As sagas go, Liam Bridcutt’s proposed move from Sunderland to Leeds United is up there with the best – or worst – of them. The impasse requires a resolution one way or the other. Phil Hay reports.
Liam Bridcutt is rapidly becoming the transfer saga of the summer at Leeds United. A deal which has tested patience since the early days of June is still on the table as Leeds head through the last week of pre-season.
United’s owner, Massimo Cellino, rarely allows impasses like this to continue indefinitely but the protracted delay in agreeing the terms of Bridcutt’s departure from Sunderland has not put Leeds off. It is increasingly obvious that the midfielder was a target at the very top of the club’s list of targets when the transfer window opened in May.
Bridcutt was originally a Steve Evans signing and a drawn-out one at that. His emergency loan from Sunderland last season took the best part of a month to seal and Leeds put up the money just as Cardiff City were preparing to sign him. But Bridcutt’s game and manner, his role as a defensive lynchpin, is something that United want to invest in again and add to a relatively young crop of midfielders.
Bridcutt featured in just over half of Leeds’ league games last term but finished the season as their leading defensive asset statistically: most tackles per game, high on interceptions and boasting a pass completion rate of over 80 per cent.
He was ever-present in the club’s longest unbeaten run, seven games through December and January, and signed off from his loan with a record of eight defeats from 24 Championship matches. In a mid-table campaign, the 27-year-old acted as a steadying hand.
At the time when Leeds first loaned him from the Stadium of Light, Bridcutt was at risk of being hampered by a long stretch of inactivity with Sunderland.
He rode that easily and settled into Evans’ team quickly but if Leeds and Sunderland reach a deal to bring him back permanently, he will face the same challenge again.
Sunderland have fielded him in only one pre-season game – an Under-21s fixture against Darlington last week – and United have just one friendly remaining, at home to Atalanta this Saturday, before they launch themselves into the Championship term.
Since arriving as head coach, Garry Monk has been particular in ensuring that his squad are up to speed with his demands and his ideas.
Though Stuart Dallas trained throughout last week – back in the fold after his time at the European Championship – Monk held him back from Leeds’ 2-1 loss at Peterborough United on Saturday and went instead with 11 players who had worked under him during United’s two-match tour of Dublin.
Bridcutt has not had the benefit of Monk’s instructions or the benefit of Sunderland’s pre-season either. The Wearside club changed manager last week, appointing David Moyes after Sam Allardyce left the Stadium of Light to take charge of England, but Moyes went abroad on a tour of France without Bridcutt in his squad.
Bridcutt was peripheral under Allardyce and had resolved to move on from Sunderland long before Allardyce quit, fearing that his career was stalling. Sources close to the midfielder say he still intends to leave in this window.
Leeds feel that they would benefit not only from Bridcutt’s game but also from his nous. They have two experienced midfielders in their squad, Toumani Diagouraga and Luke Murphy, and the pair share more than 700 appearances between them.
But Murphy has been an inconsistent presence at Elland Road, in and out of United’s first team, and Diagouraga has played 15 minutes in the centre of midfield this summer. A shortage of centre-backs forced Monk to use him as a defender in Ireland and again at Guiseley on Friday night.
The remaining options – Matt Grimes, Alex Mowatt, Kalvin Phillips and Ronaldo Vieira – average 50 league games. Vieira, who Monk and his coaching staff rate particularly highly, is largely untested and Grimes has made just a handful of Championship outings, on loan at Blackburn Rovers. There is an obvious gap for an old head – and a player with Bridcutt’s record.
Leeds and Sunderland, whose head of recruitment is ex-United employee Martyn Glover, have been a distance apart on valuation since the early stages of the transfer window. Cellino originally wanted to take Bridcutt on a free transfer, giving United more flexibility to meet the wage demands of a player who earns £26,000 a week, but the Premier League club are asking for a fee of £1.5m to ensure that the cost of paying up Bridcutt’s contract does not leave them out of pocket.
Discussions remain at a delicate stage and the change of manager at Sunderland prevented further talks over the weekend but both Leeds and Bridcutt’s camp remain optimistic that a long-running transfer will cross the line soon.
Cellino spoke last week of moving onto other targets and leaving Bridcutt behind but dialogue is continuing with the season less than a fortnight away.
Bridcutt made his Leeds debut in a 1-0 defeat at Queens Park Rangers and it remains to be seen if United can pull off that signing in time for him to feature at Loftus Road next Sunday.
Monk was giving nothing away over the weekend, saying: “You’ll be the first to know as soon as anyone comes through the door. I don’t like to talk about targets until something actually happens.”