A new head coach, money spent on the team, season ticket sales up and the experienced Adam Pearson helping to run the club. Phil Hay reports on the rising optimism at Elland Road at the dawn of a new season.
When Adam Pearson became Leeds United’s executive director in May, the questions started. Was he walking through the door as the first stage of a takeover? Did he understand the trouble he was getting into? And was he really so desperate for work that he’d risk his reputation by jumping into bed with Massimo Cellino?
Back then Pearson described his job in simple terms. “I’m here to take a bit of weight off Massimo,” he said by way of an introduction. In three months he has done just that. Cellino tapped into the 50-year-old’s boardroom experience and found that giving Pearson authority dramatically eased his own stress levels. The appointment might come to be seen as the Italian’s saving grace.
Cellino spent the past fortnight in Italy on a trip which mixed business and pleasure. He returned to England from Sardinia yesterday. Activity at Elland Road used to grind to a halt whenever the club’s owner disappeared abroad but Billy Sharp was sold in his absence and a deal to sign Stuart Dallas from Brentford was put in place last week. United’s ability to function has not been compromised as it was at junctures last season.
On the outside much credit for that is being given to Pearson. Either the former Hull City owner has contributed to a new sense of direction or the progress at Leeds during a healthy summer is a complete coincidence. It seems a long time since Pearson was sat to the left of Cellino, fighting through his boss’s maddening end-of-season press conference. The new season begins on Saturday with optimism oozing.
Pearson still maintains that while Cellino has kept himself in the background since May, his influence has been overwhelming and positively so. “He’s got his finger on every pulse,” Pearson said. “It’s completely wrong to think that he’s taken a back seat or stepped back. He’s involved in everything and dictating everything. And quite right if it’s your money funding the club. If I’ve made a difference then I’m pleased about that but it’s more the case that Massimo’s put in place key people who know how to keep the club running – the coaching staff and Stuart Hayton, the club secretary. It’s taken the weight off his shoulders in terms of transfers and they’ve been done in a far more calm and efficient manner.
“Last summer he was doing so much of the work himself. To be honest, I think a lot of lessons have been learned from last season. Football’s such big business in England and you have to have people with the right skill sets in the right areas. If things look better from the outside then they probably should.”
It is still natural to wonder why Pearson saw a worthwhile project at Elland Road at a time when Cellino was returning from a Football League ban, to a club in disarray. United’s chairman was largely without friends or support when Pearson took up his post a few short weeks after joining a “sporting committee” at Sheffield Wednesday.
“My history with Leeds is well known and I wanted to make a difference,” Pearson said. “It did look a bit crazy from the outside but when you get into the club, you find a core of staff who’ve been here for a long time and know what they’re doing. Suddenly it doesn’t feel so zany. In general the club’s functioning well. The wage bill’s where we want it to be. The club can wash its face without needing external money. The transfers we’ve done have been completed efficiently. I have to say as well that if we’re talking about the transfers Massimo and Uwe Rosler were looking for, we’ve got virtually everything we wanted.”
The football side of United’s business was crying out for some care and attention after a grim campaign in the Championship last year, but the club’s commercial arm has been improved too. Catering at Elland Road was brought back in-house having been sold to Compass in 2012. The launch of a new kit by manufacturers Kappa was a resounding success, albeit in the knowledge the Leeds remain trapped in a legal dispute with previous supplier Macron. Another argument with Enterprise Insurance has left the club without a shirt sponsor.
There was fall-out too from the departure of former head coach Neil Redfearn, but Cellino did find a way to build bridges this summer. The club have sold almost 13,000 season tickets, an increase on last year. They are trying to hike up average crowds which, while the fourth highest in the Championship in 2014-15, sat below 25,000.
“We’re just below 13,000 season tickets and we’re looking at a crowd of 29,000 for Burnley this weekend,” Pearson said. “Considering how last season finished, I’d say that’s extremely good.
“I’d like to see our crowds go up and it all comes back to maximising your potential. Things like bringing the catering deal back in house are so important. As it was, we were only taking a small percentage of the money made. That’s a poor deal for the club. Now we’re in a position where every pound spent by a Leeds supporter comes to us.”
Pearson did not quantify the exact amount of money spent on new players in the transfer window but the fee for Chris Wood was in excess of £2m and Dallas, who joined from Brentford yesterday, came in at £1.3m.
The cost of appointing Rosler as head coach in May was heightened by his request for a large backroom team including three other coaches and a dedicated head of recruitment.
Rosler’s work has been deliberate and methodical, producing a team who impressed a home crowd by beating Everton in a friendly last Saturday. Rosler said afterwards that he hoped the performance would tempt more supporters – and potentially lapsed supporters – through the gates for the first game of the Championship term this weekend.
Pearson remarked on the day of Rosler’s appointment that it was his responsibility, among others, to make sure the German did not go the way of other coaches under Cellino. Cellino is onto his fifth boss at Elland Road already but within the club there is a sense that Rosler is more secure than any other coach before him. Speaking on Sunday, Cellino said pre-season had been “just as we wanted.”
“We need to give Uwe and his staff the support and the opportunity to make it work here,” Pearson said. And time? “And time. If we continue to operate in a way that gives the club no stability on that side of things then we’ll never get anywhere. I’m quite happy to say so. That’s probably the lesson that needed to be learned more than any other. There had to be some thought about the longer term, not just what happens from one day to the next.
“Uwe’s made a big impact already. He needs our support.”