In the eyes of Eddie Gray, Sam Byram’s exit from Leeds United would not just be a case of history repeating itself. Gray’s concern is that this sale is destined to be followed by others like it until Leeds escape from the Championship.
Byram’s proposed move to the Premier League was, in part at least, the product of messy contract talks between him and United owner Massimo Cellino, but the club’s track record of selling valuable players goes back beyond Cellino’s takeover. Fabian Delph, Jonny Howson and Max Gradel left Elland Road while Ken Bates was running Leeds. Robert Snodgrass – a winger who Gray calls “the best player we’ve had in 10 years – joined Norwich City in the dormant summer when Bates was selling Leeds to Gulf Finance House.
Departures like those and that of Byram beg the question of who might be next and Gray, United’s former player, coach and manager, is certain that others will tread the same path if Leeds cannot fight their way into the Premier League.
“This is going to happen again,” Gray told the YEP. “Nothing’s going to change until the club gets back to the Premier League. It’s not what people want to here, but it’s a fact.
“You can talk about money but I don’t think Sam’s thinking about money. He’s on a good contract at Leeds. He’ll be thinking about getting to the highest level – the same as Delph, the same as Howson, the same as someone like Snodgrass, who’s the best player we’ve had here in 10 years. They didn’t go because they don’t like it at Leeds. Anyone who thinks that is wrong. I honestly believe that they loved being at the club but in the end they wanted to further their careers.
“Whatever’s gone on behind the scenes, I didn’t really expect Sam to sign a new contract, not if the club were still in the Championship. It doesn’t look like the team are going up this year. Are they going to go up next year? There’s a lot of work to do. He’s 22 and it’s better to make the break at that age than it is when you’re 26, 27.”
Byram has not spoken publicly about his contract for many months but it is common knowledge that talks with Leeds led to a bitter fall-out with Cellino. United initially tried to cut Byram’s £12,000-a-week wage – an offer he rejected flatly – and then proposed last month to match his current salary and extend his deal to June 2017. The 22-year-old declined again.
Leeds subsequently decided to listen to offers for him in January with his contract into its last six months and a £3.7m bid from Everton was accepted on Thursday.
Byram missed United’s defeat at Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday and held talks with Everton the following day but he avoided a quick decision and reported into Thorp Arch for training with Leeds this morning. A source at Leeds said he was “thinking it all through” and West Ham United have moved to steal him from Everton by matching their £3.7m offer.
Byram, a former player-of-the-year at Elland Road, has made almost 150 appearances for Leeds and is three-and-a-half years on from his senior debut. Gray said: “People ask ‘will he be good enough for the Premier League?’ I think he’s got the ability. What you have to have as well is the confidence and belief to back yourself to go higher. Otherwise it’s a waste of time being a player. He’s not played particularly well this season, although he’s been better recently, but you could put that down to problems and his contractual situation. When he plays well you can spot his talent and clubs know talent when they see it.
“At the start of this season we all felt quite optimistic about a push for the play-offs. Now we’re down in 17th again and you can’t see it happening. Sam’s got an opportunity and I know why he’d want to take it. If he stays for another year, is there any guarantee of him going up with this club? It’s disappointing for the supporters and it’s disappointing for me because I don’t want to see players like that going. But it’s the reality.
“I’ve said before that I’d be disappointed if any of our players didn’t want to play in the Premier League. If they don’t want to play in the Premier League then where’s the ambition? Deep down the supporters are the same. If they were playing then they’d want to play for Leeds. But after a while, they’d want to be going to play at Old Trafford, the Emirates, Anfield. It’s all about getting as close as you can to the top.”
United’s current squad is awash with footballers from their academy and seven, including Byram, were named in the squad for their recent FA Cup tie against Rotherham. The most prominent of them, Alex Mowatt, Charlie Taylor and Lewis Cook, are all into the last 18 months of their contracts. Like Byram, who would earn Leeds a fee of around £2m in compensation in the summer if he remained at Elland Road this month, they will all be below the age of 24 when those contracts run out.
Taylor said after Saturday’s defeat at Hillsborough that he expected the rest of Leeds’ squad to remain intact this month: “The only thing I can see is probably strengthening now in January.”
Gray disputed that the defection of leading players from Elland Road called their loyalty into question: “Players do owe clubs loyalty, but you’ve got to be loyal to yourself too.
“You’ve got to try to prove yourself and to go as far as you can go. With the likes of Lewis Cook, when he goes away on England duty he must look at some of the other players and think ‘I’d like to be at that level’.
“Sam’s situation could have been dealt with better and could have been dealt with a while ago but I didn’t think he’d take a new deal. It comes down to the position the club are in – and that’s not the Premier League.”