With the sun out and the temperatures once again approaching the mid-70s, summer has yet to make its departing bow in England; in the world of football however, to all intents and purposes that season has now passed. It’s early September, the transfer window is closed and the first international break is upon us; the tables are beginning to take shape, the nights are closing in and the hard slog until the end of the year has begun – fanciful talk of loanees aside, Leeds United are set fair for the next four months. So how have the board, manager and players performed thus far and how do our prospects of being involved in the promotion shake-up come the January window look? Here are my thoughts.
Off the pitch
If the closing months of last season marked a period of (disappointingly) slow transition, the summer, or more particularly, the post-Bates chairmanship era has so far been one of revolution. The removal of Bates as club president may court all the headlines and as a symbolic act, has done more to underline the dawn of a new era than anything else, but the removal of the hapless Harvey and Gwynn Williams has also served to remove the much of the incompetence and nepotism that had tainted the club so, under the previous regime.
Leeds United suddenly has the feel of a bona fide football club again, it also has a degree of profile once more. Embracing the BBC and closing down the loss making Yorkshire Radio has once again made the Leeds United experience accessible to all; while online commentaries remain in the domain of LUTV, for those living locally at least, coverage choice has been democratised.
The club also finally has a presence in it’s own city. Under Ken Bates, it was possible to walk around Leeds city centre and not even be aware that a football club existed, now merchandise and kits are to be seen all over in shops while the pop-up shop in Trinity proved another step in the right direction.
While the season ticket reductions cannot yet be regarded as an unqualified success, the very fact that GFH-C have addressed and reversed a continued decline in renewals and new applicants is a positive in itself. The decision to make the Brighton game a ‘Category C’ fixture was undoubtedly an inspired move and although our previous incumbent of the chairman’s office would argue it didn’t maximise returns on the day, its value in making supporters sit up and take notice that something new was afoot at Leeds should not be underestimated. Although unremarkable, the attendances for Sheffield Wednesday and QPR do stand as an improvement on what in recent reasons we could’ve expected for ‘Category A’ Sky games.
Realistically, the success or otherwise in attracting supporters back is something that can only be measured in the longer term; comparisons with previous seasons will carry far more heft in December than three games in. Salah Nooruddin and his board are also perhaps now beginning to learn slowly that winning supporters back will be a gradual process, that a engendering a genuine sense of belief and implementing more proactive pricing for Sky games are key to a fuller stadium. However, those who do visit do find that the atmosphere and anticipation on match days is unrecognisable from only 5 months previously.
The season ticket pricing, the various promotions…and even the treasure hunt for that godawful away shirt have all been signs of pro-engagement policy at the club, the most significant act of which has arguably been the opening of dialogue with LUST. After almost a decade, we appear to have a united fan base (or at least as much as can be expected at Elland Road).
In terms of investment, progress so far has been rather more modest, but the wild speculation from the ‘Dare to Dream’ days has made it easy for many supporters to lose perspective and harness unreliable expectations of the new owners who arrived at a club in a state of financial distress.
In summary, GFH have done much to address many of the issues they have faced; Leeds United once again resembles a football club rather than a vanity project, only the attraction of serious investors remains as a shortcoming
As has been made clear again in today’s YEP, Brian McDermott is not one to panic in the transfer market and although it may frustrate some who wanted the club to spend £600k on a soon to be out of contract, Chris Burke, it’s very reassuring to know we have a man with such a balanced outlook in charge.
While Burke may have been worth some extra points between now and the new year, as with any transfer, there is no guarantee that would be the case. The very reason why Leeds have struggled to a degree to bring in players has been due to the difficulty in moving on others, mostly thirtysomethings on decent money who offer little value to potential suitors. With Burke, Leeds would not only be gambling on wages but also on the fee for somebody who could similarly fall into that category
Instead of burdening the club with more Browns, Pughs and Norris’, McDermott has sought to bring in up and coming players with potential to improve (and in the case of Noel Hunt, a player he knows inside out) and has undoubtedly improved the strength of the starting XI in the process.
