The financial disparity between Leeds United and the clubs who were once their peers is never more pronounced than when one or other of England’s cup competitions produces a tie like Sunday’s.
Neil Warnock’s record signing at Elland Road – defender Lee Peltier – cost somewhere in the region of £800,000. There are players in the Premier League who earn as much in a month and some at Tottenham Hotspur who are not far behind; a different league in more ways than one.
But even in the Championship the playing field is less than level. Chris Waddle, the former Spurs winger and a player who cost almost £5million at a time when that figure meant something, looks at Leeds and sees a club whose spending power opens few doors. Promotion matters more to Leeds than progression in the FA Cup this weekend but Waddle does not speak like a man who would put his house on either possibility.
The prevailing view of United’s situation is that they have much to do both in terms of rectifying the Championship table and exploiting a transfer window which in 23 days has shown little sign of taking off. The vital month, as Warnock once called it, is fast becoming a vital week with next Thursday’s deadline drawing close.
“I see a lot of Championship football through watching Sheffield Wednesday,” Waddle said. “It’s a very unpredictable league and only Cardiff City are running away with it. Everybody else is much of a muchness.
“Neil Warnock knows that better than anybody, having got out the division with Sheffield United and QPR. He always brings in players who other clubs might not want to take a chance on but he gets the best out of them.
“The big picture, though, is that some clubs are paying a lot more money for players than Leeds can. Whether you get promoted is often down to the right finances and the right backing. When teams like Southampton and Norwich went up, people looked at them and wondered how. But they were paying decent wages.
“Leeds are a big club and obviously things have gone the wrong way for them. They’re determined to get back to the promise land but it’s frustrating for the club and the fans because you can only do what you’re allowed to do financially.”
Investment in the squad at Elland Road has been a sore point for several years. In recent weeks, the attention of disgruntled supporters has focused more keenly on Warnock and his players, despite the run of six straight home wins which is keeping Leeds in sight of the Championship’s last play-off position.
In all, United have suffered only four defeats at home this season and one of those against Chelsea in the Capital One Cup. The fact that Sunday’s FA Cup fourth-round tie is bringing Spurs to Leeds offers more chance of an upset than it might have done had United been sent to White Hart Lane. Their most recent away victory under Warnock came on December 1; their last before that on September 29.
The upshot of that contrast has been a consistent position beneath the Championship’s top six. The fear that another season might be slipping away boiled over at Barnsley 10 days ago as Warnock faced calls from United’s supporters for him to be sacked.
His squad dampened the mutinous mood by grinding out a 1-0 win over Bristol City on Saturday.
“It’s strange for the fans to be getting on the manager’s back after such good home form,” Waddle said.
“Often the frustration of indifferent away form can boil over. Teams are winning at home and moving up a couple of places then the following week they go away from home, lose a game and drop back down two or three places.
“I empathise. It’s always baffled me. A pitch is the same size, home or away.
“Pitches are so good these days there’s no difference in standards. I don’t understand it.”
Warnock was critical of the pitch at Elland Road after United’s win over Bolton Wanderers on New Year’s Day but it might not disappoint him if Tottenham are forced to cope with a rough and uneven surface.
There are few squads more suited to slick, flowing football than Andre Villas-Boas’ – Waddle called them “one of the best counter-attacking teams on the continent” – and the Spurs manager is not renowned for fielding heavily weakened line-ups in meaningful cup games.
“The early stages of his tenure at White Hart Lane have restored a reputation savaged during his short time at Chelsea.
“He’s got Spurs playing the Tottenham way,” Waddle said. “He’s got them playing in that certain attacking way. Spurs have got a good thing going at the minute.
“I don’t judge him (Villas-Boas) on his time at Chelsea. I judge him on the very good job he did at Porto and what he’s doing now at Tottenham. It was a brave decision to appoint him but he’s fully merited it.
“For me, they’re only one or two players away from being a top side and going from strength to strength, and if you ask Villas Boas then he’ll be taking (Sunday’s tie) seriously. He’s never really rested players in any cup games and he’ll be desperate to have some success on his CV.
“We’re in for a cracking tie and Tottenham would be a big scalp for Leeds. They’ve already beaten Southampton and Everton in the League Cup. All right, Chelsea gave them a good going over, but why not?
“You know for definite that Neil Warnock will have his team up for the game. He always does. But if Tottenham perform to the best of their abilities then Leeds will have to play very well to get something out of them.”
ESPN will air live and exclusive coverage of Leeds’ FA Cup clash against Spurs on Sunday from 11am. ESPN is also searching for fans’ all-time favourite FA Cup moments at espn.co.uk/facuppoll