Leeds United: Howson sale reeks of lack of ambition

UNREST: United fans launched protests at the start of this season.
UNREST: United fans launched protests at the start of this season.
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So it’s official – Leeds United are now, first and foremost, a selling club.

The decision to accept an offer, believed to be around £2m from Norwich City, for club captain Jonny Howson merely confirmed what many fans have suspected, and feared, for a number of years now.

I don’t expect the Elland Road heirarchy to understand it but to supporters, cashing in on your club’s playing figurehead – even one with just a few months left to run on his contract – reeks of a lack of ambition.

And when you’re asking supporters to part with hundreds, of pounds of hard-earned cash in these difficult times the very least they expect of their football club is a show of ambition.

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The owner and chairman Ken Bates continues to insist that Leeds United will be a big club again but as far as match-going fans are concerned it is a big club, will always be a big club and one which needs to be in the top-flight.

They grasp the fact there’s no God-given right to Premier League status and they know, from long and bitter experience, that splashing the cash is no guarantee of success, but they expect to return to English football’s top table sooner rather than later.

What makes yesterday’s decision worse is the fact that Howson, aside from having his best years ahead of him, is a local lad, a product of the club’s academy who is proud to wear the famous white kit.

Determined

In short, the 23-year-old is all the things that should ensure he has a long-term future with Leeds and, in turn, perfect for the club’s marketing men and women to cash in on – the United fan on the pitch.

While many other clubs are absolutely desperate to retain and promote, or in some cases find, their local identity, from the outside looking in it seems that Leeds United are as much concerned to turn it into cash.

Judging by the outcry – emails began flooding in to the Yorkshire Evening Post sports desk just after 9am yesterday after the news broke – many of United’s long-suffering supporters feel this is a sale too far.

The club will, quite rightly, argue that Howson was showing no signs of agreeing, never mind signing, a new contract but, unlike the hordes who follow United home and away, the powers that be don’t seem to be asking why?

Not enough money on the table? Not enough ambition in the boardroom? Not enough quality on the pitch?

You could speculate forever really but my guess is Howson, an England Under-21 international, expected – like most fans – the club to set their stall out to ensure that last season’s play-off near miss was turned into a determined charge for promotion in 2011-12.

Yes, he wants to play in the Premiership but which professional footballer wouldn’t? And I suspect the lad from Morley would have preferred – like his manager Simon Grayson – to do that with Leeds.

The club’s inability to agree new deals with players is an ongoing and maybe even a worsening problem with the likes of Jermaine Beckford, Bradley Johnson, Neil Kilkenny, Max Gradel and now Howson all departing because United were unwilling, or unable, to meet their demands and retain their services.

Where Mr Bates sees sustainable, fans see tight; where he sees profitable, supporters see a lack of investment in the playing squad and when he talks of trying to find investors, fans now switch off. He’s coming up to seven years in charge and no white knight has ridden over the horizon waving bundles of cash in the club’s direction despite lots and lots of talking about it.

Talk, as the old adage goes, is cheap. And what good are expensive ground improvements while the team shows very few signs of real progress this term?

Many supporters who contact the YEP still point to what they saw as a catastrophic failure during last January’s transfer window when the club failed to capitalise on second place in the Championship table at Christmas by making a couple of quality permanent signings to enable Grayson’s charges to kick on.

Fast forward to last summer and Gradel, United’s player of the year the season before, was sold on the final day of the August transfer window and no adequate replacement was brought in.

That, as far as fans are concerned at least, confirmed that Grayson was going to have to compete for promotion – against rivals like West Ham and Leicester who were throwing money at new signings – with one arm tied behind his back.

Is United’s budget big enough or could more money be hived off to help Grayson bolster his squad the YEP’s chief football writer Phil Hay asked the chairman last August, as anti-Bates protests threatened to take hold.

“Our wage bill is one of the highest in the league,” he replied. “I’d estimate that it’s in the upper levels of the top six and only lower than two or three clubs – West Ham for example.

“But I’m told that Leicester City, for all their billions, have imposed a wage cap, and their owners have said that they simply won’t spend more than ‘x’.

“FIFA are implementing rules on financial fair play and clubs are starting to realise that they have to live within their means. We already do that and it’s how any successful club should operate. It’s a proper financial system which is starting to catch on.

“At the moment we’re spending as much (on players) as we can afford. If we spend any more and lose money then who covers that?”

No Leeds fan wants to see a return to the dark, desperate days of League One, but if your existing playing assets go and you don’t add to the squad, can you really expect any team, or any organisation for that matter, to progress?

Little wonder that many United fans are losing faith and see the sales of talisman Robert Snodgrass, Aidy White, another local lad who has so far turned down a new contract, popular midfielder Adam Clayton and leading scorer Ross McCormack as almost inevitable this summer.

The loss of Howson – days before the expiry of a season-ticket renewal offer from the club – looks like another own goal and will surely only deepen the unease that already exists between the slowly dwindling number of fans and Mr Bates.

Incidentally, before Howard Wilkinson’s £3m spending spree finally ended United’s previous eight-year absence from the former Division One attendances at Elland Road had ebbed away to the low teens.

If you take away hope and ambition from your fans, what’s left?