Leeds legend Peter Lorimer has his say on all things United
Day by day the scale of the work needed at Leeds United becomes clear.
It’s impossible to ignore the extent of the club’s financial problems when you read about the number of bills Massimo Cellino is having to pay off. Some people were opposed to his takeover but personally I’m mightily relieved that we’ve got an owner with the money to settle our debts.
Ask yourself this question – where would we now be had Cellino been blocked from buying the club? Who would have paid the taxman, the wages or the other big costs which seem to keep arising? Football clubs are expensive at the best of times but they’re even harder to manage when you inherit the sort of mess which the new owner seems to have taken on at Leeds.
I look at the situation and I honestly feel that turning the ship around and taking us to promotion from the Championship next season would be a hell of an achievement. Realistically, it’s probably asking too much – but that doesn’t stop Cellino getting the squad in much better shape before the football starts again.
The debate about where we need to strengthen most is a difficult one because my answer to that would be just about everywhere.
Up front we’re in decent shape, with Ross McCormack scoring prolifically and Matt Smith chipping in too. Smith’s had a creditable first season in the Championship and I can see him getting better. He’s definitely grown as the year’s gone on and he and Ross will be key players going forward, provided Ross stays at Elland Road of course. The only concern I have about our forward line is whether anyone else on the books would be capable of filling the void if Ross’ goals began to dry up.
His form and that of Smith is even more impressive when you consider the service they’ve had from the wings. It’s been inconsistent and they’ve spent as much time digging out goals themselves as they have finishing off chances laid on a plate. The most assists for Leeds this season? Ross McCormack. In second place? Matt Smith. That really tells its own story.
We need productive wide players in the team but above all else, we need a serious injection of pace. And I’m not just talking about on the flanks. The centre of our defence isn’t quick enough and we don’t have full-backs who can tear up and down the field, causing havoc. I’d also say that our midfield have a tendency to get overrun when they come up against quicker, more agile lads.
If I had to spend money on one single player – or one single position – then I’d definitely channel it into the midfield. We need a conductor for the orchestra, someone who can dictate our performances but also give others around him the freedom and confidence to do their thing too.
It’s certainly not fair to say we’ve got no good footballers in our squad. What we don’t have enough of is highly-influential, eight out of 10 players. McCormack we know will turn it on most weeks but you have to ask how many other lads would get into the top sides in the Championship. The various team-of-the-year awards answer that query for me. An overhaul is needed at Elland Road and a skilful one at that.
What we must break away from in my view is our policy of bringing in players aged 29, 30, 31, that sort of bracket. I’m not saying you’re past it at that age or no use in the Championship but we’ve made a habit of committing too much in wages to players who can’t be classed as high-end or outstanding.
More often than not, we’ve picked up people who aren’t getting games elsewhere or who’ve been deemed surplus to requirements by other clubs and managers. There haven’t enough occasions when we’ve gone out with a chequebook and forced teams to sell us their top man or lose somebody they’re desperate to keep. In truth, that comes down to money. The Leeds way recently hasn’t been to spend massive fees – and understandably so, I guess, given the various crises we’ve had over the years.
But the irony is that while quality is better than quantity, both can end up costing you much the same overall. We’ve got more than 25 professionals at Leeds and a wage bill which seems to be up around £20million. That’s a £20million outlay for a 15th-placed finish in the league. I can’t help but feel that with a more compact squad, you could make the money work far better. And I’m pretty sure that over the next few months, that’s what Cellino will try to establish.
For example, without naming names there are players at Thorp Arch earning five-figure salaries a week who have barely played a bloody game. They might be frustrated by their lack of game time but at the end of the day, it’s a ridiculous state of affairs. I’ve thought for a while that football needs to go down the route of performance-related pay. Otherwise you’re paying out big wages to guys who aren’t actually contributing anything.
All things considered, we need a sea-change in the way things are done. We need to invest our cash in potential and proven ability, rather than steady pros. Every team needs it’s share of reliable players but a team full of them tends to finish inbetween. For three season running now, we’ve been a long way from the play-offs and closer than you’d want to be to the scramble at the bottom of the table. Somewhere along the line, lessons needs to be learned.
But I’m not about to pretend that the changes can be implemented in the blink of an eye. I’m very optimistic about the future at Leeds but I’m also quite realistic about the summer. It’s going to be busy, pressurised and hard work at times, and I’d be wary of asking too much of the owner.
And anyway, if the past few seasons are anything to go by, I’d rather we didn’t go for the in-one-foul-swoop bid for promotion. It’s got to be better to take our time than carry out another half-baked reshuffle which gets us nowhere. I’m as desperate for promotion as anyone but I’d settle for progress in the next 12 months.
I always felt – and I still believe – that the league title is the biggest prize a club can compete for each season.
The Champions League era came after my playing days so perhaps my view on Europe would differ slightly now but to me there’s no greater target for a Premier League club than the Premier League trophy.
In our most successful years at Leeds, we targeted the top flight above all else. Naturally, you took a huge amount of pride from lifting the FA Cup or going far in Europe but we always wanted to be seen as the best in our division. We wanted to turn over the likes of Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal. The seasons when we did that were the most satisfying for me.
You can see the same sort of attitude in the way Liverpool have chased the title this season. Since it became obvious that they were right in the running, they’ve thrown the kitchen sink at the run-in.
Their euphoria after the win over Manchester City and their dejection after Monday’s amazing draw at Crystal Palace were sure signs that winning the Premier League means absolutely everything now. If you offered the Champions League trophy in exchange, I doubt whether a single person at Anfield would willingly take it.
The fans of every club involved in the race will be going through the wringer but whenever I see a tight run-in, the memories of being right at the heart of the drama comes flooding back to those of us who experienced the pressure and hit the heights under Don Revie.
This is a tense and stressful time – exhausting in its own way and all day, all night. At this stage of a season, we used to live out of a suitcase. If we weren’t contesting cup games across England or Europe, we were finishing off our league campaign. Your feet never touched the ground.
Don did his best to keep us quite isolated at the really critical points. We’d spend time in hotels, that sort of thing. To be honest, there wasn’t much point in being around your friends and family a lot.
You were totally distracted and the days in between games were spent counting the hours. The only way you get over the line is by playing and winning, not sitting in your living room. What you need to get you through are shots of adrenalin. I don’t mean actual injections but the natural excitement which picks you up and keeps you going.
It’s easy to freeze under the strain but I found that walking out into Elland Road with 40,000 there shook off all the anxiety and the fatigue. It made you feel alive. The ground had that effect on every one of us, which is part of the reason why we had it in us to secure most of the major honours.
As a player, these are the moments you train and work towards. Much as any career in football is great, it must be demoralising to go through the game without ever landing a meaningful trophy. This is why money in football is such a bizarre thing. Yes, everyone wants to be rich or well-off but when you get down to the final week of the season with everything at stake, money doesn’t come into it. It’s no consolation for failure and no substitute for success because people don’t remember your wage. They prefer to count your medals.