There are certainly plenty of suspicious Leeds fans around. “Why can’t you see, what you’re doing to me, when you don’t believe a word I say?” Except it is Leeds fans who are finding it hard to understand the mixed messages coming out of their club, not the other way around. Despite seeing one of the smallest first team squads in the Championship surrender meekly at home once again, the message from Steve Evans post-match was that the wage bill was in the “top six in the division” and would need to be trimmed dramatically in the summer.
It was hard to understand if this was Evans as Massimo Cellino’s mouthpiece, or if he was simply second guessing the medium term future. Either way there is plenty of head scratching all-round. One of the few constants in Evans’ reign as Leeds boss has been his clamour for new signings, fresh faces and more quality. Regardless of the message this sends to his current players, he is right. Despite a fruitful summer transfer window governed by Uwe Rösler, Leeds started the campaign a little short in key areas, and that has shown. Leeds didn’t quite do enough in the summer, and they certainly didn’t do enough in January.
If we are to believe Steve Evans - and in the absence of any coherent communication from president Cellino, we have no choice but to take him at face value – then Leeds’ slothful activity in January was born from a considered policy of financial prudence. This should not to be misconstrued as a case of Cellino having deep pockets and very short arms, but is an example of Leeds seeking only quality additions that would improve the squad and not wasting precious funds on short terms fixes. And such rigid criteria could not be met by any of the players available as the window firmly shut with glaring squad failings still evident. There is of course some logic to that, and lord knows Leeds fans have seen plenty of short term fixes over the years.
What certainly confuses me is how Leeds are going to see this diligent policy through, while also slashing a wage bill that is apparently in line with the bracket of clubs we actually aspire to be in. If the current wage bill is unsustainable then this does not bode well for contract discussions involving the likes of Charlie Taylor, Alex Mowatt and Lewis Cook, nor indeed for any recruits required to improve the squad. A suspicious mind might suggest there is a lack of joined-up thinking somehow.
No Leeds fan is advocating that the club spends beyond its means and goes down a well-trodden and very precarious path, but scepticism remains about whether the wage policy Leeds are adopting is going to take the team far beyond where they currently are, in a deep morass of mediocrity.
“We’re caught in a trap…….” It is hard to escape the feeling that we have been here before, and there is no obvious way out. But Leeds fans are not the only ones who might feel they are caught in a trap. Doubtless Cellino himself in his quieter, more reflective moments will rue the day he ever set foot in Leeds, arriving with the sort of cavalier posturing even Lord Flashheart would feel intimidated by. A liberal attitude to due diligence has found Cellino in deep waters throughout his reign, and nobody can second guess where his mind is now as everybody awaits the Rule K arbitration case which would appear to be bottle-necking any strategic progress at Leeds United.
Some Leeds players may also feel like they are ensnared in a suffocating disposition. Mirco Antenucci, captain Sol Bamba and Guiseppe Bellusci were all the subject of outside interest in January, but none were set free by the club. Bamba went public with his story before the weekend’s game, and as captain, perhaps felt compelled to reassure fans that he was happy to stay. Reading between the lines, that didn’t appear to be the case, particularly with his family in favour of a move and Bamba currently out of favour in terms of a first team place. Meanwhile, with Italian midfielder Tomasso Bianchi having left on loan during January, it is likely that his fellow countrymen are also making envious glances back towards their motherland.
While Bellusci was again one of the standout performers on Saturday, the same can’t be said of Antenucci. Employed as the lone front man, Leeds’ attacking deficiencies were once again laid bare during an attritional afternoon of minimal goalmouth action. Antenucci was by no means the worst performer in a white shirt, but his body language belied the statement of three days previously declaring he was happy to stay at Leeds.
Countless presentable crosses were swung into dangerous areas, yet not once did Antenucci make a concerted attempt to get on the end of them. It is true that the 31-year-old does much of his best work outside the box and is not the natural penalty area sniper that Leeds so desperately need, but while he is employed as that lone front man his lack of killer instinct was criminal.
Saturday’s 1-0 defeat was in the same mould as so many this season. Once Nelson Oliveira had stooped to head home the only goal on 60 minutes, you pretty much knew the game was up. Forest stretched their unbeaten run to 13 games, somehow finding consistency and an upwards trajectory despite being bound by a transfer embargo for more than a year. Evans claimed that Forest’s performance was “like watching paint dry”, an observation based on the familiar tactic adopted by visitors to Elland Road, that of sitting eight or nine players behind the ball and soaking up pressure, before hitting Leeds on the break. There was a delicious irony in Evans’ comment, considering Forest had as many attempts on goal as Leeds did, hit the woodwork with one of them and had the game’s most potent performer in the meandering and always threatening Jamie Ward.
Leeds did little to improve on an early glancing header from Souleymane Doukara, and followed it up with only fanciful long range efforts. It is fair to say that Leeds’ domination of possession was akin to “watching paint dry” as they passed the ball to and fro in midfield on an endless loop, and made no determined incisions into Forest’s defence. Indeed, so much of the game was played in the central third of the pitch that the groundsman could have spent his afternoon carefully tending to the penalty areas with a fork and a bag of grass seed. The attacking flair of the FA Cup win at Bolton was nowhere to be seen as Elland Road shuffled restlessly again in a funereal atmosphere, and watched on as Leeds bluntly and insistently utilised Scott Wootton time and time again as an attacking outlet. Wootton enjoyed acres of space allowed him by a Forest side who knew, for all his qualities, he was not going to hurt them as an attacking force; a startling deficiency that has hamstrung Leeds for months.
So another week begins with news that Leeds need to cut a wage bill akin to that of a top six club. Evans claims that in this scenario the players are clearly failing the club if they are being paid the rewards but not delivering the status their wages reflect. It is certainly true that many average players have been well rewarded at Leeds in recent years, but anybody with even half an eye on the football club knows that faults also lie in the management of the club and management of the team.
“We’re caught in a trap, I can’t walk out…………..” It does feel like that. There is a cycle that Leeds United are stuck in and there are daily reminders of what other clubs can achieve when they are freed of such restraints. Leeds United could progress very quickly if the cycle is broken. For some it feels like we can’t walk out, for others, they have already walked out and they aren’t coming back any time soon. There were barely 21,000 Leeds United fans in Elland Road at 3pm on Saturday, and there lies before us another eight home games of diminishing significance. Attendances, you feel, are only going one way, in the face of more failings and a lack of clarity across the board. “We can’t go on together, with suspicious minds, and we can’t build our dreams, on suspicious minds.”