THE retained list at Leeds United could write itself and Brian McDermott knows how he wants the list to look. The one thing he cannot dictate is whether his own name will be on it.
As McDermott made clear after Monday’s loss to Nottingham Forest, he will use a meeting with Massimo Cellino this week to tell United’s owner that changes made before next season should be far-reaching, unsentimental and delivered with a hammer. He has transfers in mind and will put them to Cellino, a sure sign that the club’s manager is not resigned to his fate.
The meeting should give McDermott a better idea of whether Cellino intends to stand by him or include him among the casualties caused by an underwhelming season. All McDermott knows is that he has not been sacked. His future is as much of a mystery to him as it is to anyone else.
Cellino bought Leeds from Gulf Finance House on April 7 and he and McDermott spoke for half an hour before United’s match at Watford the following night. In the main, they discussed a game which Leeds lost 3-0. They met again at Thorp Arch later that week and have talked on the phone since Cellino travelled home to Miami but the topic of McDermott’s job has not been properly breached. In private as well as in public, Cellino is yet to commit himself either way.
There are various factors for the Italian to consider as he tries to bring Leeds under control. The club’s form is endemically poor, an ingrained problem rather than a temporary malaise. United will finish this season with fewer points than Neil Warnock’s squad and more league defeats than any manager since they were relegated from the Championship with Dennis Wise in 2007.
Cellino implied in a recent interview that McDermott’s future was not pre-determined but a matter of performance. “He has to respond with results and work,” Cellino said 10 days ago. “If not, I’m here.” Wins over Blackpool and Barnsley came after those remarks but Forest - a team with more nous and wit - picked Leeds apart inside 16 minutes on Monday. Cellino was not at Elland Road to see the defeat but match reports recounting cheap concessions and a laboured attempt to redress the scoreline will sound familiar.
He has found little to impress him in three months as de facto and official owner of Leeds but in the process of his takeover, Cellino also came to realise that sacking McDermott would not be a cheap decision.
The 57-year-old, who has run Serie A club Cagliari for two decades, is known to be surprised by the size of McDermott’s salary, and United would incur compensation of more than £1m by severing McDermott’s contract with two years to go.
Cellino is independently wealthy but his first few weeks in charge at Elland Road have seen nothing more than a sequence of bill-paying: a six-figure sum in tax to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and more again to meet wages deferred by United’s playing staff at the end of March. Rent payments for Thorp Arch and Elland Road were also overdue when Cellino took charge. “There are big problems to solve,” Cellino said. More than he realised, perhaps.
Leeds are existing on precious little income beyond gate receipts from their home matches, though season-ticket renewal prices are due to be announced before they finish their term against Derby County next weekend.
The club are also believed to have earned £200,000 from Leicester City’s promotion from the Championship, through a clause agreed in the deal which took goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel from Elland Road to Leicester in 2011.
Cellino is aware too that the idea of culling large swathes of United’s under-performing squad would be costly in practice. Numerous players are out of contract in July but the majority are tied to Leeds next season. At least 15 members of the senior squad are understood to be earning £10,000 a week or more, and the total wage bill at Elland Road is close to £20m. Cellino needs deep pockets to overhaul the club as drastically as he would like to.
Leeds are unlikely to finish higher than 14th in the Championship and McDermott’s squad have drifted into a position where relegation is closer than promotion. In the second half of the season, the brief upturns - back-to-back wins against Huddersfield and Yeovil, and more recently over Blackpool and Barnsley - have been obscured just as quickly by the resumption of normal, regressive service.
United had 69 per cent of possession against Forest but brought two meaningful saves from their goalkeepers in 90 minutes plus five of stoppage-time. Dimitar Evtimov, a debutant keeper who replaced the injured Dorus De Vries towards the end of the match, saw out the game under none of the pressure his status as a novice invited Leeds to put on him. United’s football was tired and aimless, and tactically bereft. We needed to stay in the game and we need to be much better than that,” McDermott said. “In the previous two games we got it right, defended properly and got two clean sheets. I’m glad we got those six points because it made sure that we were cemented in the league. I’m looking for performances in our last two games but then we’ve got a big summer ahead. Going forward, we know that for us to compete at the right end of the table we need to be better.”
McDermott lost Marius Zaliukas to injury at Barnsley on Saturday and had decided on Friday that Matt Smith would play at Oakwell but start Monday’s match on the bench. The wing-back system which kept Barnsley and Blackpool in check was replaced by a diamond midfield against Forest, a strategy which McDermott employed in the first two months of the season but gave up on before long. Forest worked it out after one minute and 32 seconds, scoring with their first attack.
The prevailing view is that Leeds are stuck in a rut. No matter the rethinks, the experiments, the little fillips or the reappearance of previously discarded players, the club invariably return to this same, perplexing point.
McDermott accepts that his record at Leeds is uninspiring and hopes Cellino will put more weight on his performance as manager of Reading. Cellino can find the details of McDermott’s past achievements easily enough. But he has seen with his own eyes the decline since Christmas, the failure to emerge from it and the recurrence of losses as toothless as Monday’s. In light of that, McDermott is no longer asking Cellino to trust him. He is asking the Italian to take a huge leap of faith.