Common sense is telling Leeds United that the dual investigations into the mess known as ‘Spygate’ are largely beyond their control. The club apologised for the incident which sparked it off and promised the Football Association and the EFL their full co-operation. Their only request was for a quick resolution which allowed them to leave an unhelpful distraction behind.
Leeds are not blind to the threat of punishment and they are prone to it after publicly rebuking Marcelo Bielsa for sending a scout to watch Derby County train on a routine Thursday morning which became the focus of so much controversy but the bigger concern at Elland Road is that Bielsa and his players are locked in a wrangle which a team at the top of the Championship could do without.
Almost two weeks on, the argument over ‘Spygate’ is as heated and polarised as ever.
All avenues of punishment are open to the FA and the EFL, if either organisation decides to charge Biesla or Leeds with bringing the game into dispute, but the prospect of a points deduction – the one sanction which United could neither afford nor accept – seems slim.
Sources at the EFL have consistently played that option down and the letter the governing body received from 11 rival Championship clubs last Friday, asking for a detailed inquiry into the events at Derby’s training ground and subsequent comments from Bielsa, made no request for a deduction of points.
It was rather a demand for “full disclosure”: a clear timeline on what happened on the morning of January 10 and a transparent outline of the way in which Bielsa conducts his pre-match analysis.
Collective EFL letter 'not asking for punishment or points deduction' as Leeds United wait on Spygate investigation
Derby’s name featured on the letter, as it was bound to do, and the other clubs behind it include Norwich City, Bristol City, Middlesbrough, Blackburn Rovers and Millwall. Derby were driven to complain to the EFL after a member of Bielsa’s technical staff was stopped by police outside County’s training complex 24 hours before their 2-0 defeat at Elland Road but the collective missive was provoked by the media briefing Bielsa staged at Thorp Arch last week.
One comment in particular rankled. “In a few words I can say that we observed all the rivals we’ve played against,” Bielsa said. “We watched the training sessions of all the opponents before we played them.”
Another club now believe they spotted a Leeds scout near their training facility earlier in the term, though the individual was mistakenly observing an Under-23s session.
The 11 have submitted a list of questions to the EFL in an attempt to establish what exactly happened when Bielsa’s scout was halted by police in Derby. The intern, one of several who operate as part of Bielsa’s wide network of employees, was reported to have been carrying binoculars, pliers and a change of clothes – Derby manager Frank Lampard talked of Leeds sending “people undercover on their hands and knees with pliers and bolt cutters” – but Derbyshire Police say they passed no details of the scout’s possessions to Derby or to anyone else.
United have been frustrated by aspects of the case but held their hands up the day after their win over County, apologising to Derby owner Mel Morris and promising to speak with Bielsa about standards of “integrity and honesty”.
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Bielsa made a point of distancing United from the dispute, and potentially from any penalties, by saying the scouting trips had been carried out without the club’s knowledge or permission.
Spying on opposition sessions, he insisted, was standard practice in other countries he had coached in. The furore forced him to call a halt to the practice before Saturday’s visit to Stoke City, a game Leeds lost 2-1. Bielsa was asked afterwards whether the absence of inside knowledge had any bearing on the result.
It is that which Leeds are most concerned about; the relentless focus on a controversy which is almost all-consuming. Bielsa won admirers with a 66-minute media briefing at Thorp Arch last Wednesday, mapping out in detail the way in which he and his assistants analyse opposition teams, but the letter sent to the EFL by 11 rival clubs was an unexpected by-product and a direct consequence of it.
Leeds want the EFL and the FA to bring the matter to a head swiftly, thereby drawing a line under it.
The past fortnight has been a small-scale throwback to 2007, when Leeds found themselves at odds with much of the EFL over their insolvency that summer. United were accused of breaching a specific EFL rule by failing to exit administration with an agreed Creditors Voluntary Arrangement (CVA) and any charge levied at Bielsa or Leeds is likely to rest on the more open-ended concepts of “good faith” or “bringing the game into disrepute”.
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Regulations governing the EFL do not specifically address spying on opposition training sessions. There were anti-EFL chants in the away end at Stoke, exposing a familiar undercurrent of resentment. Pablo Hernandez summed up the state of play on Instagram over the weekend. “Against everything and everyone," he wrote. "Together we will make it!”
Gillingham chairman Paul Scally was prominent in leading the calls for Leeds to receive a points deduction in 2007. Bristol City owner Steve Lansdown made the same demand last week, accusing United of: “poking and skulking around a training ground.”
A sanction so severe looks unlikely but Leeds, with a one-point lead at the top of the Championship, are mindful that the failure to kill this argument could take its toll in other ways. The source of a siege mentality at Elland Road is nonetheless an unwanted distraction, from which there has been no escape.