The despair which engulfed Leeds Unitd after the shambolic Cup defeat at Rochdale has been eased by the capture of Stewart and Kebe.
The thing about problems is that they’re there to be solved and the riddle of Leeds United crashing and burning at Rochdale was not exactly a Rubik’s Cube. Football’s a complicated world but Leeds have long been prone to making simple issues worse.
The infamous transfer window in the middle of 2011 can be best summed up by United finding themselves short of a tidy left-back and signing Darren O’Dea from Celtic. The following January, their deadline-day answer to faltering form and a weak, brittle defence was to take 20-year-old Adam Smith on loan from Spurs.
Those looking in observe and scratch their heads. Then they feel the temptation to riot. There were venomous overtones at Spotland last weekend but in the eye of a storm, a club who panic are a club without nerve or conviction. The apologetic arrival of Smith was an admission from Leeds that their season was blown. They sacked Simon Grayson the next day.
Brian McDermott had it right this week. Sticking the boot into a defeat as bad as United’s loss at Rochdale is the job and prerogative of the club’s supporters. Internally, Leeds’ responsibility is to pinpoint the failings and work them out. They have done so in the past 48 hours, promising action and delivering it. Thorp Arch was unexpectedly full of smiles on Thursday afternoon.
At the risk of making it sound straightforward, the scenario for McDermott was not particle physics. The limitations of his team were clear to a novice and evident in the weeks before Rochdale went to town. United had no pace to speak of and artificial width; the suitability of 3-5-2 and the ineffectiveness of every other system made for chronic predictability. But Cameron Stewart signs, Jimmy Kebe follows and in two neat swoops the deficiencies are dealt with. Whether either transfer works is another matter but you will no longer see clubs loading United’s box with disregard for the threat of the players behind them.
Ashley Barnes was third on McDermott’s list and that deal went begging. He joined Burnley yesterday. But even he was the right player, albeit at the wrong time. He’s no sensation and hardly this window’s must-have signing but you can see McDermott’s thinking and the forward’s appeal; a mobile, physical, aggressive presence who suits the Championship and would have suited Ross McCormack. There are two ways for Leeds to deal with their over-reliance on McCormack: either buy a striker as lethal as him or bring in one whose game will keep the Scot in goals and in business. Barnes fell into the second category.
He was a prime target for McDermott but United’s manager has others. And you suspect now that he has enough money to get properly involved in a market where everyone is interested in everyone. United’s boss will be seen as the main beneficiary of this week’s investment but it is as much in the interests of the board at Elland Road to upgrade the squad, and not purely because of their own ambitions.
There has been a recurring theme to the analysis of McDermott’s tenure, particularly the tender periods – that he is being asked to manage someone else’s team. He did not excuse himself from the debacle at Rochdale but his biggest defence has always been the hand he was dealt; a poorly-weighted squad which is very unlike the squad he would like. For as long as Leeds left him to make the best of it, the roads of criticism led back to them. You only had to read Twitter last weekend to realise that. But with Kebe and Stewart on board and the variety they offer, this is starting to look like McDermott’s baby. He is almost at the stage where more than half of his regular starting players are players signed by him. It’s a small but significant step, one that allows his management to speak for itself. For years on end, inadequacies on the pitch have been seen as the product of boardroom intransigence. As a member of United’s board, you’d surely want to change the record.
McDermott, according to wide opinion, is a manager worth backing. A shambles like Rochdale might tempt you to think that all is shot but if McDermott is United’s man then you suck it up and tolerate it. You give leeway to a manager who blitzed the Championship as recently as 2012. In Grayson’s final days, Leeds maintained a pretence of a club in control. Their inaction in the transfer window was a blatant contradiction.
While McDermott suffered last weekend, Rudy Austin took his share of abuse too: not a captain, not up to the job, not worth a place. The less sensational truth about Austin is that he looks shattered and in need of a rest, but two new wingers and the advent of 4-4-2 will share the load which has slowly cracked the centre of McDermott’s midfield. There’s scope now for McDermott to save Austin from himself and revive his engine.
That’s the reality of problems; you either fix them or you drown in them, and through a concerted effort by Leeds to better themselves, this has been a good week. There’s a myth which says United’s supporters will accept anything so long as their team try a leg. In fact, they’ll accept anything other than their club selling them short. Rochdale was abysmal, truly abysmal. But the response this week makes it forgivable.
Competition in the Championship transfer market will only get tougher as the closure of window draws ever closer
Cameron Stewart. Wanted by Leeds United, Charlton Athletic and Leicester City. Jimmy Kebe, right. Wanted by every club of note in the Championship, according to Crystal Palace. Ashley Barnes. Offered a new deal by Brighton, approached by Leeds and signed by Burnley.
There’s a pattern developing here and a warning too: that any player a Championship manager courts (give or take) will have someone else crawling all over him. Expect much more of this as the January deadline draws near and the mutual requirements of teams in the division pack out the market. You’re never alone or ahead of the game.
‘If’ is the pertinent word with Financial Fair Play but implementation of FFP in a full and watertight way can only heighten the congestion in the aisles. The entire premise of the rules is to reduce transfer expenditure to a sustainable level and in doing so, limit the disparity in spending power between clubs in the same division.
This season Championship sides are permitted to lose a maximum of £8million without punishment. Owners and directors are allowed to invest personal funds of up to £5million. A billionaires’ paradise this is not.
And so the dilemma: comply with the regulations and rein in your outlay or flout them completely and trust that you’ll escape to the Premier League and out of harm’s way, knowing all the time that failure to win promotion will bring a transfer embargo next January. At least two Championship clubs are playing roulette this season, already certain of being in breach.
Elsewhere in the division there is a general acceptance that FFP is non-negotiable. And to that end, the limits on losses and owner investment should ensure that spending power across the league is less of an anomaly as time ticks by. The consequence? That more and more clubs will enter each window with comparable lists of transfer targets. It is hardly a new phenomenon but the market is not about to get easier.
Of the options available to him, Stewart fancied Leeds. He spoke on Thursday of his creeping smile as he drove up the sweeping driveway at Thorp Arch.
Kebe also saw United as the best of the cards he was holding and he jumped at the chance to work with McDermott again; sold by one phone call. Barnes, right, took a different attitude and went to Burnley, a team with a strong league position, a pleasing style of play and an astute boss.
Across the Pennines, he found more than enough to satisfy him. It all points to the conclusion that while money talks, perception sings.