Leeds United’s new chief executive says the club’s finances are in better health, they have a “proper” management team and an improved squad ahead of the new Championship campaign. Phil Hay reports.
Football club chief executives no longer have the luxury of hiding behind more visible targets. Ben Mansford, the new Leeds United CEO, was confronted by chants of ‘Mansford Out’ or words to that effect while Barnsley were losing 2-0 away at Scunthorpe United in October. By the end of May, he and the club were milking every minute of a play-off final win.
Experience of volatility and fragile tempers should give him a crucial attribute for any job at Elland Road: thick skin. He jokes that Barnsley’s rise from the League One relegation places to promotion and the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy was down to his lucky suit, a superstition which matches some of Massimo Cellino’s. “Paul Heckingbottom, the Barnsley coach, told me it was all rubbish,” he admits. “He told me it was 11 versus 11 and it didn’t matter what bus we were on or what suit we wore. If we were good enough we’d win.”
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Heckingbottom is right and one of the issues for Mansford – three years in the role of chief executive at Oakwell and now a month into the same job at Elland Road – is whether Leeds, 11 versus 11 in the Championship this season, can compete as head coach Garry Monk wants them to compete. An unusual stake is on the table this year and while Leeds will fall narrowly short of a target of 15,000 season ticket sales by July 31, Cellino and the club have committed to refunding 25 per cent of the money paid by many holders if the play-offs prove out of reach.
“I wouldn’t want to give a figure away but the liability is substantial,” Mansford says. “When the period up to July 31 finishes we’ll work it out exactly but it’s something the owner wanted to pledge. It’s bold, it’s brave and I think it shows his desire to succeed and his passion for winning.
“He wants to put money where his mouth is. We can compete this season and if we don’t, he’s going to have to write a sizeable cheque.”
The attempt to compete has so far consisted of the popular appointment of Garry Monk and much of the coaching team who worked under him at Swansea City and six new signings. Mansford, who worked in the past as an agent for Fabian Delph and Tom Lees and acted for solicitors Walker Morris during the takeovers of Leeds by Gerald Kranser’s consortium and Ken Bates, added a necessary layer of senior management, taking on similar authority to that given to Adam Pearson last summer.
In amongst that, Lewis Cook – the Football League’s young player of the year – was sold to Bournemouth and Leeds have not added to their squad since his exit. So is the investment, the wage bill and the approach in general considered enough for Monk to have a stab at the play-offs?
“The wage bill is high enough,” Mansford says. “It’s high enough when you add in non-financial factors. This is Leeds United. In all but status it’s a top-10 club in this country. That will always turn people’s heads – the fact that someone on the phone is offering an opportunity at Leeds.
“Mixed with that, we’ve got one of the brightest managers of his generation who had great success playing a brand of football which had stadiums packed out in Wales. He’s got Pep (Clotet) and James Beattie with him. There’s the infrastructure at Thorp Arch and the fact that we average crowds of over 20,000 in the Championship. Especially under the lights at Elland Road, I don’t think there’s a more exciting place to play. When you factor all that in, we can recruit a team that’s competitive, definitely.”
Mansford concedes that Leeds are under more pressue when it comes to the squad’s “underbelly”; the depth beneath Monk’s strongest side. “Especially with the emergency loan window departing, a club with parachute payments have a £20m headstart on anyone who hasn’t,” he says. “But I think the squad is competitive and the budget is competitive.
“You get into the debate with fans, and I had this at Barnsley where we ran a sensible ship and stayed within the confines the owner was prepared to support – do they want their club to operate in the black? Some fans do and never want to see their club’s existence challenged. You then have the other extreme which is spend, spend, spend and throw every penny in. It’s not what we can afford to generate, it’s what we can afford to borrow. Go for broke and try and buy success.
“The reward can be huge but so it the risk.”
Yet for some clubs – and many who win promotion from the Championship – that risk pays off. Neither Middlesbrough nor Hull City operated at a profit last season. Bournemouth posted big losses and incurred a Financial Fair Play (FFP) fine after winning the title in 2015. Money is king in United’s league, if not ever a guarantee.
“What you need is something sensible and in the middle,” Mansford says. “You need something that gives you a team that can compete consistently year after year – but not by gambling with the club.”
Mansford’s view of Cellino’s ownership is that he is not endangering its financial health and not in comparison with the way previous owner GFH had. “I came here with Barnsley a couple of years back for Danny Wilson’s first game as manager,” Mansford says.
“I saw David Haigh and other people walking round the pitch before the game. It seemed to be part of a process towards securing more investment. But then you saw a reported loss of £20m-plus and a wage bill of £20m-plus.
