Leeds United’s interest in Milos Veljkovic, the 19-year-old Serbian who plays for Tottenham, says something about the way in which the club is changing.
The approach to loan him was as pragmatic as Leeds’ subsequent decision not to sign him.
Veljkovic is contrary to Massimo Cellino’s idea of a good transfer. The teenager was available to loan from Spurs but not to buy, either now or when his loan expired. He is “someone else’s player”, as Cellino likes to say, and a signing who would only have been passing through Elland Road.
Cellino’s attitude towards loanees who are offered around without the option of a permanent transfer is, or was, entrenched. “You’re paying money to train a player for another club,” he argues. Brandon Barker, Jordi Hiwula and other kids linked with Leeds this summer; these youngsters do not appeal to United’s owner. The club have first refusal on Tom Adeyemi next summer so the deal to sign him on loan from Cardiff City was far more attractive.
There is a certain amount of validity in Cellino’s thinking. To take two examples from last season, Patrick Bamford and Alex Pritchard did great things in the Championship but left Middlesbrough and Brentford in the same league and were never rejoining either club this summer. The long-term value of their impact is somewhat moot and Boro’s attempt to pay handsomely for Jordan Rhodes was primarily down to the vacuum of goals which Bamford’s return to Chelsea created.
But the loan market has its merits and the fact that Veljkovic was targeted by Leeds at all points to a softening of Cellino’s stance (which is not to suggest that he is now a convert). United asked to take the midfielder on a month-long deal initially, to provide cover more than anything. Uwe Rosler lost two midfielders to knee operations last month and Veljkovic can also play as a centre-back – a position where Leeds have just three senior players (four if Scott Wootton is not needed elsewhere) and where question marks linger from last season.
United expected to sign Veljkovic but the transfer ran into trouble last week. Leeds resisted pressure from Spurs to agree a half-season loan and promise Veljkovic regular appearances during his time at Elland Road.
Temporary arrivals from the Premier League often come with the caveat of guaranteed games.
Back in 2011, Jake Livermore was strongly rumoured to have been given a nod and a wink before joining United on loan from Spurs. He went back to London with the odd distinction of having being substituted at half-time in both of his last two outings.
It is reassuring to think that Uwe Rosler and Leeds preferred to pull back and let Veljkovic slide in the interests of supporting their own midfield. The club have flair in that area of the pitch and relative experience too. However much craft Veljkovic brings to the table, he has nothing like the appearances amassed by existing United players of a similar age. Rosler touched on that quality after Saturday’s draw with Burnley. “They are young,” the German said, “but they are already experienced in a way.” They deserve better than a pecking order established by contractual negotiations.
Little by little Leeds give the impression of a club who are seeing the bigger picture. Two things stood out during their game against Burnley. Above all else, Rosler’s team were fit, competitive and schooled in their tactics. But in spite of that, they were also extremely young; an average age of 23 across the starting line-up and 21 amongst United’s front six. If Rosler’s input has impressed so far, consider how far he is sticking his neck out by banking so heavily on raw potential in one of the Football League’s most volatile jobs.
Rosler doesn’t necessarily see his work in those terms. “My biggest challenge was to stay alive when I had cancer,” he said when asked on Saturday if he’d ever taken on anything more dangerous than Leeds United. But his job encourages natural nervousness. The pressure of it must tempt coaches to play it safe. The conclusion to be drawn from the age of Rosler’s team is that he thinks he has time to make it work.
He thinks, also, that Leeds and Cellino are starting to look further down the line. “With our financial situation improving, each year we can try to bring in two or three players like a Chris Wood,” he said. “Then we will have a team which will get to the next level and which can stay at the next level.” For a club with a certain budget, you’d call that boxing clever. It’s boxing clever in comparison to the flood of 15 players who arrived en masse last summer.
The lie of the land is such that it’s tempting to believe the rhetoric, for the first time in a long time. Regardless of whether Adam Pearson, United’s executive director, was overplaying his hand last week by claiming Leeds at present remind him of Leeds in the late 1990s, there is a project in play at Elland Road. If it clicks this season, certain people will get the keys to the city. If it doesn’t, United’s squad should not be prone to falling apart like a house of cards. It’s the difference between a club who need Premier League loanees to survive and a club who can take them or leave them.