In better times, the loss of Stephen Warnock would follow modern-day logic which says a high-earning player who turned 33 before Christmas and has six months left on his deal is someone Leeds United can afford to release.
The door closing on Warnock opens another for Charlie Taylor, a left-back 12 years his junior and a self-produced member of the squad at Leeds. They would call this forward-planning at a safe and stable club but United are neither and Warnock’s departure is made to feel like the right move at precisely the wrong time.
His impending transfer to Derby County came down to money, which is not unusual at Elland Road. At 33, Warnock will take up a contract for at least 18 months at Pride Park and in the absence of any offer to extend his deal with Leeds, the defender wanted the move. United as a club seem happy to nudge him off the wage bill and trust in Taylor’s talent, much as head coach Neil Redfearn was in no rush to move Warnock on.
The left-back’s career at Leeds was undistinguished – mediocre, almost – until this season but in the past five months Warnock has discovered some old and fluent form. He was as close as Leeds had to an automatic choice, despite owner Massimo Cellino doubting whether Warnock was the answer to Championship wingers.
Perceived mistakes made by Warnock during losses to Brighton and Watford in the opening month of the season annoyed the Italian, and Warnock in turn came to believe that his place in United’s team was being threatened from the very top. But after meeting to smooth the waters in early October, his inclusion went unquestioned. When Redfearn felt the need to replace Jason Pearce as captain, the armband went to Warnock.
The former Liverpool trainee is expected to join Derby before the end of this week, provided the results of a medical do not show severe problems with the ankle he injured during Leeds’ 2-0 defeat at Pride Park on December 30. A scan arranged by Leeds last week revealed that the damage was minor.
Robbie Blake, the former Leeds striker who has worked as a pundit for Radio Yorkshire this season, said Warnock’s consistency and experience would be “sadly missed” by a club whose fight against relegation grows ever more anxious.
“I don’t think the club are in a position to lose someone like Steve,” Blake told the YEP. “Not with the way things are.
“I’ve watched Leeds all season and left-back’s probably been the one position they’ve never had to worry about. He nailed it down and it feels like they’re taking him out of it at a bad time.
“Charlie Taylor’s looked decent and he impressed me at Bolton (on Saturday) but he’s a young lad. I’m not questioning his ability because he’s obviously got it. I’m questioning whether it’s right or fair for him to be the only left-back at the club, considering the circumstances Leeds are in.
“It’s putting a lot of pressure on his shoulders and you can’t call it good pressure. Good pressure is when you’re thrown into a team who are playing well, going for promotion.
“At the moment, Leeds are in a lot of trouble. Everyone can see that. It doesn’t seem like a good time to be getting rid of someone like Steve – an experienced guy in a team which is pretty young in the main. But that’s just me.”
The perplexion caused by Warnock’s planned move to Derby was as much to do with the absence of incoming signings as it was with the transfer itself. In their current state – 21st in the Championship, protected from the bottom three by a margin of only two points – it did not stand to reason that United would spend time weakening their squad before they got round to reinforcing it.
The club’s focus on incoming moves or, more accurately, their ability to finalise them waned while Cellino was in Miami over Christmas and New Year but he returned to England over the weekend and was back at Elland Road on Sunday.
In amongst everything else, his appeal against the Football League’s attempt to disqualify him as owner of Leeds will be heard by a three-man panel in London tomorrow – a hearing Cellino will attend personally – but United have made enquiries about numerous players in the past fortnight.
They approached Sassuolo to discuss the signing of striker Leonardo Pavoletti and enquired about Inter Milan midfielder Rene Krhin but both of those deals appear to have gone cold. The wages expected by Pavoletti, who was in Leeds last month and attended the club’s Boxing Day defeat to Wigan Athletic, are understood to be more than United are able or willing to pay. Leeds remain under a transfer embargo, full of loopholes though it is.
Redfearn, whose preference is for signings with a track record of playing in the Championship, has asked for the arrival of Luciano Becchio on loan from Norwich City but that option is not being actively pursued at present.
In the meantime, the names of other forwards targeted by Leeds’ sporting director, Nicola Salerno, have emerged: Bulgarian Andrey Galabinov, who plays for Livorno in Serie B, and Catania’s Edgar Cani, a 6ft 4in Albanian forward.
“It’s vital that new players come in,” said Blake, “but the club need players who know the score in this league. They need a bit of inspiration and leadership, lads who can rattle cages when they need rattling and keep everyone going.
“I’m not going to slate the squad because I actually think there are good players in it. The bench at Bolton was pretty strong and guys like Adryan didn’t even make the bench. The pace of Lewis Cook and Sam Byram is going to do damage but when the team have their backs against the wall, they haven’t got the character they need.
“Personally, I thought we’d see signings come through the door pretty quickly. But then again, it took a couple of months to appoint an assistant manager who Redfearn wanted from day one and the owner’s obviously got this situation with the Football League hanging over him. The club’s up in the air, you can see that from a mile off.”
Blake, who played in United’s relegation season in 2006-07, insisted he was “encouraged” by the performance in a 1-1 draw at Bolton on Saturday, saying Redfearn’s 4-2-3-1 formation looked “far better for the players.”
“The good thing and the bonus for Leeds is that Redfearn’s found a plan B,” Blake said. “The diamond midfield wasn’t working but this new system suits the squad better. It’s far better for the players.
“They’ll see a draw at Bolton as a decent point and I thought they were unlucky not to nick a win but they need to back it up now or the result means nothing. They’ve got Birmingham and Bournemouth next and they’re really hard games but they’re both at home. Four points from them has got to be the minimum target.
“I still think that when it comes to it, the players will get themselves out of trouble. It’s going to be tight but in the end I reckon they’ll be okay. The squad’s not perfect and it’s not right but it’s still good enough to climb the table.”