Leeds United manager Simon Grayson says he will risk losing Bradley Johnson, Luciano Becchio and Neil Kilkenny on free transfers next summer if he decides that all three players are crucial to achieving promotion from the Championship.
Grayson said the club would "dictate" the short-term futures of Johnson, Becchio and Kilkenny, all of whom are out of contract in seven months' time and have so far failed to negotiate extensions to their deals at Elland Road.
* Click here to sign up to free Leeds United email alerts from your YEP.
Johnson was transfer-listed three weeks ago after rejecting a final offer from Leeds, a decision which appeared to make his departure inevitable. But the midfielder's position remains uncertain following his claim over the weekend that he still hoped to agree terms with United.
The club have stated unequivocally that they will not increase their offer to Johnson, and he is likely to be sold when the winter transfer window opens next month.
* Click here to watch the latest edition of our Leeds United preview programme The Boot Room.
The 23-year-old was jeered by the crowd at Elland Road during Leeds' 2-1 victory over Crystal Palace on Saturday – a reaction to his decision to turn down a new contract – but he attempted to reconcile the supporters afterwards by expressing his desire to stay with the club
and calling for a resumption of contract talks.
* Click here to visit the Leeds United webchat page.
Discussions are on-going with Becchio, who scored both of Leeds' goals in Saturday's win against Palace, but Grayson admitted that the likelihood of the Argentinian signing a new deal was still unclear.
Negotiations between Leeds and Kilkenny's representatives, meanwhile, are understood to have made little progress in the past three months.
United placed Johnson on the transfer list in an attempt to avoid losing him for nothing at the end of the season, by which time the midfielder will have reached his 24th birthday and would become a free agent.
Leeds paid 250,000 to sign him from Northampton Town in January of 2008 and are keen to recoup some that money next month.
* Click here for read the latest views and opinions of our Leeds United columnists.
They are unlikely to entertain offers which fall below their valuation, however, and the club have already dismissed a player-swap proposed by Hull City.
Becchio and Kilkenny cost undisclosed fees upon signing from Merida UD and Birmingham City respectively – Kilkenny's in the region of 150,000 – but it is not clear whether they might also be made available for sale next month if contract talks fail to reach a successful conclusion. Both are integral members of Grayson's line-up.
Becchio has established himself as Leeds' top scorer with 11 goals this season, and he is three short of 50 in his career with the Elland Road side. Kilkenny, meanwhile, made his 125th appearance for United against Palace and has been a fixture in their team for much of Grayson's reign as manager.
Their contractual circumstances are identical to that which surrounded Jermaine Beckford last season. Leeds chose to retain the prolific striker until the end of the 2009-10 season, despite his dwindling contract and a concerted effort to sign him on the part of Newcastle United. Newcastle's final offer peaked at 1.8million, six months before Beckford's deal was due to expire.
Beckford contributed instead to Leeds' promotion from League One, eventually departing on a free transfer to Everton, and United are beginning to sense another opportunity this term having returned to the Championship's play-off position on Saturday afternoon.
The doubt over whether Kilkenny and Becchio will commit themselves to Leeds and the collapse of talks with Johnson have had no negative impact on United's season, and the win over Palace extended their run without defeat to seven league matches.
Grayson's squad stand on 32 points after 20 fixtures, a tally good enough for sixth place and five short of second.
Asked if he wanted contract talks concluded before the start of the January transfer window, Grayson said: "It would be nice but it's a scenario like Beckford's.
"We'll dictate what we do with these players. We could sell them if we get the right money and the right opportunity or we could run the risk of them leaving on a free.
"We turned down good money for Jermaine and he got us promoted. If the
three out-of-contract players don't sign contracts, we get promoted and they go off to other clubs at the end of the season then fair play on their part.
"(Contract talks) never run an easy course as we found with Jermaine last year but we're doing as much as we can to try and keep our best players."
Johnson, Becchio and Kilkenny were three of four players engaged in contract negotiations by Leeds in September, and striker Davide Somma is thus far the only one to have agreed an extension to his deal.
Somma is part of a group of four strikers in Grayson's squad but the importance of Becchio has been stressed by his five goals in the past month, including a 17-minute hat-trick against Bristol City on November 13.
The former Boca Juniors youngster has been a reliable forward throughout his time in England, scoring 19 times in his first season and 17 times last term. Becchio carried a lower profile while Beckford was on the books at Elland Road but the 26-year-old is Grayson's first-choice striker and the only player in United's squad with more than 10 goals to his name.
Grayson said: "He's a fantastic player and he's proved his worth to the football club in terms of his goals, his commitment and his effort.
"People outside the dressing room probably underestimate what he does for us and last year everyone focused on Jermaine because of all the goals that he was scoring. But Luciano took the brunt of the physical side and chipped in with a few goals of his own.
"This year he's getting a lot more because different players are doing different things around him and he's got better service coming into him. We're probably playing to his strengths a little bit more."