It was no great secret that Leeds United wanted Gordon Greer. It was no great secret either that Greer fancied the move. But Brighton refused to deal and the clubs moved on. Greer signed a new contract at The Amex last week.
The fall-back for Leeds was Scott Wootton, a 21-year-old centre-back who cut his teeth in Manchester United’s academy. They are poles apart Greer and Wootton: one a Scotland international who turns 33 in December, the other an England youth international with little in the way of comparable experience. Wootton is not a like-for-like replacement.
That speaks volumes about Brian McDermott’s approach to the transfer market. You can surmise from the change of tack that his intention this summer was not to sign a generic, experienced defender. He bid for Greer because he liked Greer and when that deal went south before United’s game at Leicester City he resisted the temptation to sign an alternative who, for want of a better phrase, fitted the bill. There are numerous workmanlike centre-backs out there, none of them difficult to find.
Matt Mills is the perfect example, McDermott’s former captain at Reading. Bolton Wanderers will release Mills on a season-long loan to any club who can pay half of his £25,000-a-week wages. They hoped quietly all summer that Leeds would be that club. The move was easily justified – a player who, like Noel Hunt, McDermott had relied on before to good effect. Someone who in principle he could trust.
Back in the real world, Bolton are the second of two teams who have paid exorbitant wages for Mills and then found themselves punting him on a year later. There was a risk of Leeds walking into that one. Mills excelled under McDermott’s management but he and McDermott went their separate ways in 2011. This is a footballer whose value appears to have peaked; an unimaginative target. The obvious ones are sometimes the worst.
Wootton is different; an unknown quantity in many respects but an unfinished article too. In amongst their few summer signings, Leeds have recruited a few of those – Wootton aged 21, Luke Murphy aged 23 and Matt Smith aged 24. How good they will be is a matter of debate but all three have the scope to develop and improve. Combined with Sam Byram, Tom Lees and others of equal standing, there is the potential at Elland Road for the core of settled, established team to grow over time. It is precisely how a club with United’s limited budget should be operating.
If money were no object, Leeds ought to have pushed the boat out and paid what it took to sign Curtis Davies, by far the best centre-back in the Championship last season. But money is an object and Leeds are managing it tightly. Davies costs too much at £2.25m so why not seek out an option who might, if luck and ability allow, morph into that calibre of defender? As part of a three-year plan, which United’s owner GFH Capital appears to be pursuing, it beats throwing thousands of pounds at someone in his 30s who is starting to tour the lower-league circuit.
Leeds have been down this road before and with some success. In 2008 they picked up Bradley Johnson, Neil Kilkenny, Robert Snodgrass and Luciano Becchio. Between them, those four players had an average age under 24 and mixed experience of domestic leagues in a number of different countries. It was that recruitment drive which underpinned promotion from League One in 2010 and the near-miss in the Championship in 2011 – a season which would have been different had Leeds put together something resembling a defence. When money is tight it pays to scout well and it pays to sign players with longevity. One of McDermott’s reputed strengths is his ability to pick out bargains with pedigree.
None of this is to say that the transfer window has been perfect or that McDermott’s business should cease with the signing of Wootton. There is always a need for marquee transfers and a balanced squad with the right amount of nous. Leeds have no wingers, or none that McDermott is willing to use, and without them they will find chances as scarce as they have been in their first three league matches.
But McDermott’s position is like GFH Capital’s – a complex situation need not prevent him from making an impact or playing the long game. After signing Murphy for £1m, McDermott used a phrase which resonated – “one for today, one for tomorrow” – and he should hold to that policy. It’s not foolproof but in the circumstances it makes sense.