The uncertainty about the forthcoming cull of players at Leeds United does not only concern those who Paul Heckingbottom has seen at close hand. Beyond the immediate squad are the returning loanees and the forgotten faces who will learn before long whether their faces now fit.
Heckingbottom spent three months analysing the squad he inherited at Elland Road, discovering that the reports of Leeds’ deficiencies were not exaggerated, but there are some who he had no chance to assess: Lewie Coyle at Fleetwood Town, Luke Murphy at Burton Albion, Marcus Antonsson at Blackburn Rovers, Mateusz Klich at Utrecht and Yosuke Ideguchi at Cultural Leonesa.
The fate of Leeds’ more prominent loanees is another subject of debate as the transfer window prepares to open.
Ideguchi is safe, a few months on from his £500,000 move from Gamba Osaka. His loan to Leonesa and Spain’s second division, a move intended to keep him fit and in vogue for Japan’s appearance at the World Cup next month, has done nothing of the sort and Ideguchi last played in February, but Leeds always planned for Ideguchi to ease himself into the Championship next season. At 21, an unfulfilling spell in northern Spain will not count against him.
In the case of Coyle, Leeds’ former development-squad captain, a year with Fleetwood has left him in credit. The club failed to repeat last season’s run to the League One play-offs and Uwe Rosler, the coach who signed him from Leeds, was sacked after Christmas, but Coyle left Fleetwood last weekend with the players’ player-of-the-year award and a supporters’ player-of-the-year award. John Sheridan, Fleetwood’s current manager, said Coyle had been the outstanding player in his short time in charge.
“If I was going to pick a best player while I’ve been here then I’d pick him, just for the way he plays, goes about his job and the way he works,” Sheridan said. “He’s only a young lad but I think a lot of players could look at him and think, ‘I need to be like him’.”
Coyle was sent out of Elland Road last July with that purpose: to prove himself over a full season and to gain the experience of a full season. Having played 23 times for Leeds since 2015, this campaign added 48 first-team appearances to his record and he is part of a three-way fight for the right-back role at United, led by Luke Ayling with Coyle and Gaetano Berardi behind him.
League One was an equally fertile environment for Antonsson, the Swedish striker who Leeds signed from Kalmar in 2016. Antonsson’s first season at Elland Road was bit-part and, having reached the age of 27, he does not have Coyle’s time on his side. When Leeds sent him to Blackburn Rovers on a season-long loan, he was comprehensively surplus to requirement and Blackburn’s deal is believed to have included the option of a permanent move.
Antonsson, though, played 34 times and scored nine goals, contributing to the club’s promotion back to the Championship. His prospects at Leeds are unlikely to improve drastically and he has only 12 months left on this contract, but United were open last summer to the possibility that an improvement during his time with Blackburn might earn him a second chance. As of a fortnight ago, Antonsson was unclear about his future.
“I really don’t know,” he said. “I only know that I have one year left for the deal with Leeds.”
In Antonsson’s favour is the fact that Leeds were tepid up front this season. The signing of a centre forward is a key priority in this summer’s transfer window.
But where Klich and Murphy are concerned, United already have a surplus of players in the centre of midfield.
Murphy was relegated from the Championship with Burton last weekend, the end of his second spell on loan at the Pirelli Stadium.
He has been extraneous at Leeds for two seasons but, owing to a long deal signed while Massimo Cellino was owner, is contracted to Elland Road until 2019. Despite multiple previous chances, Burton manager Nigel Clough promised to fight Murphy’s corner with Heckingbottom.
“I’m going to put a call in to Paul just to make sure he’s aware of how well he’s done for us,” Clough said.
“I think Luke will get a chance at Leeds next season. I hope he does because he’s good enough.”
Of more interest to Heckingbottom might be Klich, the Poland international who was blackballed by former Leeds head coach Thomas Christiansen in the early stages of this season.
A £1.5m signing from FC Twente 11 months ago, Klich recently revealed how Christiansen stopped communicating with him after his error led to a goal in the 3-1 defeat to Cardiff City in September. Klich did not start another league game and was sent to Utrecht in January.
Back on familiar ground in Holland, the midfielder has thrived, looking more like the rangy, creative player who Leeds believed they were signing. He left no doubt that he would fight on at Elland Road after his loan ends this weekend.
“I spoke with them, they want me back,” he told Dutch newspaper AD. “I still have two years on my contract. I have unfinished business there.”