Some things change; some don’t. Leeds United head into a fresh campaign on Saturday with a new head coach, new players and new methods. Yet ten years since relegation from the Premiership, the fans are once again left asking themselves whether this could finally be the year they head back towards glory.
Uncertainty is a word that is often associated with the Championship, however it can also be fittingly used when analysing the Whites’ season prospects. Indeed, it would take a brave man to predict where Leeds will finish this season. Much of the drama that ensued at the club following Massimo Cellino’s controversial take over in April has continued into the summer, with vast cost-cutting and ruthless decisions seemingly being the order of the day.
Unsurprisingly, one of Cellino’s first moves after the end of yet another dismal season at Elland Road was to dispose of manager Brian McDermott and replace him with relatively unknown Dave Hockaday. Whilst being arguably his most important decision, it is the one that a number of Leeds fans have found hard to stomach. It is hard to blame them considering Hockaday’s only managerial experience at Forest Green Rovers ended after four uninspiring years in the Conference. However, both Cellino and Hockaday have made it clear that the latter’s duties are limited only to what happens on the pitch. Hockaday arrives with a decent coaching pedigree, for example having been an integral part of the Watford setup when they beat Leeds in the Championship play-off final in 2006. Newly-appointed director of football Nicola Salerno has followed Cellino from Cagliari with the task of assisting the President with footballing matters off the field.
Cellino and Salerno have masterminded a hectic transfer period for the Whites which has seen seven new faces arrive at Elland Road, while 15 players have left the club. One significant blow was the loss of last year’s Championship top scorer Ross McCormack who joined Fulham for approximately £11m. The Whites have done little to replace the former captain; Nicky Ajose has signed from Peterborough but is expected to be a work in progress, while Souleymane Doukara – one of five recruits from the Italian leagues – is not an out an out striker, meaning that the goal scoring duties are rather worryingly left to Matt Smith and Steve Morison.
Reinforcements are still required throughout the squad. Tommaso Bianchi and AC Milan loanee Zan Benedicic should add firepower to the midfield, however former England Under-21 international Tom Lees has been allowed to join local rivals Sheffield Wednesday for a small fee, leaving United with only two recognised senior centre-halves – Jason Pearce and Scott Wootton. Leeds have seemingly been linked with almost every player associated with Italian football and more players are expected to arrive before the end of the window. In addition, it seems likely that some of the young players are ready to make the step up to the first team; attacking midfielder Chris Dawson and 17-year-old Lewis Cook among the greatest prospects. Nevertheless, the squad appears a tad thin as they head into the season opener away at Millwall, particularly with Bianchi suspended and Aidan White and Lewis Walters out injured.
With five foreign signings all unproven in England, it is yet to be seen whether the current squad, guided by the new head coach, has the firepower to challenge at the right end of a tough Championship table. A topsy-turvy pre-season campaign showed glimmers of hope as performances steadily improved. A 2-0 defeat away to Mansfield can happily be forgotten, but promising victories over Swindon Town and Dundee United in the last two games suggest that not all is bad at Elland Road.
Cellino admitted on Friday that the club is still a serious mess and that he hasn’t yet been able to implement many of the schemes that he wants to. United fans will be hoping that the off-field concerns can be addressed in the coming months in accordance with strong performances on the pitch. The President has excited fans by declaring that he will buy back Elland Road by November, while he has stated that he plans to build a training ground closer to the Stadium than Wetherby-based Thorp Arch. The club have the prospect of a court battle with ex-assistant manager Nigel Gibbs who left the club earlier this week claiming that his contract had been breached, while ex managing director David Haigh remains in custody in Dubai over allegations of fraud.
It certainly appears that Leeds United are a club in transition and it is almost impossible to predict what state the club will be in by the end of the season. Upon arrival at Elland Road, Massimo Cellino claimed that Leeds would win promotion to the Premier League by the end of the 2015-16 season. As new players arrive and new methods are implemented, United fans will be hoping that they can achieve their goal a year early. Their first task is to overcome a tricky Millwall side at the New Den on Saturday.
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