The thriftiness of McDermott in his recruitment and the reluctance of GFH-C to gamble on big signings is wholly understandable in the current climate; with huge liabilities to cover including the season ticket loan, stadium rent and the monies necessary to settle the closure of Yorkshire Radio, the departures of Harvey, Williams etc the club continues to operate in a very restrictive financial environment.
While some may argue that the investment of an extra £2-3m in the playing squad would represent a small gambling stake in face of such huge potential rewards, the new Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations have rather shifted the goalposts. With the board by all accounts, having injected a significant amount of working capital into the club just to sustain it and still battling large liabilities, it cannot afford for Leeds United to fall foul of the new regulations; equity investment will be limited to £5m this season and if after that, should the club make an operating loss in excess of £3m (a scenario that in pervious seasons would’ve been remedied by the sale of a McCormack or Byram), then financial penalties will be imposed.
At the moment, avoiding such a scenario without a significant rise in commercial income (see George Dyer’s excellent analysis) will be a challenge in itself, but as this table shows, once any deviation from the target figure exceeds £1m, the level of fine rises to 60% of that sum – so for example, if Leeds were to spend £3m beyond their stipulated means, under the FFP rules they would not only have to recoup that and pay a further fine to the tune of £1.8m.
All of a sudden, ‘investing’ for a play-off charge is saddled with far more significant repercussions, especially for a club where money is so tight. In contrast by budgeting prudently, then come the summer and the departure of several of the fringe senior pros, a financially sound Leeds United could be better placed to compete than many as other clubs scramble to offload players to balance their own books.
It was also perhaps significant that Brian McDermott chose to spend the evening of ‘Deadline Day’ watching the development squad game at Elland Road where Sam Byram, Alex Mowatt and Chris Dawson were in action. Although the loan recruitment of a winger cannot be dismissed, it’s arguable that in Sam Byram, the manager possesses a player who can transform the effectiveness of our diamond formation, providing at a stroke the kind of energy, ability to beat players and cross the ball on the overlap that Lee Peltier has manfully struggled to do.
Similarly in Mowatt, he has a player naturally suited to filling a berth on the left of midfield. With Murphy and Austin natural partners in the middle and Tonge or Green able to fill in on the right, the team might just grow into the system. Alternatively, could Byram yet fill the midfield void, playing ahead of Peltier, allowing Leeds to play something approaching a conventional 4-4-2 or a 4-4-1-1 with McCormack further forward? It shouldn’t be forgotten that the last successful Leeds side, back from the Champions League days, functioned brilliantly with one winger (Kewell) – Mowatt’s style of play is already reminiscent to some degree of Lee Bowyer’s. As one window closes, another one opens…
Leeds United are building, slowly but surely…and securely.
On the pitch
8 points from 5 games is a return most people would’ve settled for at this stage in the campaign, considering the opponent’s we’ve faced. It’s also a fair return; as much as to lose to QPR was unfortunate, victory over Brighton was a touch fortunate and although Leeds produced a very encouraging hour of play at Ipswich, the game could’ve been out of sight before Varney’s equaliser. Factor into the equation the absence of Byram and the team’s achievements so far are to be applauded.
The first four weeks of the season revealed a team that lacked a little for pace, creativity and a cutting edge. That the side has been able to cope with many of those shortcomings is down to unity, a keen sense of discipline and ability to dig in on the pitch and although the arrival of that elusive winger would’ve cheered many, there remains significant cause for optimism.
With the Bolton game still 10 days away, Leeds’ squad will probably have Byram, Mowatt and Wootton to complement the party that travelled to Leicester a month previously; a more defensively sound, pacy and creative outfit altogether. In a division of few remarkable teams, positive contributions from those three might just keep Leeds in contention until the turn of the year.
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