In 1996, Arsenal confirmed the appointment as their new manager of one Monsieur Arsène Wenger. I took a distant but distinct interest as I did with any news story concerning Arsenal, a club I have always thoroughly admired. And I must confess; at first I thought it was a wind-up, some weak attempt at a joke. An Arsenal manager called Arsène? Were our major clubs recruiting managers on the basis of weirdly appropriate names now? How ridiculous. You couldn’t make it up.
History shows of course that Arsenal FC was being deadly serious and decidedly astute. They were appointing a man who would become their longest-serving and most successful manager, a man widely credited with revolutionising the whole of English football, a cerebral man with a scientific approach to the art of beautiful football. But others reacted initially as I had. Former Arsenal captain Tony Adams has said
“At first, I thought: What does this Frenchman know about football? He wears glasses and looks more like a schoolteacher. He’s not going to be as good as George [Graham]. Does he even speak English properly?”
This seemed to reflect most people’s level of incredulity at what appeared an odd decision. Who, indeed, was Wenger? What had he done? He was certainly no Johan Cruyff, a global “name” who had been touted by many for the Highbury hot-seat. Rarely though can such a seemingly strange appointment have turned out so well. Despite the more recent lack of actual silverware, look at Arsenal now. Look at the football they play. It’s enough to make a Leeds fan drool – I know I do.
Fast forward to 2013 and there has been another “you couldn’t make it up” appointment – the strangeness being of a somewhat different nature, but nonetheless bizarre for that. Leeds United have recruited one Brian McDermott, recently sacked by Reading FC. This appointment has come with just five games to go of a season that was always supposed to be about promotion to the top league, but has latterly taken a nightmare downturn towards a struggle to avoid relegation back to the third tier. United of course share the city of Leeds with Rugby League superstars Leeds Rhinos – Coach: another Brian McDermott. Furthermore, the Rhinos have an outstanding winger called Ryan Hall, a world-class exponent of the game and prolific try-scorer; a major contributor to his club’s dominance of the Super League. And – lo and behold – we find that Leeds United also have a winger called Ryan Hall, a man of more modest accomplishments but much promise; one who produced a game-changing, match-winning performance at Huddersfield which gave Leeds United fans a lot of hope for his future.
Two clubs in two different sports sharing one city; both managed by a Brian McDermott, both with wingers named Ryan Hall. That’s stretching credibility quite a long way; has anything like it happened before? Could weirdness of that degree have a happy ending comparable to the way the weird Wenger story turned out?
Well, maybe it could. Once you get past the long-odds coincidence which certainly rivals the strangeness of Arsenal’s Arsène, you begin to look at the merits of the appointment. It’s an move being welcomed quite whole-heartedly by long-suffering Leeds fans, who had been certain for a while that former manager Neil Warnock’s approach was going to produce nothing but dire football, inexplicable substitution decisions and a heavy reliance on his old favourites from previous incarnations of his managerial career. He was going to build on his excellent record of promotions gained; he was going to top off that record by returning his biggest-ever club to the Premier League. But it all went horribly wrong, and Neil has clearly been yearning for his Cornwall home, hearth and tractor for months now. He’s seemed tired and dispirited, forced to defend the inadequate efforts of a palpably rudderless team, reduced to cliché after cliché as he attempted to deflect criticism of the performances of a squad he’d recently described as “Leeds’ best in years.”
McDermott though appears to be a horse of a different colour. A younger, hungry man, a still slightly angry man who you’d guess feels wronged by his dismissal from Premier League Reading, a club he’d served undeniably well and against whom he now seems destined to compete in the Championship next season. That’s if Leeds stay in that league – which is by no means certain as yet. With five games to go, McDermott quite possibly needs at least four more points to secure Championship football for next season and give him the chance to plan in the longer term. He has said already that he’s been given “assurances of support”, and we can but hope that these don’t turn out to be yet more of the same forked-tongue promises we’ve heard for a good many seasons now. McDermott though has the air of a man who is happy and confident as he picks up what many in the game see as a poisoned chalice. Leeds United has the reputation of a managers’ graveyard going back many years now and – surely – nobody entering via the revolving doors that have seen so many unceremonious exits can be at all optimistic they won’t share the same fate. Nevertheless, Brian McDermott has made all the right confident and determined noises, he has his right-hand man with him and he says he can’t wait to get stuck in. This is what we want to hear.
At some point, for heaven’s sake, Leeds United’s owners have to get it right. We’ve had a decade or more of stumbling, shambling descent into the pits of despair, followed by an almost equally stumbling and shambling partial recovery. As yet another era starts – and at Leeds we seem to have two or three new eras per season – the patience of the always potentially truculent masses cannot be relied upon for much longer. Leeds could so easily go the wrong way in just the next few weeks, and that would make for a terrifyingly long journey back at a time when – as in wider society – the rich are getting ever rich while the rest scrap for crumbs. Those who seek happy omens might look at how Arsenal’s strange appointment of Arsène turned out, or they may look across the city and look at the Brian McDermott who is in charge of the current Super League Champions. The omens are there, and in hard times they’re the straws we might reasonably clutch at.
We could go the wrong way – but we simply can’t afford to. It has to be safety first, followed as soon as possible by definite progress on and off the field. New investment is clearly sought, and appears to be a must-have without which the club will, at very best, continue to tread water.
This is not an option if the club is to have any real success in the foreseeable future, so the owners must deliver support to their new man. And Brian McDermott just has to be the right man; he has to get it very right very soon, establishing a pattern of success comparable with his fine work at Reading and leading us back to the top before the club is cut irretrievably adrift of the powers in the game.
That’s the scale of his task. That’s the urgency of the situation we now face. Good luck, Brian.