Phil Hay: Too often players are content to quit Leeds United

Stephen Warnock

Stephen Warnock

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United’s current owner Massimo Cellino seems reluctant to stop the trend while looking abroad to fill the gaps with players untried in the Championship. Phil Hay reports.

The names are interchangeable. It was Stephen Warnock this time but it could be Beckford, Howson, Snodgrass or McCormack; different men with the same rationale. Year after year, players at Leeds United reach the conclusion that the grass is greener elsewhere. And when an opportune moment arrives, they take a hike.

Whether the grass is actually greener is besides the point. What matters is the fact that so many players make that assumption and go. They might be wrong or misguided but telling them they’re making a mistake presumes just as much about a club who pass the years trawling through lost Championship seasons.

When Bradley Johnson signed for Norwich City, he was told to prepare for a few sarcastic waves when United passed him on his way down from the Premier League. That was three-and-a-half years ago now.

In all that time he has missed nothing at Elland Road which on reflection he might like to have seen. No regrets for him and no humiliation.

Will Warnock scratch the surface at Derby County? Is it a problem if he doesn’t? At 33 he’s getting the contract he wants at a stage in his life where clubs are loathe to make big financial commitments. As for the club he’s leaving behind all bets are off and so are the gloves. No gut-feeling matters more than his own. It’s like a certain Scottish winger said back in 2012: “My future doesn’t lie in the hands of Neil Warnock. It’s in the hands of Robert Snodgrass.”

Stephen Warnock’s contribution at Elland Road deserves a wide view. He was here for two years after all. This season he morphed into the player he was at his peak: an example, an uncanny last line of defence, an authentic wing-back and an easy pick. In the previous 18 months he was none of those things. Warnock’s loss is unsettling because Leeds are 21st in the Championship and up a certain creek, not because the club need to build their future around him. Bemoaning his exit is a sign of the times.

Which brings us onto Luciano Becchio. Becchio has the freedom of Leeds and the respect of the city. One journalist is writing a biography about him and when the book materialises, it should sell itself. Like certain other players at Elland Road, he did it and he got it. By the bitter end he was carrying everyone.

Today? Today he is a slightly sad story, a striker wasted by a misjudged transfer; misjudged on all sides and in every respect. Nobody got what they wanted from that deal, unless Becchio was genuinely driven by the thought of a higher wage.

In two years at Carrow Road he has started five games. Three of those were made on loan at Rotherham United earlier this season. He’s a player who fractured a heel in October and is not match-fit in the truest sense. As possible signings go, this one was founded in hope and hindsight, a default option for a club in jeopardy. It says little for United’s scouting network that in England and in the Championship, Becchio represents the ready-made option.

But he, like Warnock, is indicative of the club’s position in the league. In the circumstances there are bigger pups on the market than a semi-fit Becchio. Simon Grayson found that out in the autumn of 2011. In a straight contest between him and an import from the ranks of Serie B, you play the cards and play the percentages. Where the Championship is concerned, you gamble on the play-offs and risk nothing at all when the stakes are relegation and the consequences that come with it.

It is clear to everyone, and clear to Massimo Cellino apparently, that he misjudged and under-estimated the division when he set about tearing up United’s squad last summer. Whatever he thought he was getting into is not what he encountered.

“The Championship,” he said this week, “makes Serie B look s***. It’s a stronger league than Serie B.”

Which is why, back in April or May, it would have done him good to take advice from people who knew. They’d have seen his strategy and hinted at the trouble Leeds are now in.

Cellino’s manner is singular. He is not a man who likes to be told. Neil Redfearn, United’s head coach, has his thoughts on the January transfer market but the names being given most prominence at Elland Road are not the names put forward by him: Rene Krhin, Leonardo Pavoletti, Edgar Cani, Granddi N’Goyi. Sol Bamba is an isolated example where everyone seems to be on the same page. The urgency in Redfearn’s rhetoric is not being reciprocated either. Halfway through the window, the sum of Leeds’ business is the release of Noel Hunt, the departure of Warnock and the return of Nicky Ajose to Crewe. Those deals are an exercise in saving money.

