Phil Hay: Time for focus to be back on football at Leeds United

Salem Patel and David Haigh
Salem Patel and David Haigh
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It is time for Leeds United to be run like a football club again with the game at its heart and not a sideshow to off-field and financial matters.

When he speaks like he spoke about Leeds United yesterday, it hardly figures that Ross McCormack has captained the club for a handful of games. It’s a standard routine at Elland Road: trouble occurs, bits and pieces are said but once the dust settles on a lost season, the hatchet job falls to him.

There are risks involved with being so candid but the crux of McCormack’s Yorkshire Evening Post interview is that most of his observations were true.

Leeds have scrimped to their detriment in the transfer market and sold too many of their influential players. Gulf Finance House ran the club in a convoluted, self-centred way – as a review of the bank’s strategy reveals – and the time for Massimo Cellino to show his hand is basically here. Players say much about how magical Leeds are but it is good to hear one of them acknowledging the flaw with the Emperor’s new clothes.

Cellino himself is open and opinionated so perhaps he can appreciate McCormack’s honesty, much as some of it nailed him to the floor. As president of Cagliari, the Italian was never quick to delegate authority or dilute his control but if he places a value on blunt voices in the dressing room, he will see that the sale of McCormack this summer would cost him more than the striker’s goals.

It stands to reason that any player who airs his views as McCormack did is bound to do the same behind closed doors. A club needs its share of straight-talkers and Leeds need theirs. By Brian McDermott’s own admission, there is a dearth of leadership among the squad at Thorp Arch, a weakness which begs the question of why it took a mea culpa from Rudy Austin for McCormack to inherit an armband which seems to suit him so well. McDermott considered one alternative, Jason Pearce, before promoting his leading goalscorer but from a pick of more than 20 professionals, the shortlist for the captaincy was as long as two.

If United make it through the close season with McCormack in tow, it will be because Cellino treats incoming bids as dismissively he did when West Ham United and Cardiff City dangled offers in front of him in January. Other interest will come and it is barely necessary for McCormack to ask how substantially his wage might increase in the Premier League after a season of 29 goals. Leeds negotiated a four-year contract with him last August and won’t offer another or attempt to hike up his salary again. Cellino is presently in the business of cutting expenditure at Elland Road, as opposed to taking on more. McCormack for his part is not adverse to looking after himself. The underlying theme of yesterday’s article was that he’d covet the chance to win promotion here but would not be happy to waste the best years of his career by chasing a dream which Leeds showed no sign of realising. He evidently cares, as others before him did, but the club and their support is what resonates with players. Ownership, management and ambition is a separate consideration. It’s simplistic to argue that Robert Snodgrass, Jonny Howson and players like them left Elland Road in search of a pay rise. They left in part because there was nothing keeping them here.

As owner of Leeds, Cellino’s era is raw and new. Until key decisions materialise on the playing side of the business his intentions are his own; second-guessed by everyone else. But he needs people like McCormack. He needs the striker’s talent and he needs his attitude. It’s the antidote to the culture left behind by GFH, an owner which made football its last consideration and its last concern.

The Bahraini bank published its annual report for 2013 this week and in it confirmed what most of us know – that ownership of Leeds was about money, profit and personal gain. The review shows that in spite of its failure to make anything more than a car crash of United, GFH’s time as majority shareholder earned the bank a profit of £4m. As a bonus, it continues to hold a 10 per cent stake which GFH hopes will “deliver sound returns for the bank and the co-investors.” Priorities and all that. Leeds are described in the report as a “celebrated British football club” which would be very touching had GFH run them like one.

Somewhere along the line football has to matter. And at Elland Road, Leeds have to matter. It’s not a case of selfless, to-the-death devotion. It’s about finding middle ground where individual ambition is married with the good of the club.

Take Benito Carbone, the recent addition to the academy staff at Thorp Arch. He is here, Cellino says, for no wage and with a remit to help “rebuild the academy” – one of the few areas of the club which has held itself together. But Carbone as a development squad coach? Look back at interviews with him and you’ll find him talking about how he wants to manage a major side in England; about how he turned down various jobs in Italy to pursue employment here. “If I was offered a Premier League job tomorrow I would not be afraid,” he said. The ambition is palpable. So has the idea of academy football at Thorp Arch stirred his passion? Or is this opportunity a means to an end? You have to ask.

This season is almost over and not before time. Season-ticket sales start on Monday and once again, the club are relying on goodwill to maintain their steady core of 12,000 holders. Promotion next year is unlikely, according to Cellino, but the money invested in season tickets should at least buy a culture-change – one where football speaks loudest, executives at the highest level work with that philosophy and individualism defers to the greater good.

The problem with GFH was that its idea of “sound returns” wasn’t the same as ours. It still isn’t. GFH wants promotion but only to enhance the value of its remaining shares.

That’s why investment banks were made. But football clubs? Leave them to those who know and care.

Leeds United Live.

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