Phil Hay assesses the situation at Elland Road as he looks at which players are likely to depart at the end of the Championship season.
Saturday’s win over Blackpool was the end of Leeds United’s season in a competitive sense. The play-offs long gone, relegation is no longer a problem either – unless Millwall can conjure a 10-point swing and negate a pitiful goal difference in the space of four games.
The implausible mathematics have given Leeds and their new owner the strange luxury of planning ahead without overlooking more immediate priorities. Brian McDermott could find that the surgery performed by Massimo Cellino cuts as deeply as him and his coaching staff this summer but United’s playing squad is a more complex puzzle for the Italian.
McDermott will plan to publish his retained list in the next fortnight, releasing up to nine senior professionals at the end of their contracts, but comprehensive changes to the squad at Elland Road will require more effort. Cellino’s insistence that Leeds, as a group of players, are better than their results will not stop a concerted attempt to restructure the dressing room before the start of next season.
The club have a wage bill of around £20m and the vast majority of the players who have appeared regularly this season are under contract until 2015 and beyond. Those who stand to become free agents in July include Danny Pugh, Michael Brown, El-Hadji Diouf and Jamie Ashdown. Most of the rest are so peripheral that McDermott dispatched them on loan weeks ago – Paul Green, Luke Varney, Gboly Ariyibi and Adam Drury.
United’s manager will also lose loanees Jack Butland and Jimmy Kebe, though there were suggestions prior to Cellino’s takeover that a permanent deal for Butland would be possible once the Italian completed his buy-out. Stoke City paid around £3m for Butland at the start of 2013. But the core of Leeds’ squad, no fewer than 12 members of it, have deals until the end of the 2014-15 season. Six of them played against Blackpool on Saturday.
There are some on that mass who McDermott would choose to keep and potentially offer extended contracts. Matt Smith has scored 11 goals in his first year in the Championship but is tied to United for another 12 months. Rudy Austin, whose has appeared 40 times since August, is also a year away from running out of contract. Others like David Norris, who was injured for much of this season but has not played in a single league game, can expect to be made available as Leeds try to clear out Thorp Arch.
In an interview with the YEP last week, Cellino appeared to imply that he was minded to give the players at Leeds the benefit of the doubt created by their mid-table position in the league.
“We have players who can win,” he said. “They have to show me now what we’re going to do next year. I want them to show me that they’re real players. But I believe that they can be good.
“Don’t forget with players, if they don’t like to win, if they don’t care about winning, they won’t ever win. They can be the best in the world and they won’t ever win. But someone else is watching the games now. I’m watching.”
The assumption with Cellino is that his vision for United will involve an influx of transfers from abroad, and several from Italy. The 57-year-old wanted to make as many as seven signings on the day of the January transfer deadline but amid unprecedented chaos at Elland Road, he failed to finalise any of them.
At the time, Italian media reported that Danilo Avelar, a Brazilian midfielder, was set to join Leeds from Cellino’s Italian club Cagliari but the paperwork was unfinished as the 11pm deadline passed. Cellino thought he had pushed through a loan deal for Andrea Tabanelli and the 24-year-old travelled to England from Sardinia, only to spend several days holed up in a hotel while the Football League considered whether his transfer had been properly completed. The governing body refused to sanction the move.
The link between Leeds and Avelar resurfaced last weekend, with Avelar admitting that he “had my suitcase ready” to come to Elland Road in January. Speaking after a 1-1 draw between Cagliari and Sussulo, Avelar was quoted as saying: “Was I close to Leeds in January? That’s true, I had my suitcase ready but I’m happy to still be here (at Cagliari) and to be able to help the team to escape (relegation).”
Cellino flew back to his home in Miami after United’s win over Blackpool but he was at Elland Road for four days last week. He and McDermott spoke for a few hours on Thursday and Cellino spent time with Luke Dowling, United’s chief scout in waiting, to discuss the current squad and recruitment in the summer.
Leeds tried to appoint Dowling officially almost a year ago but his employment was delayed by the negotiation of a severance from his previous role at Blackburn. Sources at Elland Road say an ongoing legal dispute with Gwyn Williams, United’s former technical director, further complicated their plan to bring Dowling on board.
Dowling has remained close to Leeds in the meantime, however, and Cellino gave him a vote of confidence, saying: “He’ll be close to me. We talk the same language, soccer language.
“What we need now is organisation because we’ve got next season to think about. We’ve got pre-season, season tickets, players. Everything has to be done and that’s the work we have – after the emergencies.”
United dealt with two emergencies last week by settling a tax bill and paying wages deferred by their playing staff at the end of March. Rent for Elland Road and Thorp Arch – due quarterly – was also paid late but paid nonetheless.
Funding from Eleonora Sport, the company behind Cellino’s 75 per cent takeover of Leeds, has lifted some of the immediate pressure on the club, though United face other heavy costs. David Haigh, who last week resigned as United managing director, has more than £1.5m invested in Leeds. The money was understood to be due for repayment within 21 days of Cellino formally completing his takeover. His buy-out went through on April 8.
Cellino, the owner and president of Cagliari since 1992, said: “We have things besides money. It’s not just money. We’re bringing much more than that here. My experience and skills – I will bring them here.”
Leeds United players out of contract:
2014 - Jamie Ashdown, Alex Cairns, Danny Pugh, Adam Drury, Michael Brown, El-Hadji Diouf, Paul Green, Gboly Ariyibi, Luke Varney.
2015 - Paddy Kenny, Aidan White, Stephen Warnock, Lee Peltier, Zac Thompson, Marius Zaliukas, Rodolph Austin, Michael Tonge, David Norris, Noel Hunt, Matt Smith, Dominic Poleon.
2016 - Tom Lees, Jason Pearce, Scott Wootton, Steve Morison, Sam Byram, Luke Murphy, Chris Dawson.
2017 - Ross McCormack, Alex Mowatt, Cameron Stewart.