There is room enough for foreign footballers in the Championship. The lower English leagues are not so unique that players from abroad are doomed to mediocrity. But it has not worked for Cellino this season; not instantly and not at the level of expense and quality he is operating at. His signings might come good in time and the mass of players who joined Leeds in the summer are probably desperate for it but the ship goes down if the club ends up in the backwaters of League One. No-one can pretend that Leeds or their support have a thick enough skin to take that.

When he bought United in April, Cellino spoke a lot about learning: of learning about the league, of learning about England, of learning about a different style of football. He needed the chance to adapt and acclimatise but nine months on you look for signs that lessons are being properly digested. The evidence is not good.

Every rumour and tip indicates that the flawed influx of the summer window will be repeated again this month; that Serie A and Serie B will supplement the squad again. One of the requirements is a target man, the likes of which they sold to Fulham at the start of September. Matt Smith was unsuited to United’s style of play back then, or so it was decided; five months later he would fit in quite well. The thinking there is as joined-up as it was when Leeds went Hockaday-Redfearn-Milanic-Redfearn in the space of 14 league games. Too many decisions have been exposed and found out.

Cellino says his transfer plans and his general focus have suffered from two causes of interference: a transfer embargo (kindly bestowed on Leeds by Gulf Finance House) which limits the range of players United can afford to sign, and the threat of Football League disqualification. That ban, Cellino claims, has prompted several targets to ask if by signing for Leeds they would be joining a club without an owner or a rudder. To which the answer is potentially yes.

But the transfer window is no different to Warnock. Its importance has been inflated by the way in which Leeds stumbled towards it. Warnock was a fixture this season, a footballer chosen on form and merit. As he departs, it becomes apparent that there are no pillars in United’s team; no sure bets or immovable objects. The safest hands are also the youngest. It is not like 2010-11 when six players averaged around 40 league appearances and Ross McCormack couldn’t buy a start. The club is creaking, the wolves are at the door and all the time we wait for the penny to drop.

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Whatever the prevailing view of Stephen Warnock’s transfer to Derby County, there are two positive aspects of his move from Leeds United.

The first is the chance it affords to Charlie Taylor, a left-back who has done his apprenticeship several times over. His senior debut for Leeds came in August 2011 and his loans already number four, two of them long-term. Taylor was beginning to pose the Tom Lees question: at what stage does preaching the virtue of experience elsewhere become disingenuous and a flimsy excuse for a lack of opportunities?

Lees made 96 appearances on loan and won promotion from League Two with Bury. Eventually United had no reason not to blood him.

The same is true of Taylor, pictured right.

If it’s not now for the 21-year-old then it’s probably never.

The gap left by Warnock is also an opportunity for Liam Cooper, a centre-back who ranks among the better signings made by Leeds in the summer. He is 23 and slightly wet behind the ears in the Championship but watch him closely and you’ll find no more vocal member of United’s team.

It might seem to head coach Neil Redfearn that Cooper is his only candidate for the captaincy.

Warnock has gone, Jason Pearce has been usurped already and Rudy Austin said no to the responsibility last season.

But Cooper, pictured far right, has the look of a tidy centre-back and many who knew him at Hull City think he was a victim of the timing of Hull’s promotion to the Premier League, rather than his own ability.

The armband could be the making of him.

All eyes on the Football League as Leeds United wait for the outcome of Massimo Cellino’s appeal against his disqualification.

Both sides will have a view on how Thursday’s hearing went but there is agreement on both sides that the matter needs to be settled at the earliest opportunity.

It is widely expected that the verdict of the Professional Conduct Committee (PCC) will be returned and made public before the end of next week.

Detail about the events of Thursday are a little sketchy. The appeal hearing was held at the London offices of Bird and Bird, the Football League’s lawyers, and Cellino attended in person.

Shaun Harvey, the governing body’s chief executive and once the CEO under former chairman Ken Bates at Leeds, also turned up, though rules about impartiality prevented him from being nominated as one of the two Football League directors included on the PCC.

At Cellino’s last appeal, QC Tim Kerr heard the evidence alone and his reasoned decision ran to 35 pages, taking the best part of two weeks to arrive.

Leeds expect more haste and more speed on this occasion.

So any time now.

Paul Hart

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