Leeds United: Uneasy union which finished in divorce

Ross McCormack.
Ross McCormack.
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UNited owner Massimo Cellino insisted he did not need to sell Ross mcCormack, but it the end it made sense for all parties.

At close to £11million, Ross McCormack’s transfer to Fulham has broken a few records. He is, for now, the most expensive Scotland international in history and the subject of the largest fee ever exchanged between two English clubs outside the Premier League.

Cardiff City stand to receive 15 per cent of the money paid to Leeds United – a valuable legacy of McCormack’s move from Cardiff to Elland Road in 2010 – but the sell-on clause will not alter the view that Leeds have eked out every penny of their captain’s worth. In financial terms, this piece of business is staggeringly good; a deal which came in over the odds.

Where football is concerned, the void in United’s squad is as big as the fee and Massimo Cellino knows it. The last time he spoke publicly about McCormack, Cellino talked of the striker “playing for three players” last season and carrying a club who would have been relegated without him. Other owners of Leeds have been in the Italian’s shoes before – rich on the proceeds of a player sold but compelled now to compensate for the talent lost.

Cellino has had time to ponder his next move. For the past few weeks the only obstacle to McCormack’s departure was the Italian’s propensity for calling the shots. Like so many transfers out of Elland Road, Fulham’s interest in McCormack and the Scot’s mutual interest in joining them went beyond the point of no return a while ago, specifically when a transfer request arrived from McCormack’s camp last month.

Around that time, Cellino described his reluctance to sell McCormack as “a matter of principle not money” but through the latter stages of the summer they spoke privately and repeatedly about the possibility of him moving on. Cellino wanted to keep him, or so McCormack was told, but would sanction any move which was priced correctly and clearly in the 27-year-old’s interests. Fulham’s valuation fulfilled one half of Cellino’s bargain – a top price if not an obvious destination.

McCormack’s own attitude was never much of a secret. He felt sceptical about Cellino’s strategy at Leeds and the cutbacks made by the club’s president since his takeover on April 7. That concern lingered from as far back as January when, with Cellino in the process of attempting to sack Brian McDermott and offers arriving for McCormack at the same time, the Scot felt the urge to drive to Elland Road and ask directly about his own future. For all Cellino’s resistance then, the subject was bound to resurface this summer.

McCormack’s expressions of commitment to Leeds, particularly in the past few months, were tempered by caveats relating to the club’s ambition and direction. In short, the message was that he’d prefer to stay if staying made sense. His tally of 29 goals last season was unrivalled by any forward in the Championship but Leeds finished behind 14 other teams. “I don’t want another year like that,” he said. “It’s no good being done and dusted by April.”

At the start of May, shortly before McCormack won the YEP’s player-of-the-year award and most of the club’s annual prizes, he reflected on Cellino’s admission that promotion in the season ahead – in theory, McCormack’s fifth at Leeds – was a feint expectation.

“If the quotes from him are right and he’s said he doesn’t expect promotion next year, that’s not something us as players want to hear or hang around for,” McCormack admitted. “At the end of the day, you want to go up and be part of a promotion here.”

McCormack was part of very little during the final days of his career at Leeds. He reported for training as planned on June 26 but underwent a medical with Fulham soon after, in anticipation of a move to London. The expectation at the beginning of last week was that he would join Fulham in a matter of days and McCormack was absent from the Leeds squad which flew to Italy for a pre-season camp and two friendlies, the first of which will be played tomorrow night. He travelled to Thorp Arch yesterday to tie up loose ends but he did not train there while the rest of United’s senior players were abroad. All sides of this deal have been waiting for the nod, a nod which came from Cellino late on Monday night. The ponderables are numerous and debatable. Does McCormack have any more 30-goal seasons in him? Was Fulham’s offer above the line where the money mattered more than his finishing touch? Cellino’s bargaining has saved him from any accusation that McCormack was being sold on the on the cheap but he cannot downplay the striker’s form. Up until the last fortnight for the 2013-14 term, McCormack scored more league goals than the rest of United’s players combined. Only three of the club’s wins were registered without the help of McCormack scoring. Leeds possess a squad in desperate need of improvement and restoration but at the point where McCormack signed a four-year contract with Fulham, United’s new signings numbered one – goalkeeper Stuart Taylor.

At the unveiling of new head coach David Hockaday on June 19, Cellino said he would only sell McCormack to “Liverpool, Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid.” He didn’t need the money, he claimed, and every offer for McCormack was coming from the Championship.

It was pointed out to Cellino that previous owners of Leeds had failed in the past to keep similar promises. “I’m not like the others,” Cellino replied. It turns out that he is, or at least in the respect that McCormack has gone. Where Cellino can show himself to be different is by making sure that the gaping hole left by McCormack – and other weaknesses in the squad besides – are addressed with the talent £11m can buy.