The Square Ball Week: Adrift

In 2017-18, Free, Leeds United, The Square Ball Week by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

For Leeds United supporters the Championship play-offs are a taunt that we can’t ignore. They’re a five match reminder of our aim for the season, as a minimum, and how we missed, and by how much.

That said, it’s becoming a welcome annual opportunity to laugh at Derby County, whose failure to win promotion every season is even more hilarious than ours, because the fools allow their hopes to last much longer. This week we pointed and laughed as they were beaten by Fulham, but with some self-awareness; the older Scott Carson gets, the more likely it seems we’ll be signing him again shortly, to complete the circle from having him at Elland Road when he was too young to be a capable goalkeeper in the Championship, to bringing him back when he’s too old. We’re all dreaming of James Milner returning to save us, but history tells us it’ll be Scott Carson coming back to bury us.

Carson might be all we can afford. That was the other aspect of watching the play-offs, apart from the Cloughdenfreude: economics. The final will be Aston Villa vs Fulham, and as the frustration of Leeds United has driven us all to smoking habits in 2018, there were plenty of fag packets around on which to frantically calculate that while Fulham are the better team, we really need Villa to win and piss off out of our division.

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Derby County have already shown what repeated failure to win promotion can do. After burning through millions trying to get out of the Championship, chairman Mel Morris announced as soon as the play-off semi-final was lost that the spending will have to stop. He’s open to offers for their top scorer Matej Vydra, as well as the aforementioned Carson and constantly agog defender Richard Keogh. The wage bill must come down, and anyone remotely valuable can leave.

“Any manager would tell you that you would love to get in the play-offs and have a summer where you can recruit very strongly and try to improve the side,” said their manager Gary Rowett. “But the reality is, after lots of years and lots of managers doing that, I am the manager who has to balance it all out a little bit more.”

Hallelujah. After season after season enduring Derby being good, we can look forward to them weakening rather than strengthening, and coming down to join us in the dank ditchwater below the play-off places. And if Fulham lose to Aston Villa, it’s highly likely they’ll do the same; Ryan Sessegnon, Tom Cairney and the rest are destined for the Premier League with or without Fulham, so it’s much more important to Leeds that Aston Villa go up and leave the Cottagers behind, their thatched roof burning, wattle and daub walls collapsing.

This has been Aston Villa’s second season in the Championship since relegation, their second season awash with parachute payments and increased Financial Fair Play allowances that have helped them pay millions to John Terry, and mean they’ve barely felt the millions they’ve also been paying Ross McCormack. If they don’t win the play-off final, they’ll have one more season of that free cash goodness, and heavy incentives to blow every penny they can find on winning promotion before the gravy runs out. If they’re still in the Championship next season, they’ll be an even stronger team.

For that reason, much as it was also hilarious to see Middlesbrough fail, they were the team Leeds most needed to go up through the play-offs. Next season will be their second season of their three-year parachute payment/FFP helping hand, giving them even more leeway than Villa to buy more expensive players to play alongside their other expensive players, so that they’ll inevitably be clogging up the top six of the table again. After surviving the Sunderland slide straight through to League One, Hull City will be sharing second season spoils with Middlesbrough, while Norwich still have their third season parachute to cushion them, and Swansea, Stoke City and West Brom will arrive in the division weighed down by their massive bags of money, the spoils of failure.

At least Sunderland won’t still be hanging around. But if Fulham, whose own parachute payments are coming to an end, do beat Villa, that will leave Leeds in a division where seven teams will begin with the hefty economic advantage of recently failing in the Premier League. This season’s automatic promotion of Wolves and Cardiff, apart from unleashing a gloating Warnock on the world, was one of the worst outcomes for Leeds because Wolves were no longer benefiting from parachute payments or increased FFP limits and Cardiff were about to lose them, meaning we’re left in this division with a net increase in the number of over-rich teams we’ll have to clamber past if we’re to gain promotion.

Those are the thought processes I found whirling through my mind as I processed the play-offs; not sporting questions like, which team will I least hate winning? But economic questions like, how will we compete with the spending power of Middlesbrough next season? There will always be good teams, but the crux of Andrea Radrizzani’s clumsy point about Wolves was that the Championship is filling up with teams that are Premier League not on the pitch, but at the bank, and in modern football that’s where it counts.

