In an exclusive interview with the YEP, former Leeds United head coach Neil Redfearn talks to Phil Hay about Saturday’s return to Elland Road in charge of Championship visitors Rotherham United.
The events leading to Neil Redfearn’s bitter exit from Leeds United are things he prefers not to discuss. He calls it “old ground” and does not see much point in digging it up. “I need to move on and to be fair to Leeds United, they need to move on as well,” he says.
What Redfearn will reflect on is the opportunity which was taken from him; not the way in which it was taken from him but the opportunity itself.
Five months on from his resignation at Leeds he will be back at Elland Road this weekend as manager of Rotherham United.
“I’m looking forward to being there, genuinely,” Redfearn says. “It’ll be a strange experience at the same time.”
It will be like that for both Redfearn and United’s current head coach, Steve Evans.
Evans holds the job which Redfearn occupied until the end of last season. Redfearn replaced Evans at Rotherham last month. Elland Road will be full of familiar faces on Saturday, even if Massimo Cellino’s is missing.
Cellino, who has barred himself from attending Leeds’ games with public opinion against him, brought Redfearn’s reign as United boss to an unceremonious end in May, describing the 50-year-old as “a baby” and accusing him of manipulating the club’s supporters.
Redfearn’s contract gave him the right to return to his old job as the head of Leeds’ academy but he resigned from that role in July, claiming the atmosphere around him had made his position “untenable”.
He and Cellino agreed a financial settlement soon after and have not spoken since.
“The situation wasn’t ideal,” Redfearn says. “It wasn’t handled well. I don’t really want to go into all that but I do get feelings of disappointment when I think back to last season. I’d been at Leeds for a long time and I felt I’d got the team in a really good position. I felt that with the right backing I’d put the club on a much firmer footing.
“I can’t speak for the supporters but I got the feeling that a lot of them thought we were taking strides forward.
“They appreciated some of our football and they could relate to the young players coming through, which is what that club’s about.
“The kids were probably the biggest satisfaction for me – having the chance to bring them through and let years of work come to fruition with them playing in the first team.”
Redfearn worked in United’s academy for all but seven months of his six-and-a-half years with the club, initially as Under-18s coach and latterly as the boss of their development squad.
In that period, the production line rarely dropped off. A total of eight academy products played in senior fixtures last season.
Four of them – Lewis Cook, Alex Mowatt, Sam Byram and Charlie Taylor – have been in the thick of this campaign.
Aside from that, Redfearn argues that his performance as head coach was good. “From my 36 games, we took about 50 points,” he says.
“Over a whole season, we’d have been up over 60 and in the top half of the division, maybe inside the top 10. That’s not bad considering the problems the club had.
“That’s what I mean when I say I think I could have taken it forward. It wasn’t like the circumstances were easy. There was plenty going on. But we still did well.”
Cellino was banned from running Leeds by the Football League a month after Redfearn replaced Darko Milanic and two days after a fancied Derby County side were beaten at Elland Road last November.
A grim December left United on the verge of the Championship’s bottom three at the turn of the year but their recovery was swift.
Five wins from six games in January and February stifled the threat of relegation and set Leeds up for a strong finish but their form imploded after Redfearn’s assistant, Steve Thompson, was suddenly suspended in April.
That decision and the facts behind Thompson’s exit – coming at a time when Cellino was banned and out of the country – have never been explained.
The atmosphere at Thorp Arch became more tense again after six of Leeds’ foreign players were declared unfit en masse shortly before a 2-1 defeat at Charlton Athletic two weeks later.
“There was a lot to manage, right from the start,” Redfearn says.
“I know it was much-maligned in the end but the diamond midfield produced some of our best performances and results. The problem was that it had a certain shelf-life and by Christmas it wasn’t working.
“The turning point for us was going to Sunderland in the FA Cup (in January) and going 4-2-3-1. It worked and it gave us a different way. I saw much more potential in that system.”
Redfearn’s last game in charge was at home to Rotherham on May 2, with a sombrero-wearing Evans managing the opposition. Cellino’s ban was ending but he chose not to attend and went on a scouting trip to Morecambe instead.
Soon after, he attacked Redfearn in a national newspaper interview and appointed Uwe Rosler as head coach.
“I had a good chat with Uwe before I left,” Redfearn says. “I wanted to make sure he knew everything and had his eyes open – not just about the club but about the younger players as well. I’d worked with them for a long time and I didn’t want to up and leave without talking them up first. I’ve got no problem with Uwe. What happened to me was down to other people.”
Redfearn was linked with several jobs during the summer – Oldham Athletic, Doncaster Rovers – but he took over at Rotherham after Evans unexpectedly left the South Yorkshire club.
The Scot was unhappy with the creation of a transfer committee designed to oversee his signings and quit his post on September 28. Rotherham were 20th in the table at the time.
Redfearn’s introduction has been gruelling and his first six games as manager have failed to provide any bounce, yielding just one point. Bottom of the league and in need of a result, his history with Leeds is the last of his concerns this weekend. Striker Leon Best joined Rotherham on Monday. “The bottom line is that we have to try and pick up points,” he says. “We have to look to win the game. That’s what matters.
“I’ve got Steve’s players and he’s got some of mine but it’s not really about the two of us. We’ve been struggling and there’s a reason why we’re struggling. We need to add some players to this squad.
“It’s a bit like when I took over at Leeds last season. I’ve got to be strong and I’ve got to be tough. It’s going to be bumpy for a bit but one thing I managed to do at Leeds was shut everything else out and apply myself to the football.
“It was great experience from that point of view, no matter what else went on, and you get to the stage eventually where everything is water under the bridge. It’s got to be.”