NO matter what happens today when Blackburn Rovers come to Elland Road, Leeds United have surely already scored the biggest own goal of the season.
The bombshell announcement earlier this week that assistant manager Steve Thompson had been suspended and told his contract would not be renewed in the summer brought to an end, with a tremendous shudder, a rare period of stability at the Championship club.
At a stroke, the hope and optimism that had been building during United’s best run of form in several years was swept away.
Fans, so happy in recent weeks finally to be able to concentrate on football rather than off-field controversy, were left bewildered. As was head coach Neil Redfearn, who admitted at his press briefing ahead of the Blackburn game to being totally in the dark as to the reasons why sporting director Nicola Salerno had suspended his assistant. A further request for clarity to club chairman Andrew Umbers yesterday brought a statement that shed no extra light on the reasons behind what is a sacking in all but name.
It did, though, include a denial over claims that Redfearn had been ordered not to play top scorer Mirco Antenucci due to a clause in the Italian’s contract meaning two more goals would trigger a 12-month extension.
The subsequent reaction on social media to Umbers’s words suggested a large section of supporters clearly no longer trust a word that emanates from their beloved club.
Thompson’s removal has clearly caused serious damage to the board, as – in the absence of clarity as to just why he has gone – the decision makes no sense with only the impact made by the former Bolton midfielder since his arrival in December to go on.
In that respect, Thompson’s value behind the scenes at Leeds cannot be over-stated – even allowing for it being just 105 days that he spent as Redfearn’s assistant following his protracted move from Huddersfield Town.
Luke Murphy, Billy Sharp and Steve Morison, three of those welcomed back into the fold since the start of the year who have gone on to play a big part in the revival, all speak glowingly about Thompson and, in particular, about how he helped revive not only their United careers but, just as importantly, flagging spirits after a spell that has seen the trio reduced to training with the youth team on a Saturday morning rather than be involved with the first team.
“Steve Thompson has been first class with me,” said Murphy, one of the Championship’s most reliable performers since being recalled in early January, to the United programme in mid-February. “Within the first week or so of him being here, he had taken me to one side. We had a chat and he filled me with confidence.”
Morison told a similar story a couple of weeks after Murphy, adding: “Steve came in and within two days had put his arm around me and asked, ‘How come you are not involved?’ I didn’t have an answer.
“Maybe Steve pushed a bit more for us to be involved than others did and look at how the games have gone this year.”
Understandably, Redfearn, whose own deal expires in the summer, is now considering his future. The Leeds head coach has, in his own words, been “undermined” by the barring of his close friend.
Even if the 49-year-old does opt to stay, the portents are hardly encouraging for, surely, if the club hierarchy is unhappy with the way Thompson has operated then the same must apply to someone whose own working methods are very similar.
Everything points, therefore, to another change at the helm of the team in the not too distant future. Which, judging by the two dreadful appointments that preceded Redfearn finally being given his chance in late October, does not bode well at all.
No wonder a mood that was so upbeat just a few days ago is now lower than United’s league position at the turn of the year.
Where before all talk was of who should be brought in to supplement the club’s promising youngsters to turn Leeds into a genuine promotion contender next term, now there is the familiar sense of foreboding as to what the future will bring. An own goal of epic proportions.
Last six games: Leeds United LWWDWD, Blackburn Rovers DWDWLL.
Referee: G Sutton (Lincolnshire).
Last time: Leeds United 1 Blackburn Rovers 2; January 1, 2014; Championship.