Final push: the emergency loan market appears to be leeds united’s last throw of the dice for this season’s play-off push. Phil Hay reports.
The lingering belief among Leeds United’s squad that the play-offs positions are within their reach is being echoed by the club’s concerted involvement in the Football League’s emergency loan market.
The Championship table offers United feint hope with their season hingeing on games at home to Bolton and Reading in the week ahead but their recent loan signings and their attempts to make one more are not the actions of a beaten club.
Leeds secured two new players in the space of five days be reaching deals for Stoke City’s Jack Butland and Sunderland’s Connor Wickham, and they were one of a number of teams who enquired about the availability of Chelsea’s Nathan Ake last week. Ake, a 19-year-old Dutchman who has been capped at Under-21 level by the Netherlands, is Chelsea’s reigning young player of the year and a youngster whose versatility and raw potential appealed to United.
Chelsea think of him as a central defender with the capacity to occupy a defensive midfield role but he has played as a left-back and was targeted by Leeds before Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Queens Park Rangers.
Their approach to Chelsea was rejected and Ake is understood to have told the Premier League leaders that he wanted to remain at Stamford Bridge until the end of the season having made a consistent impression on his parent club.
As many as three Championship sides – Burnley, Watford and Wigan Athletic – tried to take Ake on loan in January and Chelsea’s resistance to temporary offers is proof of how highly they value him and how close he is to inching onto their bench.
In the past fortnight, Leeds have paid attention to players of a similar stature – junior prospects with a meaningful future at their clubs as opposed to proven professionals struggling to get a game. United’s manager, Brian McDermott, described Butland and Wickham “young and hungry” and would have said the same of Ake had the teenager come to Elland Road.
McDermott’s attitude to loan deals has always been that most should come with the option of a permanent deal, and speaking after Saturday’s game at Loftus Road the Leeds boss said: “We’re looking for one more player if we can but you don’t want loan players just for numbers. We want loan players who we think we can turn into permanent players.
“That would be the key for us really. That’s something we have to think about.”
McDermott took Dexter Blackstock on an emergency loan from Nottingham Forest in October and planned to retain him in the January transfer window but the striker suffered a serious knee injury a few weeks after moving to Leeds. He is now seeking High Court damages over a tackle by Seya Olofinjana in 2010 which Blackstock blames for long-standing fitness problems.
The 27-year-old held a substantial contract at Forest and McDermott accepted early on that a permanent deal would be difficult to agree. Wickham, 20, has just one season left at Sunderland but nevertheless expects to return to Wearside when his loan at Leeds expires in May. Gus Poyet, the Sunderland manager and former Leeds assistant, challenged Wickham to make himself a “better player” during his time in Yorkshire.
Goalkeeper Butland has more security than Wickham and, as a full England international, is a player who Stoke are in no haste to sell. His prospects of travelling with England to this summer’s World Cup in Brazil receded when coach Roy Hodgson left him out of his squad for tonight’s friendly against Denmark but he will feature instead in England’s Under-21 European Championship qualifier against Wales in Derby this evening. Under-21 boss Gareth Southgate attended United’s training ground at Thorp Arch last Thursday, the day he chose his 23-man squad. Wickham, who has 17 caps at Under-21 level, was not included in it.
United’s short-term investment in young internationals has materialised in the three weeks since Gulf Finance House finalised the sale of a 75 per cent stake in the club to Massimo Cellino.
McDermott has four loan players in his squad – one fewer than the maximum allowed in a match-day squad under Football League rules – and he is still hopeful of making another addition before the loan market closes on the final Thursday of March. He admitted over the weekend that he had spoken about Jack Collison, the West Ham United midfielder.
Cellino, meanwhile, flew to his native Italy after attending Saturday’s draw with QPR and watched a 3-0 win by his Italian club Cagliari over Udinese on Sunday. He is expected to arrive back in England tomorrow as he and GFH wait for news of his buy-out and the Football League’s decision over whether to approve it.
The League has made no comment since issuing a statement last week saying that there were “a number of outstanding matters that will require further submissions” from Cellino and GFH. The governing body was asked by the YEP yesterday whether it had received all the information requested but it declined to comment.
Cellino is juggling two takeovers with discussions on-going about the sale of Cagliari to a group of American investors.
The Serie A club are up for sale and were rumoured to be on the verge of investment by a Qatari family last month but the proposed US purchase of Cagliari has moved forward in the past few days following discussions between them and the local authorities about potential improvements to Cagliari’s Sant’Ella stadium.
The decaying arena has been a bone of contention for many years and its current capacity stands at 5,000 due to health and safety concerns.
Cagliari have played a number of league games away from their traditional home – some in Trieste, 800km north of Sardinia – while Cellino fought with the city’s council over the absence of a suitable venue for Serie A games. A brief move to Is Arenas, a hastily-constructed ground which has since been dismantled, led to embezzlement charges brought against Cellino. In an interview with the BBC, a lawyer representing Cellino, Giovanni Cocco, said the charges were “false” and claimed they would “not have a negative outcome.”