Leeds almost reached the ‘promised land’ but will face a ticking timebomb of issues in the Championship

The Premier League was so close that Leeds United could see it. So near that, twice in swift succession, Daniel Farke referred to it as “the promised land”. He got a glimpse of it, and then a return ticket to the more familiar terrain of the Championship. But then both the play-offs and Wembley promise only disappointment for Leeds. They have another year to reflect on the Dan James half-volley that hit the bar, lacking only the dip to take the game level, perhaps to extra time. Instead, Southampton prevailed and bumped up a division.

Or maybe they have 12 months to ponder the April defeats to Coventry, Blackburn and QPR when Leeds, after a season playing catch-up, had manoeuvred themselves into a position where automatic promotion beckoned. The promise loomed large then, too. Farke referenced their total of 90 points a couple of times, too. That would often bring a top-two finish. But not this year and not for Leeds.

Nothing comes easily to them. Certainly not promotion. Since the Second World War, they have spent 38 seasons outside the top flight and only gone up in four of them. And one of those was to get them out of League One. When next season starts, it will be their 18th out of 21 in the Football League. They will have played less Premier League football over that time than Wigan or Burnley, Bournemouth or Brentford, Norwich or Swansea, Hull or Stoke.

There is a theory that, as football becomes increasingly stratified, the bigger clubs are destined to gravitate to the top. Then there is Leeds, the exception to every rule, often with the bittersweet distinction of being the biggest club below the Premier League. So near and yet so far. “It hurts a lot because we were only one step away,” said Farke.

Southampton secured an immediate return to the top flight with victory over Leeds
Southampton secured an immediate return to the top flight with victory over Leeds (Reuters)

It will hurt Leeds’s owners, the San Francisco 49ers, in different ways. A contingent from California were at Wembley. They started their attempts to purchase the club from Andrea Radrizzani before relegation and completed them afterwards. They saw the potential in the club; so did Farke, who has said he would not have signed for anyone else outside the Premier League.

Leeds have moneyed backers but a ticking timebomb in parachute payments, the questions of financial fair play (FFP), given that the previous regime’s heavy spending made demotion doubly damning, and the enduring strangeness of some of the contracts former director of football Victor Orta awarded.

Farke referred to his “difficult start with all the exit clauses”. Many of the more expensive players Leeds own, those who – in theory – represent assets on the balance sheet, had clauses allowing them to leave on loan after relegation. Exit, among others, Diego Llorente, Brenden Aaronson, Rasmus Kristensen, Marc Roca, Max Wober and Jack Harrison. Now, and lacking clarity about the situation, the assumption is they can go out on loan again, reducing Leeds’s chances of recouping some of their outlay. Good news for Everton, who would like Harrison back for another year; less so for his parent club.

Another complication last summer was Wilfried Gnonto’s determination to leave; he was kept, galvanised and influential. Yet Gnonto and his teammate Crysencio Summerville may have outgrown the Championship; Leeds might be forced to cash in. Their other emerging talent, Archie Gray, was in tears at the end; recently turned 18, making 52 appearances this season, he may be both the club’s best right-back and central midfielder. He has Leeds in his blood, is part of a family with more than 1,000 games for the club between them, and it is easier to envisage him staying.

Jack Harrison has spent the season on loan at Everton
Jack Harrison has spent the season on loan at Everton (Getty)

Yet if Leeds could be deprived of two match-winners – reducing their firepower at a point when there are concerns the forwards Joel Piroe and Georginio Rutter are not potent enough – Farke also bemoaned the inexperience of his side, contrasting it with the clinical finish Adam Armstrong supplied to send Southampton up. Captain Liam Cooper is likely to leave; sadly, Stuart Dallas has already been forced to retire.

Cooper was sidelined in part by Joe Rodon, an excellent loanee. Yet a lesson of Southampton’s promotion is that Saints arguably played the loan system better than Leeds: a blend of quantity and quality in Flynn Downes, Taylor Harwood-Bellis, Joe Rothwell, David Brooks and Ryan Fraser.

Rather than joining the Premier League, Leeds may have to raid it for fringe players. They have already constructed two plans. “In the background, we have prepared a bit,” said Farke. “But before you press a button you need to know which league you are in.”

It is one he knows well, finishing first, first and third in his last three attempts. His record suggests he is their best chance of promotion. “My players don’t want a manager who speaks about himself and gives some messages for his own future,” said the German, in a non-committal mood; yet he sounded determined to remain and the board ought to back him. “We will take this as extra motivation to come back stronger,” Farke said.

Logically, Leeds and the three relegated teams will be the four favourites for promotion next season. Yet it developed into a four-horse race this year and the other three went up. If Leeds are often defiantly different, there are times when they must wish they were not the odd ones out. And this was one of them.


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