in the job market this time around didn’t improve my mood much. But going and getting one of highest rated and, crucially, in work coaches around — even if it was only Barnsley — was just as pleasant as when I first heard Thomas Christiansen’s name and spent a sunny afternoon searching the internet for photos of him in Kappa gear at Barcelona. If it had to be someone I’d heard of, at least it was someone about whom I’d only heard good things.
And someone who is not as dissimilar to the last guy as he might at first appear. Because he’s a Leeds-hater from Barnsley with a face like he breakfasts on rats, it was presumed in some quarters that he’d barge into Thorp Arch like a junior Warnock, chucking Orta’s laptop out the window and blowing a shrill whistle like Brian Glover in Kes. But no. He’s a young coach with one low-profile job under his belt, that he began while studying for a Masters in Coaching at Leeds Beckett University. Weary of the admin work he had to do at Barnsley, he couldn’t be happier to see Orta and his recruitment team, so he can concentrate on getting out on the grass with the players. It will be no surprise, when late season talk turns to summer transfers, to hear Heckingbottom telling the press: “You need to ask Victor that question.”
On the grass is where it will count, as it counted with Christiansen, as it now counts with Radrizzani. Had the owner stuck with his first choice coach, it might have bought him some time; there was an argument for backing his own decision, believing in Christiansen for the season, and reviewing in the summer. Well, the review has happened in winter, and now Heckingbottom has to banish the old feelings from Elland Road, drag us quickly from the depths, and prove that Radrizzani isn’t the sort of owner to make the same mistake twice. ◉
(feature image by Lee Brown)
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