Leeds in better times...
Are Leeds United About To Hit The Heights Or Plummet To Disaster?
People don’t like change. Not real change. They might think they do, but more often than not, they don’t. They might eventually accept change, accommodate it, get used to it and grow to like the new state they are in, but the onset of real change is often terrifying. Lack of knowledge, understanding or perspective generates fear and people instinctively push against it.
That’s where Leeds United fans find themselves now. Thrashing around in the bright glare of change, unsure whether to accept it and see where it takes them, or uncomfortable with the rate of change and worried that darkness will descend.
I was recently asked how I felt about Leeds United and had to admit I have never felt like this before about the club: I don’t know what’s going to happen.
Will it be great? Will it be a disaster? Will it be Southampton or will it be Portsmouth?
Trying to find a comparison I found myself thinking about the mountain paths I’ve walked up in India. They lead somewhere fantastic, but all the time you’re just a couple of wrong steps away from a plummeting disaster.
It’s very hard when you have something as emotional as a football supporter to separate the fact from the fiction, the lies and the propaganda from the good intent. Every time you read something you have to know that whoever has sewn the seed for that story has done so with a deliberate intent. To reassure or to unsettle, to inform or to cloud.
My intention here? To try and separate how I feel about something from understanding what is actually going on. And also to put into words a hope that it will be all right.
Historical expectation combined with the utter chaos of the last few years of Leeds United has led to a hypersensitivity amongst the fans and press about what is or isn’t happening. Social media means we’re always on, sitting there, permanently staring at the life-support machine as it bleeps away. Only this life support machine also has it’s own permanent news and rumour feed.
People have agendas, sides, prejudices and suspicion. Our new owner Mr Cellino doesn’t come quietly, he likes the rock and roll life in Miami, he talks like a supporting character out of Scarface, he’s bullish, loud, forthright, and has a past dipped in frequent controversy.
When he was first associated with the club, an Italian football expert I know told me: “He’s no worse than Bates or Ridsdale, the fans of Cagliari love him.” The first comment isn’t exactly inspiring, the second might be questionable. But he is certainly a lot more likeable than Bates and Ridsdale.
He has at times been both bold and cack-handed – although that’s pretty common when you have to make changes to move something on significantly.
However I think so much of the suspicion and the fear emanates from the fact that we don’t know him. If it were a British business or sports figure implementing the changes that he’s bringing to the club, it might be easier to recognise his intent.
To me he seems to be performing the key surgery needed to stop the club from rotting away. In the short term he needs Leeds United to stop spending money. Simple as that. Prisoner Cell Block Haigh had a vision of filling Elland Road for every home game just by giving mince pies away. It didn’t happen, and the business lost more money under GFH than it had been doing under Bates.
With restricted revenues because of mortgaged tickets the only way to bring it into line is to reduce the outgoings savagely. It’s not a nice thing to do, but losing a million pounds a month isn’t a nice thing to be doing either.
If it were a British business or sports figure implementing the changes that Cellino's bringing to the club, it might be easier to recognise his intent.
In the short term people who love and support and rely on the club will lose their income, which is harsh. People rightly point out that these people on short-term contracts and low wages go whilst the high earners who under-perform on the pitch sit pretty. I’ve heard someone address that for the first time recently, and it came from Benny Carbone with some long-term common sense in his assessment of the Academy.
If you look around at clubs with smaller incomes they have to rely on growing their own players, but we’ve always seemed to think somehow we are better than that. Or we need a quicker solution. People are raving about Southampton’s recent youth policy but if you go back over the last twenty years and count the number of international footballers who have come out of our youth system you have to wonder why we haven’t put more effort on fast-tracking youth into the first team: Byram, Lees, Delph, Lennon, Milner, Smith, McPhail, Harte, Kelly, Kewell, Woodgate are all international tournament players. So many of the great eras of successful English football teams have been built around youth team graduates.
When Carbone announced that the youth team was full of talented youngsters who love the club and that the model would be to have five first team players from the youth team and others brought in it was the most important thing anyone has said at LUFC for years.
Whether you rate Tom Lees or Dom Poleon as good enough for LUFC or not, the reality is that from a combined business and sporting perspective they are a better option than Noel Hunt and Lee Peltier.
The Italian football writer I know went on to tell me that the model at Cellino’s last club is to develop young talent and sell it on. My hope dropped when I heard that but look where we’ve been in last five years? If we still had the team Simon Grayson lead out of League 1 we would probably have been long-since promoted to the Premiership alongside former third tier sides Southampton and Norwich.
Cutting costs and investing in youth can be good things – especially if those costs are on luxury squad players like Neil Warnock specialised in. Shaking systems up and making key people question what they put in is important for the simple reason that over the last ten years whatever has been tried hasn’t worked.
We’ve had some great seasons, fantastic performances and players we’ve loved to watch but the reality right now is Leeds United feels like it is almost running on empty, the squad is overstuffed with deadwood that is stifling the youth, and we haven’t improved managerially since Gus Poyet left Wise. And most importantly we aren’t where we want to be which is winning silverware, competing for Europe, smashing goals in, and winning points against the best teams in England.
It’s disappointing to hear club legends are being let go from official hospitality jobs but any smart sponsor could quickly hire these guys for their own boxes or client entertaining experiences. You would like to think that if the club gets back on its feet commercially there will be opportunities for them to earn a living at Elland Road again.
The biggest question mark sits over who will be the new coach. Coach, and not a manager. A key factor here is that football is corrupt. Lots of managers expect a cut of transfer fees - and in one recent case for us, appearance fees too. If you were spending millions on a business would you not want to control the expenditure on talent?
There have been Premier League sackings over the last few years that have shocked football fans because on the pitch the teams have been doing well but behind the scenes huge chunks of money has gone missing from transfer deals. This seems to be something that sharper, richer international businessmen want to cut out.
Admittedly the idea of a non-football coach picking the team horrifies people but haven’t we all said we could do better ourselves? Haven’t we all seen performances that were terrible or inspired and then wondered why the same players are or aren’t playing next game? Cellino has kept his former club, which was a tiny set-up, in the top Italian league for the best part of 20 years. He’s a not a bloke who just cashed in his haulage firm and decided he wants a new toy.
The coach/manager is the key man in any sports business and the speed at which he goes through them isn’t inspiring, but a recent study of managerial longevity in the Premier League concluded that Chelsea were operating a successful policy by having a high turnover of managers. Then again they do have billions.
Like all clubs, Cellino’s time at Leeds will rise or fall by what happens on the pitch, but one thing he is quite clear about is that he knows what he is doing. He wants to handle the business affairs. He doesn’t want any dodgy players coming in because the manager shares the same agent with the player. He wants young players who are developed in a fantastic training facility to know they are expected to make the grade of the first team and that they will be given a chance to do so. He wants the business to stop losing money. He wants to do all this and shape it into a club that can achieve promotion. If he didn’t appear to be an Italian rock and roll nutter in shades and an electric guitar we would welcome all of these intentions.
We will soon find out if he is good at appointing a coach, good at selecting players and I’m sure he will discover things about English football that are different to Italy. Whatever happens I get the impression he will change things quickly if it isn’t working. One thing for sure is he gives the impression he wants the glory that goes with success and you can’t get that if you sit still or head downwards.
In two years time, I hope we will be sitting at the top of a mountain thinking: “F*** that was hard but what a view,” and not lying at the bottom of it, wondering what hit us.
James Brown appears on The Warm Up on talkSPORT from 11am-2pm every Saturday and Sunday throughout the World Cup. Follow him on Twitter @jamesjamesbrown