Leeds United head coach Steve Evans turns his attention to playing the long game after the Elland Road club comes up short in the January transfer window stakes. Phil Hay reports.
The inescapable fact as the transfer window closed was that Leeds United had come up short. Steve Evans knew it and the club’s head coach was left to do what others in his job have done before: explain and excuse a quiet finish, in the face of much dissent.
Evans admitted that “words were cheap” but speaking this evening he defended Leeds’ approach to the window amid questions about the club’s failure to sign a striker and the gap between the money raised through the sale of Sam Byram to West Ham United and the money invested in Toumani Diagouraga.
Diagouraga was one of two new signings made by Leeds in January and one of three deals completed in all. United extended Liam Bridcutt’s loan from Sunderland and took Mustapha Carayol on a temporary basis from Middlesbrough. On top of Diagouraga, those agreements addressed issues in Evans’ midfield and turned his attention to the recruitment of a striker. The 53-year-old said that in the final hours of the window, centre-forwards were his single focus.
In an interview with the YEP, Evans said that beyond the offers for Diagouraga and Carayol – and in spite of links to countless players last month – Leeds made only four more bids, all of them for strikers.
The club are known to have offered £300,000 for Barnsley’s Sam Winnall, a fee Barnsley saw a derisory, and they failed with an attempt to bring Fraizer Campbell to Elland Road on loan from Crystal Palace.
Evans maintained an interest in Norwich City’s Kyle Lafferty throughout January and will look to sign him again when the emergency loan market opens next week.
Sources on Teesside, meanwhile, say Leeds were among the clubs who wanted Boro forward Kike on deadline day. Evans refused to comment on Kike but did not deny that the Spaniard was a target. Kike received an offer from La Liga side Eibar ahead of Monday’s 11pm cut-off and completed that transfer yesterday following complications with the paperwork. The delay in completion will prevent him from playing for Eibar until the start of next season.
“I was at Elland Road until 10pm on Monday,” Evans said. “That was the first time it became obvious that things weren’t going to happen.
“It’s fine lines in football and at about 7pm I thought we’d be signing two strikers. We’d lined up a three-and-a-half year deal for one and then a big offer for him came in from elsewhere. The other (deal) didn’t make it either.
“I felt dejected, I can’t deny that, because we need strikers. Everyone can see it. People want players and I want players. We were that close and I can’t blame anyone because it wasn’t anyone’s fault. But I know it’s easy to say that and that the fans don’t want to hear that.
“We were linked with so many players in January, a ridiculous number, and 99 per cent of the links were total rubbish.
“Apart from Toumani and Carayol, we made four other bids. That’s all. Winnall you know about because that became public. The others I’m not going to name.
“I said when I took the job that I’d only sign players I want, players who would make us better, so when those four weren’t possible, I left it.
“I’m not going to have a situation where I sign someone and three weeks later people are saying ‘why the hell’s this guy here?’
“It wouldn’t be right. On Monday night Massimo Cellino (United’s owner) said to me ‘anyone else?’ But I wasn’t going to start coming up with names for the sake of it.”
The question at the deadline was not so much who Leeds had failed to sign but why.
“The club’s deal to sell Sam Byram to West Ham will be worth around £3.7million. The transfer of Diagouraga from Brentford – Leeds’ only permanent signing – cost £575,000 up front.
Cellino’s intentions as owner, short-term and long, have been unclear for some time and the durability of his tenure is hard to establish. He remains at threat of a Football League ban, pending an as-yet unscheduled appeal. Recently he has been spotted at several games alongside Steve Parkin, the Yorkshire businessman who has spoken repeatedly in the past about buying control of Leeds.
Evans said: “I’m not here to be Massimo Cellino’s friend and I’m not saying he’s faultless or perfect but money was there to spend. We just had to make sure the deals were right. With Winnall, Barnsley were critical of our valuation of him but that was our valuation. We weren’t going to go above that because it wasn’t right to go higher.
“To be fair to the supporters, if I was looking at the headlines I’d be seeing a lot of money coming in for Sam, a certain amount being spent on Toumani and I’d be thinking ‘what about the rest of the money?’.
But I know the wages for Toumani, and for Carayol and Bridcutt.
“I know what we were bidding for other players. That’s what people don’t see.
“It’s easy to think the owner’s taken a load of cash for Sam, spent a bit of Toumani and pocketed the rest as a nice wee profit but that’s 100 per cent wrong.
“If I thought that was the case – if I thought that was the reason I wasn’t getting players I want – then I wouldn’t be here because I’d be on a hiding to nothing.”
Bridcutt and Carayol’s status as loanees means United cannot be certain of retaining them for next season.
“Evans said he expected Leeds to contact Sunderland and Middlesbrough later this month to start the process of discussing permanent transfers.
The club are 14th in the Championship and, at face value, a long way short of the play-offs; 12 points back after a round of games on Tuesday night. Evans admitted that the strength of his squad had made at least one player doubtful about joining. “I’ll not hide from that,” Evans said. “We need to be able to show players that we’ve got a plan and we’re moving forward.
“Toumani asked about that and I was able to convince him.
“Another player I spoke to – someone we wanted on loan but with a definite option to buy in the summer – said he wanted to see two or three better players in our squad, to know for sure that we can challenge next season.
“That’s frustrating but I understand his point of view. This is why we’re building, so that people know we can challenge. It wasn’t going to happen overnight here.
“When I first took over the owner was worried about relegation.
“Now he’s told me to build a team that can compete. I’ll do that but it’ll take time. I’m confident that when players see what we do in the summer, they’ll take a different look at things.
“If we’d been right in amongst the play-offs or in serious trouble then 100 per cent we’d have put pen to paper on Monday night.
“Because of where we are, we didn’t need to be rash or stupid.
“I know I’ll be backed in the summer because the owner has backed me with Bridcutt, Carayol and Diagouraga.
“I feel those signings have made us better and so does he.
“And without being good enough, I think we’ve got a strong base now.”
United’s inaction on Monday came amid other striking deals in the Championship: Sheffield Wednesday loaning Aiden McGeady – a player Evans spoke to Everton about – and Boro paying £9m for Jordan Rhodes, on top of a deal for Leicester City full-back Ritchie De Laet. Burnley pushed the boat out for Brentford centre-back James Tarkowski.
“Aitor Karanka (Middlesbrough’s head coach) is now in the position where he’ll be forced to leave quality players out,” Evans said.
“He might feel required to play Rhodes because of the money involved which means David Nugent might sit on the bench.
“That’s a fantastic position to be in but it’s taken him and Middlesbrough three or four windows to get there and as I’ve said many times, that’s what I need.
“People will roll their eyes when they hear me say this but if we’d been in Middlesbrough’s position in the league, do I think we’d have signed Jordan Rhodes?
“I believe we would have done. I believe we’ll get to that point. But I know that saying it and doing it are two different things.”