Thursday, 28 June 2012

The grass isn’t always greener, unless you’ve been ploughing through mud


A seven year reign in which Leeds United has stagnated in progress via administration, twenty-five deducted league points and three years in the lowest reaches of the club’s history appears to be coming to a close. A statement on the official website stated that the club have ‘granted an exclusivity period to enable a potential investor to carry out the appropriate due diligence’, signalling the final stretch before a new era begins at Elland Road.

Whilst no clues have been given from official sources as to whom the new investors are, nationwide rumours have suggested parties from America, the Middle East and even Canada. Some are helpless with frenzy, dreaming of Galactico’s and silverware. Others remain firm-footed, focussing on the positivity and change that appears imminent at the club. All that remains consistent within the hopes and thoughts of the Leeds United faithful, though, is the near unanimous opinion that after seven years of questionable leadership, the change in ownership is overdue.

Uncertainty remains regarding the identity of the potential owners’ or their intentions and wealth. Dreaming of re-union clashes with Manchester United and Chelsea may be a bit too premature, especially considering the challenges still ahead of United. Manager Neil Warnock has labelled the task of re-building the squad as ‘major surgery’. This isn’t a videogame, though. Surgery doesn’t usually include trying to move on a surplus-to-requirements appendix sitting on a three year contract. Without significant investment, immediate success is possibly an unrealistic aim.

The transfer list at Elland Road is far from ideal, with six players on presumably comfortable wages available for transfer. Considering the quality (or rather, lack of) on a list including Paul Connolly and Billy Paynter, as well Leeds’ recent record in moving on unwanted first-teamers, the usual route of contract termination seems a predictable (and expensive) inevitability. Meanwhile, the club is covering the medical costs and wages of long-term casualties Leigh Bromby and Paddy Kisnorbo. Fans have estimated the need for 7 or 8 first-team standard players in order to foresee the club’s rise to the top of the division. All-in-all, promotion with Leeds United will not be cheap.

It’s a tall order with such unwanted weight. Admirable surges in the Football League in recent years have become a common feat, with Southampton and Norwich following in the footsteps of Swansea. The Welsh side’s prominent rise saw them reach the Premier League from League One in the space of four years, with fellow managers watching in awe, desperately revising the common link between the three to deduce the winning formula. Obvious conclusions state that the club’s desire and quality in their management and playing staff is pivotal, whilst the ambition of the board of directors cannot be questioned. Just as important, though, is their consistency throughout the playing staff. Clubs carrying dead weight will always fall behind. Those that can depend on the consistent quality throughout their squad will usually be the cream of the crop.

Unless heavy investment is afoot, the chances of promotion at the first time of asking seem slim. Even with investment, nothing is guaranteed. Whilst Bates’ stringent exercises often follow with a tired lecture on Leicester’s failed season, his reference point has some validity. It often becomes far too easy to fall victim to beginner’s mistakes when introducing yourself to new found wealth. Tiring footballers looking for their last pay-day and over-inflated wages can become a regular occurrence. Nevertheless, this does not become an excuse to spend just a third of your revenue on the playing staff, in-case you fancy buying a team of your own.

This isn’t written in an attempt to undermine any positivity surrounding the club, but rather bring realism to the forefront. For far too long a suffocating grip has choked the club into surrendering apathy, leaving inadequacy and disappointment a regular end-of-season finale, only to be simply sighed and shrugged at before the cycle begins again. Our frustrations at the current regime are closing in on an eighth year, making it far too easy to jump the gun and become delirious at the proposition of a change in leadership. Such expectation of change could easily lead to early frustration and disappointment, though, if immediate success isn’t brought. Sadly, the departure of Ken Bates (hopefully alongside Peter Lorimer and Shaun Harvey) does not immediately clear the club from the effects of the last seven years. The lack of quality in the squad will need to be addressed, alongside the short and long term future of side projects including Yorkshire Radio (Bates’ loss-making token idea).

Despite this, the opportunity for change can only come as a positive step in the long-term future for United. Ken Bates’ period at Elland Road could technically be described as stagnant. Leeds have dropped just three places since Bates’ arrival, though the story isn’t told in such mediocre tones. Continuing financial trouble saw the club suffer relegation, two separate point deductions and three years in League One, the lowest depth the club has bared witness to. Despite promotion in 2010, more angst ensued after the departure of key players with a less than favourable return. A verbal war between the support and board saw Bates effectively kiss any hopes of winning the fans’ over goodbye, causing the first organised protest at the start of the 2011/12 campaign, with Bates returning a damning retort, labelling the fans as ‘dissidents’ and ‘morons’.

The fans are not alone in their lack of confidence in the current regime. A recent statement from the supporters’ trust stated that star players within the squad had become disillusioned and unhappy at the current leadership at Leeds, stressing that it could soon turn into the reason for their departure. An unhealthy relationship between the boardroom and dressing room could have resulted in fireworks. The imminent takeover has calmed a potential storm (and large exodus of higher level quality).

Ambition levels have been questioned recently, with star man Robert Snodgrass postponing contract negotiations in order to analyse the quality of player recruitment over the summer period. So far, three uninspiring but soundly competent players have joined the rank at Elland Road. Jason Pearce, Adam Drury and Paul Green begin the rebuilding process, all in a relatively cheap manner. Just £300k has been parted with. These are not the marquee signings that cripple your opponents with fear, nor should they act as the highlight of our summer activity. Alongside match-winners and a bit more luxury, however, and they become worthwhile jigsaws in a successful Championship side.

Any new owner at Leeds should already be aware of the height of expectation that surrounds the club. Despite recent poor showing and financial footing, the club is built on one of the most prestigious histories in the country, backed by a relentless following whose support remains unconditional. A shadow of what it should be, Leeds United is a sleeping giant, stirring more with each passing day. To unleash the potential of the club, the new board must prioritise a solid connection with the support, in particular the supporters' trust. Extensive investigations as to who remains in a professional capacity should also be of paramount importance. Frankly, those that think they can suggest dubbing the Crimewatch theme over the harassing pursuit of an elderly pensioner aren't fit to hold a job here.

Without a running start, rapid progress and significant investment, any new owner will find it difficult to take care of all of United's priorities before the final curtain at Watford in May. A long term plan seeing the club reach the Premier League within the next two seasons may be more beneficial and firm-footed. This doesn't alter the positivity of the future, however. The end of apathy is near. There is light at the end of the tunnel.