The Square Ball Week: Budget of Belief

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

Christianity’s calendar now brings us Easter, at the end of Lent, forty days during which people gave things up: like chocolate, or if you’re a Leeds United fan, hope.

The theory is that at the end of Lent you won’t just go back to your old ways, but the practice is a weekend festival of chocolate. Do Leeds fans get a similar festival of hope to celebrate? Not quite. We get Bolton Wanderers and Fulham.

I boldly predicted wins for Leeds over Reading and Sheffield Wednesday, that would restore the team’s confidence and provide a reason for the rest of the season. But the players, who only strike me as Christian in their generosity to their enemies, resolutely stuck to the theme of hopelessness, played like no-hopers, and I suspect were sneaking fistfuls of Mini-Eggs behind the bike sheds after training, as long as the others could get them off Lasogga.

Now I anticipate the Bolton match with dread, not helped by the international break. Two weeks without domestic football sounded nice in theory, but all it gave us was Lewis Cook breaking West Riding hearts by playing for England, and Pontus Jansson on some sort of one-man controversy mission in the Swedish press; he will not stand to have Pawel Cibicki betrayed in the garden.

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Paul Heckingbottom, who desperately needs to demonstrate some sort of resurrection of the players, has been sending video clips and instructions to them at their international team hotels; absences, injuries and a friendly match meant on one day last week he had a grand total of four players training. That was good, he said, because it meant he could give attention to some of the fringe players, but that’s bad, because it’s not the fringe players who will be rambling onto the pitch on Friday, wondering what they’re supposed to be doing. Low on confidence, disorganised, under pressure to deliver something on the last day for season ticket renewals, and it’s forecast rain. Bolton have only lost one in their last six games, and while three were draws, their last game was a win over Aston Villa. It’s not a question of if Bolton will win, but by how many.

And then the question is, does it matter? Heckingbottom keeps insisting that these games count; but even then, he’s trying to inspire performances by telling the players to compete for the right to play for Leeds United next season. The games are being played this season, but nobody is interested in this season anymore; perhaps if we could have the points tally from our remaining games added to next season’s, we might have a better chance of making the play-offs, although that assumes we’ll get some points from our remaining games to add. All Heckingbottom is asked at press conferences now is who is injured, then the conversation swiftly moves on to what Leeds fans will see from his team next season.

“A much more aggressive team,” he said this week, saying “aggressive” three more times in a minute, adding, “It’s people dying for the cause, that type of thing.” It actually sounds ideal. My abiding memory of the Sheffield Wednesday match is of Gaetano Berardi screaming at Matthew Pennington about the way Pennington had been gently pushed off the ball in the build up to Wednesday’s winner. A flying Alioski seeking a free-kick doesn’t bother me half as much as seeing Eunan O’Kane crumpled on the floor like an old man looking for his glasses, when a moment before he had the ball at his feet in twenty square yards of space. An end to all that might be the start of better things at Leeds United, so all power to Heckingbottom in his aims.

He won’t achieve them this season, though, if ever with O’Kane, and so it’s O’Kane I’ll watch, as dynamic in midfield as Rodin’s statue of The Thinker with his head cut off, while Bolton run around him on Friday. Ask Leeds fans what they want from the games against Bolton and Fulham, and while some will say six points, some might say four, or two, or one, or not to feel ashamed, many will simply say, to be able to tick off two more matches until O’Kane isn’t in the team anymore. His early season form, like everyone’s, now looks like the work of a Scooby Doo villain, easily unmasked by a gang of meddling kids to reveal the puny player we now have to deal with. Thanks, gang! Now get back in your fucking Dream Machine and go solve your mysteries somewhere else. Not you, Shaggy, we’ll try you instead of Jay-Roy Grot in the U23s.

What we’re anticipating most now are endings. Angus Kinnear, the chief executive, had the chance this week to inject some excitement, to shift everyone’s attention from the dwindling dust in the hourglass of our season, but he missed it like Lasogga with a header from two yards. “We understand, with the performances since Christmas, that supporter sentiment has been dented,” he whirred and bleeped in the Yorkshire Evening Post. “Our objective of building a team that competes in the play-offs has not changed. We always knew that it would take time to return Leeds United to where they should be and that the journey would start by building strong foundations. Lessons have been learned and we are excited to see the benefits of a carefully planned transfer window and pre-season.”

The problem with that is the objective he says hasn’t changed has changed. Building a team that competes in the play-offs was this season’s objective. Next season’s objective was supposed to be to build a team that would continue competing in the play-offs, if not better. The only reason the objective hasn’t changed is because it wasn’t achieved; now the timeframe has changed.

