Massimo Cellino returns to Leeds United next week to deal with a club who, in his words, have more problems than they did when he took his medicine from the Football League three months ago.
A big summer awaits the Italian, a window in which he can roll back the tide of exasperation at Elland Road or sink further in. “I’ve got so much to think about,” he told the YEP during a brief conversation on Monday. In the final column of the season, Inside Elland Road looks at five ways in which Cellino can make the summer work
1) Lift the club’s FFP transfer embargo
United’s breach of Financial Fair Play rules is currently under review and the club have submitted interim accounts to the Football League in the hope of demonstrating that they are now compliant with Championship regulations.
Back in January, chairman Andrew Umbers said the embargo which Leeds traded under in January would “definitely” be lifted, despite the fact that clubs were limited to a maximum loss of £6m during the 2014-15 season – including shareholder investment of no more than £3m. It’s no secret that in the 2013-14 year, Leeds lost almost £23m. For all of the flexibility of FFP embargoes, a club’s hands are tied when they are limited to signings loanees or free agents for a top wage of £11,000 a week. In short, United’s transfer strategy would be their own without an embargo – and on the basis that Championship clubs are allowed to lose up to £13m next season, the challenge to comply will ease from here on. The Football League was asked by the YEP to comment on Leeds’ existing embargo earlier this week. It did not respond.
2) Take a rapid decision on the position of head coach
There’s a weight of support behind Neil Redfearn, as Cellino must know and as the crowd will demonstrate if he decides to attend today’s game against Rotherham. Cellino is in the realms of shooting Bambi but a decision on Redfearn is his to make, popular or not. What he can’t allow is a repeat of last year when he and Brian McDermott communicated through solicitors until finally deciding to part company at the end of May. Cellino then took the best part of a month to single out David Hockaday as his preferred head coach. The bottom line with Redfearn is this: it’s not enough for Cellino to decide that the 49-year-old is toast. For the sake of his own reputation, he would have to justify that call with a swift appointment which is credible and shows conviction. He would also need to ensure that Leeds’ academy is able to operate successfully, unless Redfearn is actually open to the idea of resuming his old job. As ever, sacking people is the easy part. But what comes next and when?
3) Be ruthlessly honest with the retained list
If Leeds decide to take Redfearn’s recommendations on board, they will release or transfer-list as many players as they keep. United’s head coach is understood to have submitted his version of a retained list and his advice reflects the fact that in and amongst their better periods, United’s squad have lost 20 league games this season. This is where a strong management team would come in – owner, sporting director and head coach with their heads together, separating the gold from the pyrite. Sol Bamba is a definite keeper. Edgar Cani, to name but one, looks as out of place as Habib Habibou did before him. Of the 15 players who signed last summer, some have coped far better than others in the Championship and the distinction should not be difficult to make.
Besides anything else, United have 11 midfielders – not counting Kalvin Phillips and Chris Dawson – and they will do themselves a favour by trimming the bloated areas back.
It would help the mood in the dressing room for one thing.
4) Establish a clear style and formation
The Championship is a case of horses-for-courses. Bournemouth like to use Callum Wilson alone up front with a three-man midfield in behind him. Watford prefer playing Almen Abdi as support for a front two. Middlesbrough are a 4-2-3-1 side and have been for as long as Aitor Karanka has managed them, while Norwich City tend to be more flexible.
No system is perfect but all four clubs have the benefit of round pegs in round holes. One of the reasons why the diamond midfield was so erratic for Leeds was that amongst their choices of No 10s, none were comparable to a player as punishing as Abdi. Defending against it was often straightforward.
Leeds have been far more effective since the turn of the year but were still dependent on full-backs doubling as wingers and goals coming from players other than their strikers. Redfearn, known to think highly of Rotherham’s Ben Pringle and Burnley’s Ross Wallace, has long bemoaned the lack of width in his side. He’s not wrong.
5) Make good the promise of the season ticket campaign
United’s line-up on the final day of last season was this: Butland, Pugh, Lees, Pearce, Wootton, Tonge, Brown, Austin, Murphy, McCormack, Smith.
However difficult this season has been, it’s fair to argue that the spine of the existing first team has more flair and energy than it did back then (McCormack’s goals excepted).
The dressing room at Leeds is not bare – but it will be if Leeds start caving in and taking money in exchange for their young players. “A real future,” their season ticket promotion promised, and the four of Cook, Mowatt, Taylor and Byram make that message tenable. The best way to start the summer? New contracts for them.