Given time and enough cash, Brian McDermott would have got his teeth into Leeds United’s infrastructure.
Whether he would have built an adequate team is a different matter – and ultimately the crux of his job – but he took an interest in wider things: facilities and the club’s internal framework.
When Leeds appointed him as manager in 2013 he noticed two things: that their training ground at Thorp Arch was in need of upgrading and that United, as a club, had no scouting network. Scouting is McDermott’s passion, arguably more so than frontline management, and, in between parting company with Leeds and returning to Reading late last year, he was employed as part of Arsenal’s vast recruitment team.
He had plans at Elland Road, including the appointment of Luke Dowling as chief scout. Dowling, who is now Watford’s sporting director, was employed briefly by Leeds but left in the same summer as McDermott. In an interview with BBC Five Live last week, Dowling said: “At Leeds there was no scouting structure.
“I think that comes from financial troubles. It seems to be that whenever a club needs to cut costs, the first thing to go is scouting.”
The demise of the United’s network preceded Massimo Cellino’s takeover, but Dowling’s thoughts shine a light on the club’s infrastructure and give weight to comments made by Steve Evans last weekend. Evans drew sceptical looks by claiming that Leeds were working to a top-six budget in the Championship, and his remarks about the need to move players off the wage bill was a departure from the idea that Leeds were ready to spend more money last month.
But one comment was undeniable: “(We’re) already paying for players who aren’t delivering.”
That is not true of every player at Leeds but it is true of some. And it was true last season, as it was in McDermott’s 13 months as manager and Neil Warnock’s time before him.
Each summer, perhaps because Leeds eat through head coaches so quickly, the incumbent boss has a go at clearing the decks. The turnover is not exaggerated. With the departure of Sam Byram, no player in United’s squad boasts 100 club appearances or more. Charlie Taylor, after 14 months in the side, is already fifth in the list.
Leeds are as good as most clubs at making their academy work – the second most productive in England, according to the latest figures – but their external business has been a problem for years.
The argument goes that Leeds spend too little on players to have a go in the Championship, and senior staff at Elland Road were saying as much last summer: that the budget was enough to be comfortable but too small to make waves. But it is evident that even at a limited level of expenditure, the club’s recruitment could be better.
Leeds had a head of recruitment for six months before losing Martyn Glover to Sunderland in January. They have spoken about replacing him but are still to make an appointment. Evans might feel differently, but Uwe Rosler is known to have valued Glover’s input last summer.
And Leeds are a club who seem to need that specialism: someone who can minimise risk, limit the mistakes and trace effective signings in a market where United don’t always have the cash to pursue the obvious ones.
Recruitment teams do not stop transfers being hit-and-miss. Howard Wilkinson used to say that one success in every three deals was good going for a manager. But there are enough stories which underline the value of extensive scouting.
Andre Gray was a non-league player at Hinckley United in 2012. Some of the best money Bournemouth spent was the £3million-plus used to take Callum Wilson from Coventry City.
With hindsight you question how much time Leeds devoted to watching and analysing someone like Jordan Botaka last summer. Whatever Botaka has about him, neither Rosler nor Evans has seen fit to involve him properly. He is probably a player who Evans would be happy to lose in May.
Beyond that is the methodology of transfer dealings. Leeds’ bid for Sam Winnall last week was a particularly interesting case.
Evans rated Winnall highly enough to make an approach for him, but Leeds went to Barnsley very late in the window, offered £300,000 and did not return when Barnsley said no. That scenario played out in less than 12 hours.
Barnsley found the bid bizarre, not least because QPR had just paid £2.3m for Conor Washington, a goalscorer in the same division.
Winnall might have been worth an investment and might have been an established target, but one quick nibble so far below Barnsley’s valuation made it look like a token effort, made without the conviction of a club who were set on signing him or confident of signing him.
Football is such that every team has surplus players and every team has players whose involvement runs its course.
Aside from money, one of the biggest problems at Elland Road is that so many run that course so quickly and get lost in the system.
Casper Sloth is a prime example, a midfielder who must ask himself what on earth his transfer from Aarhus was about. Cellino liked him and still does, but Cellino’s opinion is not enough. And, as the past few years have shown, neither is that of a single head coach.
Of course, finance counts. It always counts. But even Cellino must realise that United could have used theirs better.