Leeds are at a crossroads: Survive and 49ers buy out the club, Elland Road gets makeover and new training ground is built. Go down and it’s a talent fire sale and a fight to come back up
- Leeds are in purgatory with their future prospects on and off the pitch uncertain
- Sam Allardyce has been tasked with keeping an unbalanced squad afloat
- Newcastle travel to Elland Road with Allardyce under no illusions of the situation
It was not long ago that Sam Allardyce considered himself done with football. Scarred by a spell at West Bromwich during the Covid pandemic, the 68-year-old said to a friend last month: ‘It’s somebody else’s turn to deal with the madness now.’
Yet this week Allardyce sat behind a desk and issued what sounded like a pretty stark warning to the players of what has now become the 13th club of his managerial career, Leeds United.
‘I told them, “When we come off the field on Saturday, we can’t afford to have lost”,’ said Allardyce ahead of Saturday’s home game with Newcastle.
‘This is a cauldron in terms of the pressure we have put on ourselves. But the fear needs to drive them on. The fear of relegation should make them fight hard for their club and their status.’
At Leeds there is much to be lost. A playing squad Allardyce feels lacks balance and numbers will take 50 per cent wage cuts if the Yorkshire club cannot lift its head off the canvas and is relegated over the next fortnight.
Sam Allardyce has made no secret of the situation Leeds United find themselves in
The club faces a sliding doors moment against Newcastle – win and the future looks bright, lose and a squad fire sale beckons
Should Leeds remain in the Premier League then a significant redevelopment of the ground can proceed
As for the bigger picture, that is less clear. Leeds are part-owned by an offshoot of the San Francisco 49ers NFL franchise and a 44 per cent stake is expected to become a full buy-out this summer if Leeds remain in the Premier League.
With that would come investment in the squad and an acceleration of £100million plans to upgrade Elland Road into a 60,000-capacity stadium and move the club’s training facility from Wetherby into the city. It would, in short, be the start of a new future for a football club that has already seen a 98 per cent take-up on season tickets for 2023-24 with a further 20,000 fans on a waiting list.
But if Leeds drop into the Championship, the immediate intentions of the 49ers investment group are unknown. Inside the club, majority shareholder Andrea Radrizzani and chief executive Angus Kinnear remain optimistic that the Americans’ commitment to Leeds will not waver. They are hopeful clarity may come early next month.
From the 49ers, however, there has been no indication at all. Earlier this season, back when life felt simpler, the 49ers representative on the Leeds board, Paraag Marathe, told the BBC he had fallen in love with Leeds. ‘I am one of those supporters where Leeds has become my family,’ he said.
But if Allardyce cannot drag Leeds out of deep water by getting results against Newcastle, West Ham and Tottenham, then we will soon find out just how strong and how binding that love really is.
Allardyce’s third game as manager of West Brom in December 2020 was against Leeds and they lost 5-0. ‘They came to the Hawthorns and just blew us away,’ he admitted. That Leeds team belonged to Marcelo Bielsa, the revered Argentinian coach who took Leeds out of the Championship to a ninth-placed Premier League finish.
That was peak Leeds. Hungry, talented, energetic and with points to prove. The Leeds team of May 2023 retains the energy but has long since been characterised by chaotic, frantic football. They have won only three times in the league since the start of November and a dismal run of recent results includes a pair of 4-1 defeats at Arsenal and Bournemouth and catastrophic 6-1 and 5-1 home hammerings by Liverpool and Crystal Palace.
Bielsa’s successor, Jesse Marsch, was almost sacked last October before eventually going in February. Marsch — long admired by the now departed director of football Victor Orta — was made for Leeds in some ways. His passion, confidence and brashness mirrored that of a home support that has never taken a backward step in front of anyone. But the American’s tactics were full of holes.
Allardyce admitted Marcelo Bielsa’s side blew his West Brom team away in December 2020
Ask Pep Guardiola or Sir Alex Ferguson how important clean sheets are, insisted Allardyce
When Allardyce bumped into Leeds legend Eddie Gray this week, the two men talked about the value of clean sheets. ‘If you don’t believe me, then ask Eddie,’ said Allardyce on Thursday. ‘And if you don’t believe Eddie, ask Pep Guardiola and Sir Alex Ferguson. Clean sheets win leagues.’
Marsch’s Leeds had kept only four this season by the time he left. As one source explained: ‘Jesse was all front foot and aggressive, in-your-face football. But there was never a Plan B. To him, Plan B was to try Plan A again.
‘He liked to play that man-to-man midfield game which was fine when he was manager at Red Bull Salzburg. But when you lose your man in the Austrian league, you may get away with it. In the Premier League, you do not.’
The Bielsa-Marsch succession had long been thought out by Orta. What happened when Marsch left was anything but. Leeds missed out on a number of targets and almost gave the job to Under 21 coach Michael Skubala.
Eventually Javi Gracia, a Spaniard once of Watford, arrived and on reflection this was the period when the opportunity for Leeds to reboot their season passed them by. Gracia was the wrong coach and the wrong personality. ‘A nice guy but quiet,’ said one source. ‘He did nothing to lift or change the mood. Allardyce has done that already.’
Leeds have strongly denied suggestions of a player bust-up at half-time of the Palace defeat. Still, a second-half collapse that turned a 1-1 scoreline into a disastrous 5-1 demolition brought an end to a progressive run of results under Gracia. Four games and one point later, he was sacked.
In the January transfer window, Leeds also stumbled. People in football will tell you they have a decent squad but will also say it contains too few proven Premier League players and too many young footballers asked to adapt to the English game too soon.
