The Football League’s emergency loan window closes next week, leaving its clubs at the mercy of the squads they own.
Simon Grayson might be pleased about that.
There is no escaping the subject of transfers at Elland Road, until the moment when English football draws an immoveable line in the sand.
Grayson is not renowned for minimising his signings – 40 and counting in a tenure spanning 26 months – but he and the market are less than intimately attached. If anything, he inclines to manage with the players at his disposal. January exposed that preference, a month played out in the absence of Neil Kilkenny and without a replacement for an integral midfielder.
Leeds United’s manager talks the talk about transfers but the details of his business show that any obsession with signings at Elland Road is not his – five made since the start of January, one of whom is a surplus goalkeeper and another a necessary substitute for the injured Paul Connolly. Two players were effectively re-signed. Grayson is not in the habit of trading to excess at a club driven by financial caution.
There are two ways of analysing his work in the transfer market – in the context of the funds available to him and in the context of his own philosophy. It could be said (and, in certain quarters, has been said) that one permanent recruit since the end of 2010 represents meagre investment in the playing squad at Leeds.
But Grayson’s management and rhetoric gives the impression of a coach who, give or take, is happy with his lot.
With the exception of late October, when a group of corrosive results pointed Grayson towards a new centre-back, he has been that way for the past seven months. The summer transfer window closed quietly and the first loan window of the season did likewise in November. Approaches were made for several midfielders at the very end of January but his choice was to accept defeat in his pursuit of players he coveted rather than compromise and sign players he did not want. Only an innate sense of confidence in the squad he possessed could have allowed him to be so selective.
In the end, it took six more weeks for another midfielder to arrive, in the form of Aston Villa’s Barry Bannan. Leeds’ inept defeat at Swansea City, and the formation which invited it, exposed the folly of fighting out the back-end of the season with so few options in the centre of midfield, but the week that followed was a rare occasion when Grayson shared the wider mood of urgency about an impasse in the transfer market. Until that point – and specifically until the one-match suspension incurred by Bradley Johnson last month – he seemed resistant to outside pressure to use the loan market and use it in haste.
As Grayson has learned, the recruitment of players appeals to the public’s idea of ambition. Caution in the transfer market is a harder path to popularity. Supporters like to see clubs flexing their muscles and always have but, with the final deadline of the season due to fall on Thursday, it is plain that Grayson meant what he said when repeatedly defending his core squad. His faith is borne out in a league table which comfortably exceeds the general expectation of the playing pool at Leeds.
Grayson, on the other hand, anticipated this scenario or something close to it. That is the obvious conclusion from the limited improvements made to his squad since the season began. Had he held genuine doubts about avoiding relegation, he would have peppered the market at the end of August and more heavily around the time of Andy O’Brien’s arrival on loan from Bolton Wanderers. Had he suspected that Leeds were punching above their weight when reaching Christmas Day in second position in the Championship, he would have attacked the January window with more aggression and less self-control. On the basis of the trust shown in the central column of the squad at Elland Road, it can be assumed that Grayson saw this season coming.
Of all the beneficial factors in United’s favour, his attitude must be one. The transmission of confidence from Grayson to his players is in no way immaterial. A comparison can be drawn with Sheffield United, on their knees and not quite relegated before tomorrow’s Yorkshire derby. Seven new players have transferred to Bramall Lane in 2011, and five started last week’s defeat to Watford. Some would call that influx a concerted effort to drive off relegation; others would see it as an admission from Micky Adams that his club were in grave trouble for as long as they relied on the tools he inherited.
Grayson’s prime attribute this season has been consistency – consistency in his transfer policy, his strategy and his selections. After the club’s recent defeat of Doncaster Rovers, he dismissed the possibly of rethinking tactics that were yielding goals in spades while selling them at a high rate. “I’m not going to change my philosophy,” he said, insisting that, having come this far, he might as well continue in the same vein for the duration.
You can feel certain that the same rule applies to his squad. As useful as the signing of Bannan was, the midfielder’s contribution is dependent entirely on Kilkenny or Johnson giving Grayson a reason to play him. It is not inconceivable that Leeds will use the loan market again before Thursday – an additional centre-back is their only conceivable need – but Grayson would be breaking from tradition by revising his regular line-up for the last nine games. Defensively, his assertion is that the club’s poor record is a matter of tactics rather than personnel.
United’s defence have been the biggest and most legitimate cause of criticism of Grayson, closely followed by his delay in signing a central midfielder. And still, with seven weeks left, Leeds are five points short of second place. Something is working and has done so for the best part of 37 matches. The overriding influence is not financial. In the week of the 50th anniversary of Don Revie’s appointment at Elland Road, it is pleasing to see the merits of good, old-fashioned management.