Look into the future and you might start to panic. The champions Wolves were not receiving parachute payments this year, and if Fulham win the play-offs none of this season’s promoted teams would have been getting parachute money next season, which ought to give us hope. But coming down to replace them are three relegated teams carrying the thick end of £100m ‘prize’ money, £40m parachute payments and increased Financial Fair Play allowances, and that is bloody depressing. Repeat this pattern season after season, of clubs coming down, spending a couple of seasons in the Championship spending Premier League cash, then going up again to be replaced by richer teams, and those of us who came down in 2004 will be looking like poorer relations every passing year. There has always been a doubt about how Leeds might cope in the Premier League if we go up. But how will we cope if the Premier League comes down to us?

There is a paradox in the midst of all this, because for that terrifying pattern to persist, Premier League clubs will have to keep thudding to the floor of the Championship in their first season with their parachutes tangled around their legs. Sunderland and Hull came down last season with all the cash, but it didn’t do either of them a right lot of good, although they’ll be getting another £25m each to recover next season. For the Championship to fill up with new Premier League failures, it has to keep promoting anachronisms like the Cardiff City team Warnock assembled from fossilised DNA sourced from Bramall Lane at the turn of the century. In theory, if Cardiff can do it, so can Leeds; there’s still more to football than seeing which is the richer team.

But Wolves and Cardiff, and Fulham if they go up, aren’t fairytales. Fulham and Cardiff came down in 2014, Wolves in 2012; the Premier League boost to resources and infrastructure has been recent enough to keep rippling. Although much less than Middlesbrough, Hull or Sunderland were receiving, Fulham and Cardiff were still getting Premier League parachute money this year, still had the players they signed when they were rich, were still riding the momentum riches gave them. Leeds were relegated from the Premier League fourteen years ago, and promoted from League One eight years ago. Where’s our momentum?

Our momentum ran out long ago, leaving us vulnerable to another pressure, this time from below. Millwall, Sheffield United and Bolton — just — all used the winning habits learned in League One to overcome the financial disadvantages they faced in the Championship this season. Wigan and Blackburn, the teams promoted for next season, were in the Premier League as recently as 2013 and 2012.

Leeds United are becoming surrounded, and pushed to the bottom of the Championship’s pile-up of money and momentum; and people wonder why our fans are paranoid. Watching the League One play-off between Shrewsbury and Lee Bowyer, Jason Pearce and Nicky Ajose’s Charlton, I became fixated on the commentator’s delight that the Shrews might be facing some Championship big names next season: “Stoke, Swansea, West Brom.” What, not Leeds? He never mentioned Leeds. And every time he didn’t mention Leeds, I felt my hackles prickle and my heart sink. If we’re not famous anymore in the second division, then what are Leeds United becoming?

And how do we become something else? This is the 299th of these columns, and I suspect the answer lies somewhere in the lower numbers of the previous 298, when the Championship was a level financial field and Leeds United had the memory of the momentum from beating Bristol Rovers carrying us up the next season’s Championship. Unfortunately, we also had the crooked claw of Ken Bates on the brakes. Andrea Radrizzani has received justified and heavy criticism for his first season owning Leeds, but in the week the World Cup squad has been announced, it’s worth reflecting that we had Fabian Delph, a big part of one of the Premier League’s best ever teams, in League One. We had Robert Snodgrass and Jonny Howson, two players who have been to the Premier League and were fighting to get back there in the play-offs this season; along with Bradley Johnson and Adam Clayton, deemed expendable by Bates and Warnock. I wonder what we paid Felix Wiedwald this season, and I wonder what Kasper Schmeichel wanted paying in 2011. Although I never liked him so I might let that one pass.

The mistakes, failures, incompetence and malevolence since 2011 have obscured the mistakes, failures, incompetence and malevolence of 2011, but with every passing season 2011 looks more and more like the great lost opportunity to get out of the Championship and, at least, join clubs like Hull on the promotion/relegation parachute payment party plane. From riding the skies to lost at sea; the metaphor of a turning oil tanker is often used when even ‘sleeping giant’ has become too cliched. But what Andrea Radrizzani owns in 2018 is not a big ship heading in the wrong direction, but a boat that is becalmed, static, floating in a shipping lane that is filling up with faster moving craft, leaving Leeds in their wake. Somebody needs to get the oars out and get this slow boat moving, unless we’re praying Victor Orta can invent a time machine. ◉

(feature image by Lee Brown)

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