The question of who Steve Evans will sign this month is counterbalanced by the question of who he might lose. Sam Byram and Liam Bridcutt will appear against MK Dons tomorrow, potentially for the last time in Leeds United colours.
Conceivably, too, Bridcutt and Byram could both be on the books at Elland Road when Leeds wrap up their season in May. Bridcutt’s emergency loan from Sunderland ends this weekend but Evans wants to extend it until the summer, with a view to signing him permanently. A big offer would take Byram elsewhere in January but his contract runs to July and the promise of compensation means United can be picky.
Doubt hangs over the two players who were most influential for Evans in December, a period which is certain to put United’s head coach in contention for the manager-of-the-month award. Leeds were dismal on Bridcutt’s debut at QPR but have not been beaten in six matches since then. Byram scored three times last month, produced two assists and – with unfortunate timing – made himself look like the forward Uwe Rosler thought he could be at the start of the season.
Byram, who has been scouted by Aston Villa and linked with Liverpool in the past few weeks, had an emotional look about him when he left the field towards the end of Tuesday’s 2-2 draw with Derby County but Evans says there is currently no deal in place to sell him.
Leeds’ head coach prefers the idea of cashing in on Byram quickly rather than waiting until his deal ends on June 30 but there was never any clear suggestion that Derby might be Byram’s final appearance, 139 games on from his first.
The 22-year-old, who has recovered from a dead leg, is in fine form and Leeds need a victory over MK Dons tomorrow to keep the play-offs within view.
“Until (Massimo) Cellino phones me up and tells me that Sam is being sold, I’ll continue to pick him,” Evans said. “I’m quite relaxed about the situation.
“The reason I’m picking him is nothing to do with his contract or anything else. It’s down to his form. The reason he didn’t play for a few weeks a while back was because I wasn’t seeing the performances in training I needed to see from him.
“But he’s worked his game up and he’s a fantastic professional. I take a lot of interest in the Prozone stats and in two of the last three games he’s covered more distance than any other player by a quite distance. His attitude’s spot on and he’s been big for us.
“I’m able to separate the football side of things from the non-football side but I made the effort to get (contract) talks going between Sam’s people and the club because I didn’t think the lack of communication was helping. Maybe the previous head coach (Rosler) lacked the confidence to go in and have a frank discussion with Mr Cellino but it needed to be done and even though there hasn’t been an agreement, Sam’s looked much happier in himself.”
Bridcutt must also be happier for a period of football which has contrasted with much of his career at Sunderland.
He had not played this season before Evans signed him in November but he has settled into an out-and-out defensive midfield position at Elland Road and Leeds have taken 12 points from seven games with Bridcutt in the team.
The midfielder looks like an asset which Evans cannot afford to lose and United’s boss is quietly confident that he will get his way with Sunderland.
The Premier League club want to sell Bridcutt to fund other transfers but Leeds remain intent on extending his loan to the end of the season. Much like Byram, Bridcutt’s future this month is likely to depend on who offers what for him. Evans has said many times that United and Sunderland have a “gentleman’s agreement” for Bridcutt to remain at Elland Road until May. The worry for Evans – aside from the possibility of substantial rival bids for him – might be that once Bridcutt’s loan ends tomorrow, Sunderland could delay in committing to a second loan until the back end of the transfer window.
Leeds have time to work with, however, and do not contest another league game until their visit to Ipswich Town on January 12.
“I can’t say I don’t have any concern about it but I’m not panicking either,” Evans said. “I know we’ve got a gentleman’s agreement with Sunderland and I’d like to think that will stay in place. But I know that could change if someone makes them or Liam a massive offer. If that happens then I’ll shake his hand and wish him well.
“Out of everyone, I’ve probably got the least control over this. A lot of it’s down to Sunderland and Sam Allardyce (Sunderland’s manager) but I’ve asked Liam if he wants to stay and he’s told me ‘100 per cent’.
“You can’t praise his performances highly enough and he’s done what I said he’d do when I signed him. But I’m aware of one or two other players out there who could do the same job for me if that’s how it goes. I’m not saying I want to go down that road and I’d love Liam to stay but we’re not going to get caught out.”
Sunderland signed Bridcutt from Brighton in 2014 for a fee of around £3m. Brighton, where Bridcutt spent four seasons and contributed significantly to a progressive spell for the Sussex club, are one of the sides believed to be interested in signing him permanently in this window.