Is promotion a sensible target for Leeds United?

Do Leeds United really want to get promoted to the Premier League?

On 8th May 2004, Leeds United were relegated from the Premiership after a thrilling 3-3 draw with Charlton. On that day, Jason Euell netted twice to condemn the Yorkshire side to their Division One fate after Matthew Killgallon, Jermaine Pennant and then-fan-favourite Alan Smith had put the Whites 3-1 up. After battling through serious financial problems, as well as going through a play-off final defeat and relegation to the third tier of English football, they are creating a solid base in the Championship, currently just three points behind QPR, who they defeated on Saturday, forcing many to tip Leeds for promotion.

Grayson: Leeds through-and-through
When Simon Grayson left Blackpool to become Leeds manager almost two years ago to the day, many eyebrows were raised. Grayson had taken the Seasiders to 19th in the Championship, their highest finish in the football league since 1971-72. But the former Leeds trainee couldn’t turn down the opportunity of managing such a prestigious club, saying “when the opportunity came to come here I couldn’t wait to be involved as quickly as possible”.
While Blackpool have been exceeding everyone’s expectations, currently flying in the Premier League under Ian Holloway, Grayson has rebuilt Leeds United; not only as a team, but as a club as well. After the departures of hot prospect Fabian Delph (Aston Villa), sturdy midfielder Jonathan Douglas (Swindon) and striker Jermaine Beckford (Everton), most experts were suggesting that the 2009/10 season would be a difficult one for Leeds.
The fact that Beckford, who scored thirty-one goals in fifty-two games in his final season for United, left on a free transfer was particularly damning. It meant that Grayson had to utilise the transfer market to its fullest, recruiting former Manchester City goalkeeper, and son of a certain former Manchester United ‘keeper, Kasper Schmeichel on a free transfer. Exciting Charlton youngster Lloyd Sam was also brought in on a free, while experienced midfielder Michael Doyle was signed on loan from Coventry City. With electrifying young players such as Max Gradel and Sanchez Watt also at the club, there seems to be even more optimism at Elland Road than usual.
After beating Neil Warnock’s QPR on Saturday in front of almost 30,000 fans, many pundits are now saying that Leeds are hot favourites for a return to the top flight. Some are even suggesting that United could win the League this year, with QPR seemingly going through a blip in what was their perfect campaign, and Cardiff struggling to hold down some decent form.
Leeds currently sit second in the Championship, eight points ahead of Reading who, admittedly, are a game behind Leeds after the recent snow-related shenanigans. This, though, is an incredible feat for a newly promoted side, especially one which has battled through such tough financial issues.
In the year that Leeds were relegated from the Premiership, the club were forced to sell star players Rio Ferdinand, Jonathan Woodgate, Lee Bowyer, Nigel Martin, Robbie Keane and Harry Kewell because the club had “taken out large loans against the prospect of the share of the TV rights and sponsorship revenues that come with UEFA Champions League qualification and any subsequent progress in the competition”. When Leeds, who at that time boasted Peter Ridsdale as their chairman, paid out big transfer fees and wages for Seth Johnson and Robbie Fowler, and then didn’t qualify for the Champions League, they found themselves in major trouble. After relegation to Division One their problems escalated and, by 2007, the club found themselves in the third tier of English football for the first time in the club’s history.
Smith: A return for the old hero?
Back then, the fan favourite was striker Alan Smith but, having previously stated that he would never play for Manchester United, the former Leeds academy player joined their fierce rivals for £7million. After being touted as the next Roy Keane Smith broke his leg and struggled to work his way back into the United side, and a move to Newcastle soon followed. He was an essential player to the Toon last season, in which they were promoted back to the Premier League, playing thirty-five games. He was club captain under Chris Hughton but, with the arrival of Cheick Tioté, Smith has found himself used mainly as a squad player this season.
There are rumours, though, that Smith could make a return to his hometown club. The thirty-year-old midfielder would be a phenomenal signing for the club (although he should expect a frosty reception on his return to Elland Road) and it would be a definite signal of intent from the owners and the manager. Whether they need a central midfielder or not is out of the question; the fact that the intent to gain promotion is there in the first place is the main point.
Leeds’ financial status may not be anywhere near as catastrophic as it was in 2004, mainly because the club manages to attract 30,000 fans every single week, which is more than some Premier League clubs. But they’ve also been extremely clever in the transfer market, with many players coming in on free transfers and becoming fantastic players and Grayson has got to take some credit for that.
Howson: The new hero
The Whites also possess a fantastic youth system, with Manchester City’s James Milner and Tottenham’s young pair Aaron Lennon and Danny Rose both products of the academy, currently managed by former Chelsea scout Gwyn Williams. It is Jonny Howson, though, who is the latest product who has had the most impact for Leeds on the pitch. The central midfielder has been at the club since the age of nine and, having signed a professional contract with his boyhood club when he was eighteen, he is now being tipped for an England Under-21 call-up at the very least. The current vice-captain, Howson’s control on the ball, pristine passing and superb technical ability has resulted in the twenty-two-year-old to be likened to Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere, while his ability to get forward and score goals (he scored a brilliant hat-trick against Scunthorpe earlier this year) has led many to tout Howson as a future England star.
Although there are concerns of Leeds’ ability to perform consistently well for the rest of the season, Leeds certainly have the players to fight for automatic promotion this year. In Schmeichel they have an exquisite young goalkeeper who is sure to go on to big things, whether with Leeds or not. They have experienced defensive players such as Amdy Faye, Andy O’Brien and Richard Naylor while, in midfield, Leeds possess exuberance and electrifying pace in Watt, Gradel and Robert Snodgrass, who surely should be given a look-in for a place in the Scottish national side. In the centre of midfield Neil Kilkenny and Howson are the creative sparks and Bradley Johnson is the explosive attacking threat and, up front, Luciano Becchio is the complete forward; fast, strong, just as brilliant in the air as he is on the floor and sublime finishing ability. Their squad, though, would not be able to cope in the Premier League.
This means that they would have to strengthen considerably and, although Ken Bates, the current chairman, should be able to back his manager well after a few seasons of minimal spending, it is highly unlikely that players both with Premier League experience and quality will come to Leeds, Smith notwithstanding.
If Leeds were to go up, which would be an incredible feat having only recently been promoted, they would almost certainly struggle in a league which is not so forgiving. Grayson has built a team and rebuilt the club, and so it would be an incredibly difficult question to ask him to get Leeds promoted and then stay in the top flight, and then consolidate.
Leeds, if they have any sense about them whatsoever, will not take the “we’ve got a chance to go up, let’s do it” route; Grayson’s side need to strengthen in the Championship first and then look at moving to the next level. If they were to finish mid-table this season and then finish just outside the play-offs next season, that would be a fantastic achievement by everyone at the club. If they were to go up and take the Premier League by the scruff of the neck, it could well be 2004 all over again.

This article was also posted on Sportingo, and you can see the rest of my articles from Sportingo here.

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