The loan market has a tainted reputation in Leeds. That is to say, supporters of Leeds United hate it. As someone once said of the Romans, what has it ever done for them?
An online blog, The Beaten Generation, keeps a definitive tally of players signed on loan by Leeds since their relegation in 2004. Jerome Thomas is number 72. It is a critique of United’s transfer policy: too many temporary deals over too many years, an ID parade of nine seasons in the Football League.
There are names on the list which contradict the perceived wisdom that loan signings are second-rate signings: Dougie Freedman, Richard Naylor, Max Gradel. The list would read differently too had Leeds found another way of using £10million of profit earned between 2007 and 2011. But the point is well made: squads built on sand are too easily unsettled. A decade of Championship and League One football says as much.
The problem with a heavy reliance on loanees and short-term contracts is that it creates the scenario that Leeds face now; a scenario where December is upon us and five players are not yet sure whether to ask the club for branded diaries for 2013. There were two ways of analysing Saturday’s win at Huddersfield – to admire the relentless pressure of a team who are starting to join the dots or to imagine how that team will look if United make a mess of holding it together.
Three loan players started the game another sat among the substitutes. El-Hadji Diouf, whose permanent deal expires in January, was also on the bench despite the fact that he was injured and would never have played no matter the circumstances. It is unnerving to think that a hole so big could be smashed in United’s squad at the moment when their season is finally finding its thread.
The club’s manager, Neil Warnock, made his requirements for January plain on Thursday: keep Thomas, Diouf, Michael Tonge, Ryan Hall and Alan Tate on board and a new striker is all he will ask for. It is not a doddle of a Christmas list but it should fall within the capability of GFH Capital, United’s new owners. January is a crucial test of the company’s credibility and it will raise eyebrows if demands as realistic as those made by Warnock this week are deemed excessive. Diouf, for example, cannot be allowed to leave, not unless his expectations are ridiculous or Warnock is to be badly undermined. He has turned out for £5,000 a week this season (nice work if you can get it but not a wage which reflects his value) and is due a pay rise.
How highly does Warnock think of him? You can judge that on his decision to name an unfit Diouf as a substitute on Saturday, for no other reason than to intimidate Huddersfield. It is hard to think of a bigger vote of confidence.
Leeds and Diouf have been talking terms for several weeks but December is rolling on. The turn of the month will leave him free to consider his options if he is not considering them already. Quite how much influence GFH Capital is exerting on the club with its takeover pending is difficult to say but the process with Diouf must rank among their priorities.
The slow crawl towards extended deals at Elland Road is one of several reasons why public patience has worn so thin.
Hall is primed for a £150,000 transfer from Southend United next month, a deal which Leeds need only pay to complete, but the retention of Tonge, Thomas and Tate is a less exact science. Assuming that Stoke City have gauged Tonge’s influence and listened to Warnock’s appraisals of him, they will be less likely to make him available on a free transfer than they would have been three months ago. Tate holds a lengthy contract at Swansea City and there is no indication that West Bromwich Albion are in a hurry to shed Jerome from their squad.
It is questionable whether Leeds should be jumping on either player on the basis of two weeks and three appearances at Elland Road but they can prepare for some complex negotiating if they do.
There is, of course, an alternative plan of attack – dispense with all five men and sign different players next month. That approach is plausible in theory but risky in practice, a quick step back to the fragile state that Leeds were in a fortnight ago. New owners notwithstanding, United do not have a good track record of replenishing their squad. Robert Snodgrass would still find room in Warnock’s line-up. There is a sensible time for substantial restructuring and January has never been it.