Such, I suppose, is real life; targets are adapted to circumstances. But this is no time for realism. The Reading and Sheffield Wednesday matches were real; the Bolton game seems like it’s gonna feel mighty real, too. Realism is not a cure for pessimism, nor does it sell many season tickets. Optimism, whatever its basis, is the fuel of football, and cutting off its supply before next season is almost as cruel as making us watch the rest of this one. Why not just say we’re going to try and win the bloody league, however difficult it might be?

Heckingbottom, when he talked last week about United having a “mid-table budget”, was not wrong, but it’s not due to a lack of ambition, it’s just the way things are. Next season there will be seven teams in the Championship receiving parachute payments of between £20m and £40m, amounts in the region of Leeds United’s entire turnover. Andrea Radrizzani’s ability to invest to compete with those clubs is restricted by Financial Fair Play rules that are rigged in favour of clubs relegated from the Premier League anyway; on top of ‘winning’ around £100m for finishing in the bottom three of the Premier League, and on top of their £40m parachute payments, the clubs coming down for next season will be allowed to show three-season losses of up to £83m. Leeds United can only show a maximum three-season loss of £39m.

When Southampton start their FFP calculation, the first thing they’ll do is add last season’s profit of £5.9m, putting £88.9m between them and FFP limits; even West Bromwich Albion, who this week announced they have “no more money for wages”, can write down a £39.7m profit to start their FFP calculation, giving them £122.7m to lose in the other two seasons. Leeds United’s 2016/17 results aren’t out yet, but 2015/16 showed a £9m loss, and that’s likely to be our FFP starting point — down £9m towards a limit of £39m, while other clubs are up £39.7m towards a limit of £83m.

Even if he wanted to, the FFP rules prevent Radrizzani using his own wealth to make up the £90m difference in spending power between Leeds and the top seven clubs. The best Leeds can hope for is to have the biggest budget of a club outside of the group with parachute payments and increased FFP, placing our budget by definition outside the play-off places and into mid-table. It will be some years before the holes are plugged in the ship that Ken Bates, Gulf Finance House and Massimo Cellino built, and Leeds United can make a profit again; more profit — or at least smaller losses — means more leeway to invest under FFP, but the rules say you can’t make the investment until you show the profit.

That restriction has led to some whinging in the press — from Wolverhampton Wanderers chairman Jeff Shi, that is, who said the other week, “If an owner wants to put money into the club, of course they’ll have a loss in that year … [so] from an investment view it’s strange … I have every right to invest more into the club. If you really want to build a truly even field why do the three clubs relegated from the Premier League have so much money from parachute payments? If you want a truly even league they should cut that.” Either he’s complaining about not being able to win the league by even more than Wolves will this season, or he’s getting his arguments ready for when Wolves fail FFP and are hit with demotions or points deductions (the punishments available since the rules were reviewed last season). But it’s heartening to know it’s not just us exasperated by not being able to invest freely.

Heartening, but not helpful. The main way a club can improve its FFP situation is to increase its turnover, and in the Championship that means either player sales, or the money it gets from fans for tickets and merchandise. So, unsurprisingly, by attempting to force clubs to be better run, the football authorities have only succeeded in making football more expensive for fans to watch teams that have to sell their best players. It’s hard to get more money from fans for tickets and merchandise when the rules don’t allow you more than a mid-table budget, especially if you choose to be practical and Barnsleyish and tell the fans that straight. We will have a mid-table budget next season and so our objective will be the play-offs, and that might be sensible given the relative financial power of Leeds United and the clubs we’ll be competing with, but for Christ’s sake, it’s not what anybody wants to hear.

Nobody wants to be lied to, either, but optimism isn’t lies. It might only be medicine, but that’s better than pain. If you feel like your club is going for it, but then miss out, it hurts much less than feeling like your club is giving up before it has even tried. Football is always a game for losers: of 24 teams in the Championship, only three will enjoy success at the end of the season. The odds are against your team even before money is brought into it. So in this unreal, surreal final few weeks of a weird, confusing season, why not forget reality for a while, embrace fantasy, and at least let us dream our way through the matches, the same as O’Kane?

We could begin the fairytale by beating Bolton and Fulham. That would be a resurrection of humanity’s hopes like the world has never seen; something so wondrous and strange we would have no choice but to believe. It’s either that, or raiding Lasogga’s cupboards and stealing all the Kinder Eggs we can find. ◉

(feature image by Lee Brown)

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