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Leeds embracing continental model in dangerous flirtation


David O'Leary

David O'Leary

David O'Leary

During Leeds United's golden era of cheap credit and expensive footballers, I interviewed David O'Leary as he received a massage from the club masseur. There were more grandiose moments in the rise and fall of the modern Leeds United – Seth Johnson's wages, Peter Ridsdale's goldfish – but, in its own small way, this captured the 'Impossible Is Nothing' age. Leeds United were going to do things differently.

This was time management. Leeds were in a hurry and if O'Leary could be interviewed while being massaged, it freed him up for the important stuff.

O'Leary, it must be said, was always generous with his time. He would often agree to meet at short notice and if that meant that the journalist would have to interview him while he was getting a rubdown then the journalist would happily sit in the corner and perch his dictaphone on the massage table and act like everything was normal.

In those days, Leeds United seemed capable of anything so it felt only right that I would listen to a manager explain his big idea while he was dressed only in a towel, as if to emphasise that you had never seen anything like Leeds United before.

Of course, anything was possible but not as O'Leary had imagined it. His dynamic team reached the semi-final of the Champions League but didn't qualify for the following season's competition. The next summer, O'Leary was gone; the summer after that Peter Reid was paid a bonus of half a million for avoiding relegation.

At the time, Ridsdale's successor Prof John McKenzie said Leeds was "like an oil tanker that was heading straight for the rocks. The trouble with oil tankers is they're two miles long and they don't turn around in two minutes."

This is one cumbersome oil tanker. For a while, it seemed important to acknowledge the contrast from where Leeds were and where they had been. Those milestones would be flagged, with people noting that Leeds were top of the Premier League, say, five years ago or getting ready for a Champions League semi-final. Now it is ten years since they were preparing for relegation from the Premier League and an unremittingly glum future.

Brian McDermott has survived a year at Leeds United, the eighth manager the club has had in the 21 years since O'Leary left. There are plenty of Leeds fans who could take issue with aspects of his management but few men have had to manage in his circumstances.

Leeds don't do expectation any more even if Massimo Cellino arrived making sweet sounds, once he had finally been allowed to take over the club.

"In the current absence of detailed reasons for the conviction from the Sardinian Court and having taken into account the principles of Italian law, an independent QC reached a different conclusion," the Football League said last week as they accepted a reversal of their original decision to block the deal. "On this basis, Massimo Cellino is cleared to be a director of Leeds United," the Football League statement declared and it was hard not to feel underwhelmed.

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Anyway, Cellino should fit right in. At Cagliari, he has employed 36 managers in 22 years so he might be baffled when people object to his form of chaos theory when there are so many others to choose from.

Perhaps it's only a coincidence that Premier League clubs have become less reluctant to fire managers at the same time as they adopt what must be referred to as the continental model.

Everybody knows the latest figures, the numbers grossly inflated by Arsene Wenger's stretch at Arsenal which show that, without Wenger, the average Premier League manager is in a job long enough to introduce himself to everybody in the front office before it's time to bid a tearful farewell to everyone in the front office, with his getting-to-know-you address doubling up as his farewell speech as well.

West Brom are a club which has successfully implemented the continental model and they have gone through four coaches in three years and they may need another one in the summer. Tottenham Hotspur, too, have flirted with a sporting director over many years but it has done little to change their permanent position.

From the club's point of view there is some sense to this model. Managers don't come in and clear out all the old players and bring in their own choices. They don't have time for that. Instead they must work with the players they have and these players are likely to know the club better than any manager, meaning they are more powerful and ensuring that the manager who does want to change things is weaker and therefore more vulnerable. So it goes.

There is a logic to the idea of a sporting director bringing in players but it is not a flawless system. Most clubs that operate it are no nearer success than clubs that allow one man all the power, however briefly. Most clubs in Europe struggle as most clubs in the Premier League do, suggesting that whatever the system, humans will always do what they can to bring their own ego and influence, for better and for worse. Usually for worse.

Cellino, naturally, has big plans. He promised Leeds United fans that they would not be bored while he was around and they might have been tempted to remember that the man who suffers is never bored.

Cellino looks like he won't want to be bored himself. He promised that he would get to know McDermott and insisted that the evening when McDermott was sacked earlier in the season was a "bad, bad thing". He was "drunk and depressed" the time he got on the phone to a Leeds fan and made several scathing comments, but none of that matters now.

He is promising the Premier League by 2016 and he wants to transform Leeds United from "Highway to Hell to Stairway to Heaven". That could mean anything. It's business as usual.


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