The success of Leeds United’s summer to date can be judged on the group of players who have trained at Thorp Arch during the past 10 days.
In simple terms the club’s squad contains more transfer-listed members than it does new signings; under-subscribed for pre-season and nowhere near ready for the main event.
There is time yet to remedy that but the periphery of the new Championship season will soon be counted in days rather than weeks. The laboured trudge towards supplying the club’s manager, Neil Warnock, with the squad he asked for cannot continue much longer, not unless next season is to rest on a wing, a prayer and the scramble that is the latter stages of the transfer window.
Beyond the obvious shortage of money at Elland Road – a shortage which seems insurmountable without external investment – and a transfer market which one agent called “painfully slow in general”, the pending takeover of Leeds United is the cause of this. It is to be hoped that a takeover will also be the solution. As and when they take their seats, the priority of the club’s prospective new owners must be to give their manager a chance.
There is a crackle of excitement in Leeds and rightly so. The time is right for fresh funding, a fresh attitude, a fresh start. Nothing says that more than Warnock’s struggle in the transfer market or a week of speculation about the future of Robert Snodgrass. If the buyers in question have a finger in the air or a proper handle on social media they will know that they are wanted, regardless of their anonymity and the absence of any vision statement. It should be clear too that they are needed with some urgency.
That is, of course, assuming that their intentions are honourable and their colours don’t run. It is churlish to roll out the be-careful-what-you-wish-for mantra when credible information about the investors goes no further than strong links to the Middle East and Bahrain in particular. Leeds seem convinced by their suitability and Warnock does too. Warnock, you would think, has worked under too many loose cannons to pander to any future employers. It is his view and his continuing commitment to Leeds which engenders optimism.
It is essential first that the takeover crosses the line; that the promise of change comes to something meaningful. But with due patience, United’s new owners will deserve the same careful scrutiny which Ken Bates and the present board at Leeds have experienced.
The natural assumption is that the buyers have riches or substantial wealth. They will be expected to prove as much quickly. On the basis that Leeds expect them to pass the Football League’s Owners and Directors Test, their moral fibre ought not to be in doubt. What matters to Leeds and their supporters in particular is their understanding of how English football works and their creation of a coherent plan to enhance a fine club. It is a heavy responsibility, as they will find out.
Might the buyers, for example, look at Snodgrass’ situation and ask why he has not been ring-fenced against all-but ludicrous offers to sign him. He is Leeds’ most talented player and their most valuable. Moreover, he is the player who United’s manager sought to retain above all others between April and September. It is hard to see how he could countenance Snodgrass’ departure with anything other than a desperately heavy heart.
Leeds did their bit by rejecting a £1.5m offer from Norwich City on Monday, but the fact the Canaries returned with an improved bid within 72 hours suggests they believe a deal is there to be done. Far from coming to life this week, it appears that Norwich’s intentions have been known for much of the close season. They are set on making this transfer happen. And if the incumbent regime at Elland Road are indeed preparing to vacate the building, selling Snodgrass would be a fitting end to much of what has gone before.
Any sale will come with standard explanations – Snodgrass wanted Premier League football, his contract is running down, it makes financial sense, as it did with Jonathan Howson in January. But the doubt surrounding him is a consequence of the way the summer has gone. It has failed to keep the wolf from the door.
Warnock admitted some time ago that the only motivation for Snodgrass to sign a new and improved contract would be indisputable proof that Leeds were building a squad capable of toppling the Championship next season. Even allowing for four encouraging signings, that is still a promise rather than a reality. The transformation has not been spectacular enough, not with Warnock constrained by what virtually amounts to a one in, one out policy.
The purpose of any takeover – or any takeover involving a stable club – should be to nurture the club over a period of years. The grand scheme of United’s next owners is ultimately more important than what happens over the course of a single season. But the season ahead matters, to Warnock, his players, to potential signings and to the thousands who waded in to buy season tickets on the back of a lame campaign. There is a risk amid heady talk of new ownership that the task in hand is neglected or forgotten.
It is why confirmation of a takeover will only be the start of all that needs to happen. In four weeks’ time, Wolverhampton Wanderers come to Elland Road for the first match of the Championship season. Before long that fixture will be tomorrow - much like the buy-out of Leeds United has been for several weeks. So close to completion yet not quite official; the ultimate game of patience. As one supporter said yesterday: “It’s the hope that kills you.”