The tail end of the transfer window is often said to be the worst time to seek value for money. It is also the worst time for a club without money, the situation that Leeds United find themselves in.
An empty pot and the imminent arrival of the new season were the factors that brought El-Hadji Diouf and Leeds together last week. United needed greater depth in certain positions and Diouf was capable of filling them. Moreover, he was freely available and potentially cheap, though discussions about a permanent contract are still incomplete, nine days on.
Manager Neil Warnock envisaged other strikers coming to Leeds – he discussed a swap-deal involving Brighton’s Craig Mackail-Smith and was more than speculatively interested in Nicky Maynard, a forward who West Ham United wanted an up-front payment of around £400,000 for, but he is honest enough to accept that he has no prospect of funding his preferred signings, not while the elusive takeover of Leeds battles on behind closed doors.
His only answer in the absence of greater wealth is to be resourceful and inventive; that is, to look for opportunities like that presented by an out-of-contract Diouf. As every agent knows, there are scores of players out of contract every August, all of them searching for clubs and a few inexplicably unattached.
Matthew Upson, the England international and former Arsenal centre-back, was a free agent until August 9 last year when Stoke City belatedly signed him.
Tony Pulis, the Stoke manager, said the timing of the deal was remarkable “when you consider the quality and experience of the lad”. Diouf carries more baggage but his ability does not explain why a 31-year-old with several seasons ahead of him is on non-contract forms on the first day of the 2012-13 term.
However, the reality of this period of the transfer window is that thrifty options suited to a Championship club are few and far between.
Speculation in the north east on Thursday suggested Leeds were competing with Middlesbrough for the signature of striker Ricardo Fuller, a claim Warnock denied. Fuller is in the same position that Diouf found himself in last week – out of contract after leaving Stoke City and struggling to find a move that suits him in time for the start of the season. To coin a cliche, he is worth a punt – at least in the eyes of Boro boss Tony Mowbray.
Fewer managers would take as optimistic a view of Frederic Piquionne, the French forward who has played for West Ham and Doncaster Rovers in the past two seasons. Piquionne was reported to have agreed terms with Leeds this week, a rumour which appears to be wide of the mark, Dabbling with free agents is a game of hit and miss.
One English agent who has dealt with Championship clubs this summer told the YEP: “With a few exceptions – and I mean a few – there’s a good reason why players are out of contract at this time of year.
“To be brutally honest most of them don’t have the quality that clubs are looking for. If they did have the quality they’d have been signed up a long time ago. For an agent they’re often the most difficult lads to get fixed up.
“The other issue you have is the fitness of the players. Most footballers look after themselves and any self-respecting athlete is going to stick to a programme right through the summer but a lot of them won’t have played in any friendlies. Their match fitness will be behind the rest of the squad that they’re joining and that’s hardly ideal when you’ve got league games coming one after another.
“At this stage I’d expect any club approaching a client who was out of contract to be offering them a trial at best. Common sense tells you that if no one else is signing them, you’d be foolish to jump in and give them a deal – unless it’s an exceptional option.”
There is one exceptional free agent who, like Upson before him, is making heavy weather of finding new employers.
Michael Owen – once the pin-up of English football – has been unattached since he and Manchester United went their separate ways in May. He has long been resistant to the idea of dropping into the Championship and his attitude does not appear to have softened, despite his circumstances as the season starts.
“I know I can still bang them in at the top level,” he wrote on Twitter last month. “I am not being disrespectful when I say I wouldn’t play in the Championship. i always said I wouldn’t drop down the leagues like some have done.
“After playing for Liverpool, Real Madrid, Newcastle, Man Utd and England, I don’t think I would enjoy that football.”
Warnock was asked about the possibility of signing Owen earlier in the summer and laughed off the suggestion at a time when Leeds were struggling to raise the £400,000 he needed to sign Joel Ward from Portsmouth. Owen has been in negotiations with Stoke but doubts about City’s ability to meet his wage demands are another example of why Owen moving to the Championship does not stand up.
“Michael Owen is the only player who stands out as being out of contract and a great shout,” said another agent, based in the north east. “There might be a couple of others but I’d question how many free agents out there would be good enough for Leeds or good enough for what Leeds want to achieve this season.”
Warnock has another avenue to new signings, via the loan market which Leeds have used so regularly in the past decade.
The United boss is free to negotiate half-season or full-season deals until the closure of the summer transfer window and the Football League’s emergency loan window opens seven days after the end of August.
But Leeds will have played four league matches by then and it was never Warnock’s intention to be finalising his squad with the Championship term in full flow.
But the 63-year-old has been philosophical about his playing budget, saying: “We’ve signed 10 players. I know what people want me to say (about the shortage of transfer funds) but I’ve got 10 players.
“I’d like another couple, especially with losing Robert Snodgrass and I have to work at getting what I can with the means I’ve got.
“It would be my biggest ever achievement if I got promoted with this squad as it is at the moment. But I wouldn’t write it off.”