“You can see now that we’ve got our wages to a sensible percentage of turnover. That sees the club in a really stable and sustainable position to challenge. Only this week, there’s a takeover at Wolves and talk yesterday of them allegedly making bids of £20m (for Benfica’s Anderson Talisca). How is that sustainable or stable? And what if these owners pull funding? We’ve seen it up the road at Bolton. An owner said ‘enough is enough’.
“The finance out there can create a big challenges but in terms of where Leeds sit financially, I’ve charted the club over the years and charted football in the Championship and I do believe the club’s in as good a place financially as it’s been for a long time.”
Leeds’ last financial results were helped by the sale of Ross McCormack to Fulham. Cook’s departure to Bournemouth brought in an initial fee of £6m. Sales of that nature are not new to Leeds and neither is the question of how the money will be used. “I wouldn’t want to say we’ve got x-amount of money,” Mansford says. “When people think you’ve sold for x and they think y is available, prices get a zero stuck on when you try to buy players. But there is finance available to strengthen.
“We’re trying to have a wage bill and a transfer fund which gives us an opportunity. Lewis was sold for a fair value and that money comes into ensure the club gets better.”
Mansford is philosphical about the transfer of Cook, saying it was completed with a “heavy heart” on both sides. Leeds claimed to have offered Cook a new deal with his contract into its final 12 months but said they were unable to compete with Bournemouth’s cash. “It’s difficult for me to comment because a lot of those conversations took place before I came in,” Mansford says. “What I want to stress is that Lewis cared passionately about Leeds United. A lot of what Lewis felt when he left struck me as being similar to Fabian Delph. If Leeds had got promoted to the Championship (in 2009), I don’t think Fabian would have gone to Aston Villa. He’d have wanted to test himself in the next league up.
“Lewis didn’t want to leave and if there were any circumstances where we could have guaranteed him that in the next year or two he’d be pulling on the Leeds United shirt in the Premier League, I don’t think he’d have been in a rush to go.
“But the Premier League doesn’t come knocking too often for young English players. It was with a heavy heart that we sold him and heavy heart that he left. But the deal was right for all three parties.”
Charlie Taylor, United’s current player of the year, is in a similar boat. Criticised publically by Cellino for refusing to stage contract talks, his deal ends next summer and an extension looks unlikely.
Leeds says Taylor is not willing to renew his contract. But has his situation been well handled? “Charlie’s a really talented young man who’s come through the system and you don’t want to get into public dialogue about it,” Mansford says. “But every now and again he’ll have to answer a direct question and so will we.
“As it stands today, Charlie isn’t going to extend his deal. That’s just a factual situation that’s been apparent for a couple of months. I’d love to paint a more positive picture of that but Charlie just wants to concentrate on his football.”
The message from Elland Road is that Taylor is not for sale in this window. “The owner’s said he’s not going to be sold and he’s the boss,” Mansford says. “Garry definitely doesn’t want him sold and it’s not going to be easy to replace someone of Charlie’s quality.
“When you put all that together, it seems pretty clear.”
Mansford says he is encouraged by both the take-up of season tickets – the highest number sold by Leeds in more than a decade – and the number of sponsorship deals agreed this summer.
One of those sponsors, Crosswater, backtracked on a threat to withdraws its money in protest at Cellino’s ownership and increased its investment instead.
Cellino’s ownership has been a contentious and divisive subject for more than two years but Mansford says the negative portrayal of him is skewed. “What I’d say to the supporters is that Massimo wants the club to succeed,” he says. “All I can do is support that with facts.
“GFH’s last full year in charge saw losses of £20m and that didn’t get us any further up the pyramid. We’ve gone from that to a much smaller loss and we’re growing the sponsor base and the season-ticket base.
“Garry and his staff – that shows significant investment. They’re proper staff in my opinion.
“When I was thinking about coming here I looked at the pros and cons and the appointment of Garry was a real positive – working with a bright young coach.
“There are good things Massimo’s done which are irrefutable but there’s work to do and yeah, mistakes have been made.” Does Cellino acknowledge those mistakes? “That’s a question for him,” Mansford says. “But I’d like to think we’re through a (tough) period now.
“We need to look better and communicate better but in football everything is subservient to results.
“If we win the first six games of the season or, better still, get promoted it doesn’t matter so much if the pies are occasionally a bit cold, or the beer’s a bit warm.
“If a statement’s got a typo in it gets glossed over. I realised that at Barnsley. Going into Christmas we were down at the bottom of the league. There were those singing ‘Mansford Out’ away at Scunthorpe in October but by May, everyone was hugging each other.
“Massimo wants Leeds to succeed. What the senior management team have to do is make sure we equip him to make the best decisions.
“I’m not going to get drawn on things he should get criticism for because it’s the advent of a new season.
“We should all be looking forward.
“But things have gone on. And he wanted help.”