Leeds United have never had a busier transfer window. Even in the summer of 2007 when insolvency stripped the club to the bone, the recruitment of players was nowhere near as sweeping as Massimo Cellino’s.
Cellino promised Leeds a new team and a new squad and United have both. Fifteen signings exceeded his own estimate of how far he would go in repairing a dressing room he used to speak about with dismay and expletives. “It will be different next year,” the 58-year-old said during his first interview with the YEP. And different it is.
FIFA’s deadline passed at 11pm last night and Cellino will feel that his first transfer window at Elland Road gave him much of what he was looking for. By the middle of last week, Adryan - the Brazilian signed on loan from Flamengo - was the one remaining target he cared about. He wanted Dario Del Fabro, the teenager from Cagliari, and he wanted Nacional striker Brian Montenegro but Adryan was the golden ticket; his must-have transfer as August ticked away. In the 24 hours before yesterday’s deadline, Cellino’s priority was a new head coach.
It is indicative of his style of ownership that Adryan, Del Fabro and Montenegro arrived at a time when Leeds were without a first-team boss. It is also true that other deals - Marco Silvestri, Tommaso Bianchi, Souleymane Doukara - were set in motion before David Hockaday began his fleeting reign as head coach in June. They complain at Elland Road about the legacy of players left behind by Neil Warnock and Brian McDermott, and a small part of the summer was devoted to backing out of McDermott’s offer of a three-year contract to Cameron Stewart, but this is Cellino’s squad and his to answer for. He answered for a defeat at Millwall on the first day of the season by completing a further eight transfers.
Back when FIFA’s window first opened, the Italian’s biggest worry aside from the state of United’s finances was the shocking state of their defence. In the four months it took him to buy Leeds from Gulf Finance House, he saw six goals conceded to Sheffield Wednesday, five at home to Bolton Wanderers, four against both Reading and Bournemouth and three at Watford on the evening after his takeover went through.
Cellino rated Sam Byram but wanted Gaetano Berardi to provide a second option at right-back. His opinion of Paddy Kenny was low from the outset - influenced by the view of others at Thorp Arch - and the purchase of Silvestri from Chievo was as much a priority at the start of the summer as Adryan became at the end of it. But the barrage occured at centre-back as Leeds threw money at Giuseppe Bellusci, Liam Cooper and latterly Del Fabro. Leeds paid Catania £1.6m for Bellusci, their most expensive buy in a decade. Cooper’s move from Chesterfield cost £600,000.
The net spend at Elland Road has been skewed by the £10.75m sale of Ross McCormack to Fulham - 15 per cent of which went to Cardiff City through a wise and profitable sell-on clause - but United’s investment in players and their commitment to future payments is substantial. Every one of the loans negotiated by Cellino was arranged for the season with an option to sign the players permanently. Adryan will cost £3m if Leeds want to keep him next season, and the proposed signing of Frederik Sorensen from Juventus - one of several deals which collapsed at the death - would have set the club back £400,000 in a loan fee alone. Casper Sloth, from Aarhus, came in at £600,000.
The failed discussions with Sorensen were typical of the way Cellino approached his targets. He always looked for unerring commitment he got from Silvestri, Bianchi and others. Two attempts by Sorensen’s agent to alter the terms of his contract when Leeds thought an agreement was already in place angered Cellino and saw Sorensen fly him to Turin hours before the season began. Federico Viviani’s on-off move from Roma took a similar course: complicated, delayed and ultimately unsuccessful. Viviani’s agent blamed absent paperwork but later said that Viviani had wanted to joined Latina anyway. Cellino accused the 22-year-old of lacking “the balls to come here.” Plenty of United’s laundry was washed and aired in public.
Cellino, nonetheless, showed a pragmatic side when pressure came to bear on him. Having broken off talks with Bellusci in July, refusing the defender’s wage demands and calling him “spoiled”, he went back to his agent after losing patience with Sorensen. Officially, Cooper’s transfer was off after Chesterfield refused to accept an offer of £475,000 but Leeds kept the channels of communication open for a fortnight and eventually increased their valuation. In certain periods, United’s owner was caught between two stools; loathe to allow clubs or players to take liberties with him but mindful of the risk of an underwhelming window. Asked about Adryan last week, Cellino said he would “do what it takes to sign him.” Leeds were 21st in the Championship with three points from 12 at the time. Failure in the transfer market was not a great option.
To that end, cash was showered on forwards and strikers in an attempt to compensate for McCormack’s sale. Cellino never classed McCormack as a 30-goal player but he believed that the Scotland international would have been worth 15 this season. Among the other strikers he had in mid-July, Cellino was not so sure. Billy Sharp and Mirco Antenucci were brought in for immediate impact. Montenegro offers a bit of insurance. In that area of the squad, Leeds have been stockpiling to an unprecedented degree. It is easy to forget that when Cellino first bought United, they were losing £1m a month and the wage bill was giving him sleepless nights.
United’s midfield was the only part of the team that Cellino declined to overhaul. He saw Viviani as a suitable, deep-lying playmaker but did not find an alternative to him, despite looking at Slovenian Jasmin Kurtic and Grosseto’s Marco Crimi. He liked the idea that Lewis Cook, Leeds’ exceptional 17-year-old, might grow into that role quickly. Casper Sloth and Zan Benedicic are a similar sort of attacking midfielder and out-and-out wingers never seemed to be on the agenda. But Montenegro can operate out wide and Antenucci too. Hockaday’s odd claim that wingers no longer have role in modern football might not have been true but he was right in one respect: an astute formation and a balanced line-up could still give United width. Hockaday, to his cost, never found it. And Leeds in general are still a club without devastating pace.
His first window over, a left-back goes down as one of the few specific assets Cellino failed to land. He accepted a few weeks ago that sourcing a good-enough option and a club willing to trade would be difficult, and the sprightly form of Stephen Warnock made him question if a replacement was needed anyway. One of the lessons learned by United’s president this summer was that his squad cannot be a foreign legion. It needs English blood and English nous, at least in small doses. And after so many transfers, it need to settle down and integrate. A concerted attack on the transfer window was always inevitable in Cellino’s eyes. The second and bigger part of his plan involves putting the pieces together. That job starts here.