Leeds United knew Deportivo La Coruna in the ‘Super Depor’ era and it is sad to think that neither club would recognise the other now. Deportivo, with Javier Irureta working them, were title winners, Champions League semi-finalists, domestic cup holders and perennial contenders.
Today La Liga classes them as relegation fodder when it notices them at all.
Running recruitment at Estadio Riazor, then, is not the cushy number it might once have been and in that respect there is some logic in Victor Orta preferring the devil he knows at Elland Road. Deportivo made him the offer of their sporting director’s job last week but Orta, off his own back, declined to go. The job should pass instead to Carmelo del Pozo, Levante’s general manager.
Levante might scrape another season in La Liga but Deportivo, as they did in 2013, will go down unless some unforeseen results rescue them next month.
In that context, their approach to Orta can be seen as a hospital pass in wrapping paper, but his insistence on staying in England tallies with what Leeds have been briefing about him for a while: that he wants to stick it out and wants a second summer transfer window to remedy the errors of his first.
Leeds are happy to let him have it. At no stage did the club prod him in the direction of Deportivo or tell him the gig was one he should take. Orta will be prone to accusations of arrogance – ploughing on with his head down while dubious signings lie behind him – but the Spaniard’s skin is not thick to criticism, which is to say that Orta has enjoyed this season no more than anyone else.
Blame for the debacle it became is being apportioned to him and, after a stint at Middlesbrough which cast him as an incompetent scout and a meddling presence, public patience wore thin a long time ago. It is telling that in the worst run of results United have had for years, the disparaging chants have been aimed at him. There are plenty in Leeds who want Orta gone and Orta knows it. Sources at Elland Road say he has had death threats recently, though the seriousness of them is far from clear.
A quieter life in northern Spain, albeit with the crisis Deportivo wanted him to inherit, was by any measure the easier option: back to his native country and to a footballing world where directors of football are understood, embraced and part of the average club’s fabric. His decision to fight on at Leeds will not be popular, but it is hard not to see it as the gamble of a man who wants to change his reputation. In cynical moments you can picture Orta sipping coffee and doing deals with a carefree air and someone else’s money on fire. But there will be angst in his head and doubts too; the feelings which come with the realisation that one more poor window might be the end of him in England.
To help his cause, Orta needs to change, and Leeds need to change. There are so many lessons from the past 12 months, so many pointers on how to build a competitive Championship side (and equally how not to), that it would be naive on the part of everyone concerned if few of those lessons were taken in.
It must be apparent to Orta that his attempt last summer to pick bargains or undervalued players from across Europe, and very few of them from major European leagues, was flawed and unrealistic, but it should be accepted by Leeds that their financial format encouraged Orta down that path. The idea was to make best use of the money Leeds had, by using markets which charged less than others. In practice Leeds did not have enough.
This is a club where transfer fees peak in the bracket of £3m to £4m and weekly wages reach a maximum of £15,000 a week. At a top weekly wage of £15,000 a week, Leeds could not move into a higher band of transfer fees even if they wanted to.
Players of a greater value have a higher earning capacity and there are ample opportunities to earn more elsewhere in the Championship. Many players do. Millwall are muddying the waters slightly, seventh in the table with the most meagre of budgets, but even by punching above their weight they are on the very fringes and Leeds, statistically, have a mid-table model of recruitment. It is true that certain signings beg the question of whether Orta can truly spot a player. But in its entirety, last summer’s tactics asked him to do too much with too little. It wasn’t so much about the money spent as the extent to which it was spread.
There is enough contritional noise from Elland Road to suggest that most inside the building have come to realise that. The club’s transfer budget per se is unlikely to rise drastically this year but by cutting the size of their squad and reducing the number of players they intend to sign, Leeds will try to push up their highest wage and improve the calibre of individual transfers. There is talk of a stronger domestic focus, though that has not stopped some serious discussions about targets like Jerry Mbakogu in Italy’s Serie B. Mbakogu, a Nigerian striker with Carpi, is valued at £4m or thereabouts. He has scored six goals this season and is currently injured. Quite frankly, a transfer like that would have to work and work quickly. It falls into the ‘out-there’ category which people in Leeds tired of trusting in a while ago.
That, to a large degree, is where United must rein Orta in. Give him the rope to scout and recruit but not so much that that recruitment hangs the club next season. For their part, the club should be honest about the parameters a director of football needs to do his job to the right standard, or at least to be judged fairly. This season has been Leeds’ payback for trying to be too clever last summer. The Championship always finds you.