Let me preface this content by saying that I in no way endorse or support a professional footballer refusing to play for the club they are currently contracted to. There is a short list of Leeds players from days gone by who have refused to play and I hold each of them in varying degrees of contempt.
Saying that, it’s a fitting end to Cellino’s ownership (which is due to conclude in the coming days/weeks). I have mixed feelings about this whole situation because while my note above clearly establishes how little respect I have for players who refuse to play, it is with a sombre attitude that I reflect on the departure of our 4 academy starlets. It doesn’t feel that long ago that fans were being asked to renew their season tickets on the strength of Neil Redfearn, Alex Mowatt, Charlie Taylor, Sam Byram and Lewis Cook. Fast forward 2 years and the five figures we were asked to invest in have all departed, mostly through what I consider to be the actions of the owner.
I’ll just skip the well documented circumstances around Neil Redfearn’s departure, but this was a typically insulting, unprofessional affair and one that is consistent with Cellino’s ownership.
People may say that Byram left to be greedy, lured by Premiership wages, but I contend that a sensible offer with a sane owner would have retained him. Don’t forget that he wasn’t offered a pay-increase (despite people like Bellusci being on £16k/week) in spite of Premiership interest in his abilities and when he rejected a contract offer on equal terms to his current, Cellino immediately started rubbishing him in the press. He started circulating messages about how Sam “thought he was bigger than the club” and that his agent was being unreasonable. Unsurprisingly, Leeds and Byram couldn’t reach an agreement and he was sold to West Ham. Insulted by the owner, devalued by the contract offers and subsequently blamed by fans for being money-hungry, greedy and impossible to retain due to the lure of Premiership money. I ask people to make their own minds up.
Lewis Cook was later sold, the club electing to cash-in on his increased value after an excellent season and with little insurance in place with only 12 months left to run on his contract. Unsurprisingly, Cook hadn’t been approached about renewing or extending his deal and became a blatant cash-in. I understand the financial constraints of operating in the Championship and that positive (or even less-damaging negative) cash-flow is maintained by the occasional need to sell young players. But we all acknowledged the potential of Lewis and the fact he could be worth double the amount in 2 years time, it seemed like a bad investment to sell him so soon, but the club seemed to have zero intention of extending his contract and resisting the easy sale, so off he went. Again, some fans would criticise the player for being lured away by Premiership money in a way Leeds could never withstand. Again, I urge people to make their own minds up.
Alex Mowatt is a slightly more ordinary situation; he struggled for form and couldn’t find a place in Garry Monk’s Leeds United. Despite being a previous player of the season he simply wasn’t consistent enough to displace the likes of Vieira, O’Kane or Bridcutt out of a deeper midfield slot and simply lacked the creativity to push Hernandez or Roofe out of their more advanced #10 role (though his is the best fit for him). Mowatt was sold when someone enquired because, in fairness, he’d struggle to play at Leeds. Though it is somewhat bittersweet considering the values that were banded around after 2014/15 when he routinely hit worldies from midfield into the top corner.
Charlie Taylor is the final member of this prestigious and shrinking group and perhaps one that I struggle to comprehend the most. His agent is the same as Byram’s (I understand) and Premiership interest in him has been rife. It’s very clear that Charlie committed to leaving Leeds a long while ago, having had a transfer request rejected earlier this season. Most fans attribute this to solely being a money-hungry, disloyal player who (after refusing to play) many cannot wait to see leave. While I sympathise with this viewpoint, I cannot help but feel that his feelings towards the club have been tempered/tarnished by the consistent, appalling way that he has seen his peers treated. The Lucy Ward/Neil Redfearn situation being one example, but compound that with the Sam Byram situation, it was made very clear that the ownership structure at Leeds values academy prospects less than the Serie B assets it drafted in. One can only imagine that Taylor/Byram would look at the wages offered to Doukara, Bellusci, Antenucci, Bianchi (etc) and react badly when their request to have an increase to £3k/week is rejected. Then when a £3k/week wage is refused, they are publicly lambasted by the owner for being greedy.
I don’t agree with the way Charlie has acted but I’m not sure I believe it was solely down to greed. The only unusual element is that Cellino is departing, Monk is (hopefully) likely to stay and for the first time in forever Leeds United look like a club with a plan. But with his contract ending, Premiership interest and a club that hasn’t treated you well in recent memory, I understand why he’s just deciding to write it off and move. Which is a shame, Charlie was consistently one of the best left-backs in the Championship and while Berardi has massively upped his game meaning we’ve not missed Taylor much, losing good players is always sad.
While I’m sure Charlie is leaving to play at a higher level, I do think a sensible ownership structure that kept these players fully contracted, happy and playing, operating under a strategic plan to get promoted would have made things play out differently. Championship club as we are, I think if you can’t keep home-grown talent happy then something is amiss. There’ll always be players who want to leave to play at the highest level they can, but from what I’ve read from people close to the lads from their academy days, it does seem like there was a way this could have played out where they’d have stayed.
But on we go. This will be a big Summer for Leeds in terms of recruitment and I can only hope it is done both with intelligence and ambition.