Phil Hay: Why Leeds United will have to bite the '˜promotion bullet' soon
AS SEASONS and different faces go by, all of them converging in much the same ballpark, it gets harder to avoid the conclusion that Leeds United's only way out of the Championship is to do what Wolves are doing: go big on players, hit the league with a sledgehammer and walk away from it without a scratch.
Do that and you take out the uncertainty, the tension and the pressure which always infects the air at Elland Road.
If the science was so exact then every club would be doing it and the list of those who went big and blew up is why owners look for alternative routes. It is often said that the best way to make a small fortune in football is to start with a large one and there is no knowing how long Fosun International could fund Wolves in the Championship in the way that it has.
With 62 points from 27 games, it is not a question the Chinese conglomerate will have to answer. Leeds and Andrea Radrizzani are big on sustainability and big on the idea that funding in one season should not create problems with funding for the next.
It was spelled out in Radrizzani’s sales pitch when he bought into Leeds last January, saying he was “not here to make big losses for many years” but promising to “reactivate the engine” of a club who have done no more than exist for a decade.
Stability is the most prevalent cliche going at boardroom level but Leeds are establishing ways to find it: a transfer budget with limits and a wage structure which peaks at around £15,000 a week for their highest-earning players. GFH talked about stable management and paid Luke Murphy a higher salary. The bank’s goose was cooked within 12 months.
United’s outlay and financial controls go a long way to explaining their activity in the transfer window last summer. Their strategy is value-driven, with an emphasis on finding players whose price falls into a certain bracket but falls below their intrinsic worth.
It follows the largely-proven theory that European markets offer better margins than England. Samuel Saiz was the biggest win, a £3.5m signing whose present valuation on the basis of half a year in the Championship is markedly higher. Pierre-Michel Lasogga ought to have ticked the same box given his background: in principle a snip of a loanee after Hamburg agreed to pay 70 per cent of his wage.
Gjanni Alioski, Caleb Ekuban, Pawel Cibicki, Mateusz Klich, Jay-Roy Grot: all signed by Leeds in the belief that the club were striking bargains.
The result has been decidedly mixed. It is mixed in the sense that while several individual signings look questionable, Leeds have spent the entire season either inside or within stone’s throw of the Championship’s top six.
Radrizzani might consider that satisfactory for his first six months as owner but he is unlikely to be oblivious to the clamour for him to turn the screw in this transfer window.
Leeds are seventh in the league and many on the outside want signings. Contrary to last summer, they want a certain type of signing; players of proven Championship stock, like Adam Forshaw, who can walk through the door and make their presence felt immediately. Players who cost what Championship players cost, which is never an inconsiderable amount.
Leeds like what they see in Preston North End’s Jordan Hugill and have kept an eye on him for a while but the board at Deepdale will not answer the phone to offers of less than £8m. Leeds are not sold on his ability at that price but orshaw, at £2.5m, is a cost they are ready to pick up.
History heightens the strain further. Leeds have been a Championship club for so long that even League One looks like a black-and-white film. They have threatened the Championship play-offs so infrequently that every missed opportunity feels like a criminal waste. January transfers were few in 2011 and again last year.
Leeds had the play-offs at their mercy on both occasions and finished seventh. The past fortnight, amid dropped points, two ludicrous red cards and a bad injury to Luke Ayling, has created the unavoidable sense that the club are losing their grip again. They need goals and in the eyes of most, they need another centre-forward. No solution is more obvious than pressing Radrizzani to throw his money at it.
This, though, is his first season in the chair and it is premature to call out his ambition on the basis of six months. There are doubts about Leeds’ ability to last the pace this season and questions too about the impact of Victor Orta, whose spell as head of recruitment at Middlesbrough is a perplexing story, but Radrizzani paid to control Leeds and his investment bought him the right to devise his own plan and pursue it for a sustained period of time.
Leeds talk regularly about the ‘medium term’, about the success of their transfer business becoming apparent in the long run and they are obliged to vindicate that confidence but half a season for the enterprise to click is a small window of grace.
For now it is Radrizzani’s prerogative to allow his ideas to play out. You buy the shares, you call the shots and it could yet be that the play-offs materialise at the first time of asking.
What he cannot allow is for the same debate to be taking place this time next year; for the quality of United’s squad and recruitment to be contentious again or for under-performing fringe players to be excused as ‘medium-term’. Because medium-term eventually brings a club to the question: how soon is now?