Leicester City were sold to the land of milk and honey in August 2010.
The three-and-a-half years since have been used to support many different agendas, not least the argument about what money buys you, but the crux of the Championship is this – attack it for long enough and the division’s pips will squeak.
It has taken Leicester seven transfer windows to get it right; seven transfer windows and three managers. They cleared 50 points on New Year’s Day and are exceeding the pace set by Cardiff City last season. It’s common knowledge that the advent of Financial Fair Play caused some gnashing of teeth in Leicester’s boardroom but they are hopeful of complying and have sustained their football regardless.
Sustainability. That word is everywhere at Leeds United. It has been GFH Capital’s slogan for the past year and will continue to be so when managing director David Haigh buys into the club with three other backers. Leicester took a different path, playing a game of boom or bust, but the promotion dangling in front of them has been four years in the making. The lesson here is not about the difficulty of buying success; it’s a lesson in how tirelessly committed Championship owners need to be.
Even after a sorry Christmas. Leeds can still stab at the play-offs with genuine intent. That’s the opportunity January gives them and the opportunity the first half of the season has created. You wonder whether Brian McDermott really expected this and whether the urgency of his comments about transfers in the past week is symptomatic of his surprise at the chance United have. He’s only as surprised as the rest of us.
Clever spending this month will not make a top-six finish a formality but sub-standard recruitment would make it unfeasible. The squad are tired and their form is deteriorating. There is no let-up between now and May, not a single international break to sit back in, and McDermott’s reliance on a small core of players is patently worrying him. Leeds cannot thrive like this any more than they did with the team built by Neil Warnock.
Their bench on Wednesday was devoid of much middle ground, a near symmetrical split between wizened professionals and rough-edged kids. The two substitutes used by McDermott were 20 and 18 with one league start between them. He preferred to field an almost-fit Paddy Kenny than risk exposing Alex Cairns to Blackburn Rovers’ fluid attack. Eight players started each of the four games either side of Christmas, and El-Hadji Diouf has disappeared off the radar completely.
McDermott talks highly of the attitude of his squad but you could not say on that basis that he has confidence in it. Not in the furthest reaches of it. He gave the names of four transfer targets to United’s board last week but the past fortnight has shown the need for several more than that. Not a sensible soul in Leeds would suggest that four weeks of January is a realistic timeframe for surgical alterations so severe.
McDermott spoke after Wednesday’s defeat to Blackburn about buying “players for today and players for tomorrow.” In the context of this season alone, what he needs are impact signings; to rob a phrase from somebody else, plug-in-and-play footballers. They cost money and they are difficult to sign but it is that or mid-table. You realise that when the manager starts saying so himself. He has a good line-up under him, an XI which at full strength matches up to much of the Championship, but they are working with no leeway for dips in fitness and form. It’s commendable on their part when you consider the strain.
It would be commendable too if McDermott could find a way to light the fuse in January but the process he’s working on is going to take more than this transfer window. The laws of chance and the story of Leicester’s slow rise say he will need at least another summer to mould the squad in his own image. Leeds are a sustainable club, according to their owners, but one of the least sustainable aspects at Elland Road is United’s team. It takes time or a shedload of money to alter that.
Perhaps the club realised as much when they told McDermott that a finish of 12th place or higher would be good enough for them this season. Promotion was never asked of him. Yet the play-offs are in front of Leeds and it would be rash to forego the chance without finding out. This might be a season too soon for McDermott but his board can earn themselves credit in January by doing what the regime they bought out were so often guilty of failing to do - having a go.