Leeds, for example, do not have a goalscorer. As Allardyce himself said: ‘The squad doesn’t have a match-winner. At Sunderland in 2016, we stayed up and I could rely on Jermain Defoe. He got me out of trouble by scoring 15 goals.’
Victor Orta fell on his sword after the club decided to part ways with Javi Gracia this month
Should Leeds stay up then the club will be set for a full buyout by an offshoot of the San Francisco 49ers
The 32-year-old Spaniard Rodrigo is Leeds’ top league scorer this season with 12. Nobody else has scored more than five. But when Orta went shopping for a solution in January, he came back with a 21-year-old Frenchman called Georginio Rutter for a club-record £35m. Rutter has started once in the Premier League.
‘This is the problem with Leeds,’ said one well-connected source. ‘They have some talented players but not enough of them are oven-ready for the Premier League. In January they could have bought someone like Danny Ings. Not flash, but reliable. But they signed Rutter and it’s hard to see how they thought a signing like that would get them out of trouble.
‘How many genuinely impactful signings have Leeds made in recent times? Probably not enough.’
Jesse Marsch was nearly sacked last October but held onto his job until February this year
Javi Gracia looked to have briefly instilled some mettle and resolve into the squad but his plans soon after lay in tatters
The Leeds squad has an American presence. Tyler Adams, currently injured, Brenden Aaronson and Weston McKennie all played against England for the USA at the World Cup. Sources say the fact they were signed on the watch of an American coach is coincidental.
Regardless, the trio are expected to be among a group of players that will have to be moved on — McKennie is on loan from Juventus — if Leeds do get relegated. The club would look to raise in excess of £100m ahead of a return to the Championship and reshaping the squad would be a challenge given Allardyce’s observation that it currently isn’t big enough.
One positive is the fact Leeds have a crop of young players below first-team level highly regarded in the game. It is anticipated that a Leeds Championship squad would continue to feature experienced players such as Liam Cooper, Luke Ayling and Adam Forshaw but also youngsters like Joe Gelhardt, Archie Gray, Sam Greenwood and Charlie Cresswell.
A dressing room bust up at half-time against Crystal Palace has been denied but it is clear morale hit rock bottom
Centre-forward Georginio Rutter has come to signify the side’s lack of Premier League experience
Leeds will need a new director of football to oversee whatever happens this summer after Orta fell on his sword along with Gracia. The Spaniard didn’t agree with the move to sack his compatriot.
The club will also need a manager and their former Under 23s boss Carlos Corberan is likely to be considered. Corberan is under contract at West Brom but his deal is understood to include a buy-out.
Asked if Leeds have a structure and foundation in place to make a swift return, Allardyce paused. It’s a hypothetical question at the moment but may not be for long.
‘It’s a hard question,’ he said. ‘If the ultimate happens — and we don’t really mention the “R” word — I think they could get up again. But remember this squad numbers only about 18, not 25. With players sold off, it would make it more difficult. But yes, it could be done.’
Elland Road will be a lively old place at kick-off on Saturday. Despite a failing team, it always is.
‘I loved playing here and loved the atmosphere,’ said Allardyce, a central defender of standing for Bolton and Preston. ‘It may be an old stadium but it’s still Elland Road and all that it stands for.’ Allardyce is right about that. When a party from Leeds travelled to California last year to take a look at the 49ers’ marvellous Levi’s Stadium, they were introduced to one of the most modern sports venues in the world.
It’s futuristic and Elland Road, by comparison, feels like it just needs a bit of a wash. But Marathe was right when he offered this view of Leeds’ famous ground last year. He knows what it is and what indeed it could become.
‘The main thing is to protect the magic and electricity that is in Elland Road,’ he said. ‘That points to an expansion rather than relocation. I don’t want to take away from that aura. If other clubs are going to list their worst places to play, Elland Road is going be among their top one or two.’
Elland Road will be a feverish place at kick-off on Saturday – it always is, but Allardyce has admitted he fears the reaction if they concede first
Marathe talks a good game in many ways. He is on the phone to Radrizzani or Kinnear at 6am most days and is aware that the club the 49ers first bought into back in 2018 may be about to reach something of a crossroads.
If Leeds stay up this season, they will not need to sell players to bulk up the squad and that will be a first. Last summer they sold England midfielder Kalvin Phillips to Manchester City for £45m and Brazilian forward Raphinha to Barcelona for slightly more.
For now, though, the baton is not yet in American hands. Allardyce has it. This week, one of the first things he did was give his players a day off. ‘There is nothing better than brain space,’ he said.
On the grass, his assistant Karl Robinson has been most visible but the strategy will come from the experienced guy at the top of the pyramid.
Allardyce has said that if he keeps Leeds in the Premier League then it would be one of the best survival jobs of his career
‘We can’t overload the players with information,’ said Allardyce. ‘We could spend hours on the training ground. But we need to break it down. As a coach you want to get through certain things but the last thing we want to do is leave our strength on the training ground. Hopefully, we have balanced that off this week.’
Leeds’ players could do with some of their temporary manager’s sense of calm on Saturday. They have looked frazzled for weeks now. Allardyce admits he fears what could happen if Newcastle score first and that speaks volumes. The challenge, in the short-term at least, is clear.
‘I wouldn’t have joined every club in the Premier League with four games to go but because it’s Leeds it was a quick decision,’ he said. ‘My wife thinks I am mental, of course. But if I can keep Leeds up, I am doing a great job for the Premier League.
‘They were out of it far too long. It has taken an awful lot of pain to get back here and that would have been wasted if we go down. If I keep Leeds up in four games, that will be the best one of my career. But I am just a man who tries to get you out of the mire. We will see what happens here after that.’
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