Leeds United’s players are on a promise of a holiday in Las Vegas if this season pays out like a slot machine on The Strip. Their chairman dangled that carrot in front of them and he can rest assured that a deal is a deal. No-one will let him forget about it.
There will be other carrots too, the financial incentives in every contract, and the club’s most recent accounts detailed £16.1m owed in bonuses in the event that Leeds went up last season (not to mention as much as £6.3m due in transfer add-ons). Promotion pays handsomely in an industry where Championship footballers already earn nicely and Vegas, in that sense, would be the appropriate place to bask in it.
Premier League status, though, is as much about the prestige as the money and the realisation that a career in the game has taken a player somewhere close to the top of it. You only had to read between the lines of Barry Douglas’ comments after his transfer to Leeds last summer to understand that his willingness to come did not mean he found it easy to take Wolverhampton Wanderers’ decision to dispense with him. It was not a decision he wanted to take himself.
Douglas grew up in Pollok, a rough-and-ready estate in west Glasgow, and was released from Livingston’s academy at school age. For him, senior football began at Queen’s Park, in front of crowds at Hampden Park so far below its capacity that individual voices echoed around the ground. Last season he was as good as any left-back in the Championship and had the Premier League in front of him. Wolves, unexpectedly, let him go. “This situation has taught me to always expect the unexpected,” Douglas said.
Promotion from the Championship is invariably a slim chance, as Leeds have learned through 15 years of waiting. For individual players, a career in the Premier League can be here one day, gone the next and sometimes gone forever. One of the reasons why Matej Vydra was so sluggish in engaging Leeds last summer was because the move from Derby County would have kept in in the EFL. In his last discussion with the club, face-to-face with chief executive Angus Kinnear, he was asked if he was genuinely enthused by the thought of a transfer to Elland Road and could only say that he had expected offers to come from the top flight. One did eventually, from Sean Dyche and Burnley, but Vydra has been making up the numbers there all season.
Amongst the squad at Leeds, their earning power in the Premier League must feel immaterial at this stage. Only three of their players have experienced the division before (four if one substitute appearance for Tyler Roberts at West Brom in 2016 counts) and the others who have operated at an elite level elsewhere – Kiko Casilla, Pontus Jansson – still occupy the minority. Elland Road, when it comes to it, should be the most fertile environment for winning promotion: a public who would kill for it and keep their whips at the backs of the team, and players whose aspirations to better themselves professionally provide ample motivation. Kemar Roofe came to Leeds after winning promotion from League Two. Liam Cooper was a League One centre-half when he signed in 2014 and Kalvin Phillips has never known United to be anything other than a club who never make it. It is not quite rags to riches but some in Leeds’ dressing room will be pinching themselves at the sight of the chance in front of them.
So, as Wolves found themselves asking about Douglas, which of them would be good enough if Leeds crossed the threshold? Marcelo Bielsa is not entirely sure, admitting this week that his knowledge of the Premier League was not deep enough yet for him to be sure of what Premier League managers need, but he could hardly have been more effusive than saying the players in his squad at Elland Road would have been good enough for the teams he ran at Athletic Bilbao and Marseille.
There was a suspicion at first of a head coach making the right noises at the right time but the reality of Bielsa’s management is that he applies the same tactics everywhere and in every job. He made no allowances for the Championship when he implemented his strategy at Thorp Arch and his squad have not been killed by it. On the contrary, they and Bielsa have related to each other perfectly and if Bielsa takes his brand of football and personality into the Premier League, he is evidently prepared to take many of these players with him.
One comment in particular stood out at his press conference on Monday. “I work a lot so that when a player comes into the starting XI he doesn’t go out of it,” Bielsa said. “Usually the player who plays as a starter stays as a starter.” He is loyal like that; fiercely loyal to footballers who do well for him and to some whose form is being criticised on the outside. Sometimes there are victims of that devotion – Lewis Baker growing tired of his loan at Elland Road in January, Izzy Brown in a situation where, with nine games to go, he has had literally one touch of the ball in a Leeds shirt – but the confidence it generates outweighs the cost. The question when Bielsa first appeared was whether these players were good enough for the Championship. The finest example of their progression since then is the debate now is about whether they would be good enough for the Premier League.