THE chaotic accounts drawn up by Leeds United for the last financial year will be softened to an extent by money drawn from the transfer market shortly after the year’s end.
A loss of £23m in the 2013-14 accountancy period did not include cash accrued from the sale of Ross McCormack or Matt Smith, and for an injection of over £11m Leeds must be grateful. It equates to almost half of the club’s annual turnover.
A few months on from those transfers to Fulham, the debate can be had about which club struck the better deal. The strikers were United’s top scorers last season - McCormack with 29 goals, Smith with 13 - but Fulham travel to Elland Road this weekend with no great return to show for their investment.
There are two ways of judging the transfers - how badly Leeds have missed the pair, McCormack in particular, and how greatly Fulham have benefitted from paying £10.75m for the Scot and another £600,000 for Smith. They were over-the-odds fees, certainly in the case of McCormack, and signings made by a doomed manager in Felix Magath.
Where Fulham are concerned, their impact is self-evident. The club sent Smith on loan to Bristol City last month after less than 45 minutes of first-team football and a red card on his debut. McCormack has five goals to his name and only four of in the Championship. This time last season he was four short of 20.
For Magath, the impression made by his squad as a whole was fatally poor. Fulham sacked him midway through September, a time when the club were bottom of the league. The German voiced concerns about McCormack’s fitness when the striker signed from Leeds in July - a problem exacerbated by an unhappy summer in which McCormack fell out with United owner Massimo Cellino and missed most of pre-season prior to his transfer - but the forward has suffered from positional issues to.
McCormack thrived at the tip of United’s attack and was most content as an out-and-out striker. At Craven Cottage he has reverted to something resembling the number 10 role which former Leeds boss Brian McDermott asked of him without success. McCormack occupied that position through gritted teeth but was more effective and potent further up the field. At present, for Fulham, he has more assists than goals.
The squad at Elland Road changed so drastically over the summer that it would be simplistic to argue that Leeds are worse off without McCormack, but certain statistics suggest as much. The club have 10 points fewer than they did after 20 games last season. They are also eight goals down. On average United produced more chances and more shots on target with the 28-year-old in their line-up. Those were always likely to be side-effects of selling the Championship’s top scorer.
Where Smith was concerned, Leeds had no substitute for a player of his size. Cellino was perfectly willing to sanction his departure on transfer deadline day but if Leeds can find loopholes in their inevitable transfer embargo next month, the Italian will look for a forward in a similar mould - strong, imposing and blessed with the height which United as a team lack.
As compensation for McCormack, United signed Mirco Antenucci, a striker who scored his eighth goal of the season away at Ipswich last weekend. He and McCormack are comparable in many respects: possessing the same physique and pace, happiest playing off the shoulder and adept at sniffing for chances inside the box. McCormack’s game would still suit United’s style, just as Antenucci’s does.
The contrast in their contributions this season points again to the consequences of their differing roles. Antenucci has claimed more goals than McCormack and produced more shots on target, more efforts inside the box. McCormack is threatening from a longer range and his creation of chances is far in excess of Antenucci’s. It suggests that while the Italian is being used in his natural position, McCormack has been taken out of his. It remains to be seen whether Fulham give McCormack greater prominence at Elland Road on Saturday.
It was said during the summer that McCormack’s value would never exceed the near-£11m that Fulham were offering to pay for him. With Antenucci, whose transfer from Ternana is reported to have cost Leeds £1m, head coach Neil Redfearn sees ample room for improvement, even in a striker who turned 30 in September.
“I think he’s got better as the season’s gone on,” Redfearn said. “He impressed me right from the beginning but I still think he could play one or two different positions and open his mind to other things.
“He’s got so much going for him and his touch and awareness are unbelievable. Stick him in front of goal and he’ll finish. His understanding of that role has got better and better.”
That was McCormack’s talent last season: the knack of producing goals whenever Leeds needed them. By the end of the club’s 46th league game there was a remarkable statistic showing that United won only three matches in which the Scot failed to score. Cellino, nonetheless, claimed his tally of 29 was an anomaly. In Cellino’s view, McCormack’s entire career showed him to be a 15-goal-a-year player.
The two men parted on bad terms in July, disagreeing bitterly over the reasons for his transfer, and McCormack will be back at Elland Road for the first time this weekend. He has politely turned down interview requests, choosing to keep a low profile, but he will not go unnoticed on Saturday. “You’re worth what someone is willing to pay for you,” he said after joining Fulham. Leeds might still feel that the bargain was theirs.