One problem at Elland Road leads to another and none of Leeds United’s inadequacies can be cured in isolation. A better squad won’t function without a safe and established head coach. A head coach won’t feel safe without an owner who is present, supportive and in control. Like most organisations, direction comes from the top or not at all.
United’s owner himself is on very thin ice when public faith in him recedes and if Massimo Cellino is as far removed from the coalface as he claims to be, someone at Elland Road should summon the courage to tell him that the tide is turning against him rapidly.
There is at this stage so much confusion that next season feels imperilled already. Unfeasible though it seemed, the skeleton of management at Leeds is as flimsy now as it was when Cellino bought the club last year. Back then he accused United of having “no structure”, of suffering from feeble organisation and poor commitment. As the summer draws close, how much has changed?
Andrew Umbers, United’s chairman, is the only director whose presence is felt day-to-day at Elland Road. The club lost their chief operating officer last month and their head coach is a marginalised figure with a declining contract and no assistant behind him. If Cellino’s sporting director, Nicola Salerno, has not actually resigned then he has taken his leave of Leeds indefinitely. No-one has seen him since the middle of the international break or since he signed the letter suspending Steve Thompson.
In light of all that, and with Cellino’s disqualification as owner still current, discussing the gaps in the United’s squad is a waste of time without context. Leeds are back in that mindset where everyone craves a silver bullet; a solution for multiple problems and a way of untangling the entire web. Anything else looks like a layer of paint on an empty vessel. The club’s finances are an ongoing challenge too, though Cellino stated in the accounts this week that he expects to establish “sustainability” by the start of next year.
In the end, though, it comes back to the football. It always comes back to football. It’s easier to tolerate a wild and erratic owner if the meddling and the idiosyncrasies are offset by results. It’s easier to stomach the ejection of a decent head coach if you have confidence in the alternative being better or logically chosen. Change doesn’t worry the crowd at Leeds. It’s all they know. Inaction and incoherence are the biggest causes of fear and resentment. They make you ask if anyone has answers or, more to the point, whether anyone cares.
Leeds lit a light in the dark last weekend with the launch of their season-ticket campaign. What normally results in a monumental punch-up – or what normally did under past regimes – struck a chord: frozen prices, an expansion of the East Stand’s family area and a skilful piece of marketing via a graphic in which United’s line-up morphed from Hunter, Lorimer, Speed and others through to Cook, Byram, Mowatt and Taylor; the Elland Road production line through the years.
The image may or may not have been a subliminal message about Leeds’ commitment to retaining their four academy products next season. Cellino approved of the campaign but it was instigated by Matt Child, United’s former COO, so the imaginative idea might have no hidden meaning. It could simply be a way of hooking tired fans and selling seats. Nonetheless, you hope the club have more integrity than that. A message so profound should be nothing other than a statement of genuine intent.
The vibrance of Cook, Byram et al is the best thing for Leeds to hang season tickets on. Some would say it’s the only thing. They’ve given the club a spine this season and they’ve kept the crowd engaged but on their own they are not enough. The past four games have shown that. Their potential and talent, as obvious as it is, cannot be used to hide the need for heavy investment around them, for their sake as much as the club’s.
There is scarcely a reliable defence in the Championship – Norwich City’s on Tuesday was about as organised as it gets – but United’s is up there with the least consistent. It needs work from right to left. Their midfield has class and energy but it is undeniably one-paced, particularly without Cook. And at the tip of the team, Leeds are handicapped by strikers who aren’t scoring. Whether the system is to blame or the players themselves, their forwards are making hard work of amassing 30 goals. By comparison, at Watford, Troy Deeney, Matej Vydra and Odion Ighalo have 54 between them.
That potency is overwhelming, as it was at Elland Road in February, and the Championship are struggling to hold Watford back.
Where Leeds are concerned, the needs of the squad are almost a hypothetical debate while so much is unresolved. The team are part of a larger jigsaw and without touching on Cellino’s situation, Redfearn’s future or any other side-show, it’s not even certain that Leeds will be free of a transfer embargo this summer.
But the fact remains that the club have been resting their weight on four kids for long enough; leaving players in the teens and early 20s to fill the void of expectation and optimism.
That’s the magic academy footballers do and when Jonny Howson plucks a delicious finish from the air like he did on Tuesday, you can’t help feeling that Leeds should never allow themselves to be haunted like that, or not by another Championship club. Mowatt, Cook, Byram and Taylor are gifted prospects, wonderfully gifted, but keeping them at Elland Road can’t be classed as an example of vision or ambition. It’s the obvious thing to do. And the very least United need.