The sobering reality for Leeds United is that relegation next Sunday, if indeed there is no way out, would barely be even the start of it. The club are all but sunk with one game left, reliant on the biggest stroke of luck they could ask for, and Elland Road can see a monumental summer looming.
The close-season promises to be manic if Leeds survive and more frantic again should they return to the Championship, heralding changes which have to amount to an almost total reset. They got away with it last season, rescuing themselves on the final day against Brentford, but the drop feels more inevitable this time and nothing in their sorry surrender away to West Ham United on Sunday suggested they are about to dodge disaster for a second year running.
What next, then, for the club who stormed the Championship in 2019-20?
Their head coach, Sam Allardyce, has a short-term contract that covers one more match. They have been without a director of football since Victor Orta parted company with them three weeks ago. The proposed takeover by 49ers Enterprises is still only a proposal. And what of other issues, like the future of individual players, the management of a sizeable Premier League wage bill and the impact of reduced income?
Leeds United: What happened?
What would relegation on Sunday actually mean for Leeds United? What are the nuts and bolts and the brass tacks for the months ahead?
A change of ownership is what everything at Elland Road hinges on — and it can be credibly argued that the impasse on that front is a reason why Leeds have stagnated to the point where relegation is nigh.
At present, the arrangement in the boardroom is this: Andrea Radrizzani is majority shareholder with slightly more than 50 per cent of the shares. The remainder is held by 49ers Enterprises, a US investment vehicle with close connections to the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers. Were Leeds to stay up following their season-finale at home to Tottenham Hotspur this weekend, contracts are in place for 49ers Enterprises to buy out Radrizzani for a sum which would value Leeds somewhere between £400 million ($496m) and £500million ($621m).
The expectation is that the sale would go through by July 1 at the latest but in effect, the handover would start more rapidly.
The investment group behind this 49ers Enterprises project — made up of entrepreneurs, private equity firms, businessmen such as current Leeds director Peter Lowy and at least one unidentified US political figure — has been in place for some time and ready to buy Radrizzani out under the agreed terms, provided Leeds retained their Premier League status. While that collective is providing the funding, the day-to-day management of the club would be the responsibility of 49ers Enterprises figures including Paraag Marathe and Collin Meador.
However, the agreement with Radrizzani in its current guise will be void if Leeds go down.
Nonetheless, 49ers Enterprises remain intent on buying Radrizzani out, or at least securing majority control, even if relegation happens. Discussions to that effect have been taking place and gathering pace over the past few weeks, driven by the realisation that a bottom-three finish was increasingly likely and that the amount of work to be done this summer would be substantial either way.
Radrizzani is open to selling in the event Leeds find themselves back in the EFL next season, so long as the numbers work for him.
That is the crux of discussions as it stands: relegation promises to significantly reduce Leeds’ value and 49ers Enterprises would only be willing to buy at a much lower price, somewhere in the region of £150million ($186m). It is not clear if Radrizzani is prepared to drop his valuation to that level.
He was pictured in his Italian homeland yesterday (Monday) and, as reported by The Athletic over the weekend, he is part of a group who are attempting to buy Sampdoria, who were relegated from Italy’s top flight two weeks ago. Radrizzani would almost certainly require funds from the sale of Leeds to help secure the purchase of the Genoa-based club.
His involvement in those talks, all while Leeds are themselves on the brink of going down, suggests he is going to exit Elland Road, and soon — but even so, he and 49ers Enterprises are not yet agreed on the terms of a post-relegation takeover.
What is clear is that the club cannot afford to get stuck in a prolonged ownership wrangle after this season ends. They have too much to do and no time to lose, making urgency in negotiations essential.
Revenue at Elland Road has reached a record level for the club, falling just short of £190million for the 2021-22 season. Pushing up their turnover to new heights is one area in which they have been consistently successful over their six years with Radrizzani as chairman. Even in the Championship, English football’s second tier, they were pulling in more money than any of the 71 other EFL sides — albeit while also posting hefty losses.
But it is no secret that the bulk of Premier League earnings come from central distributions, consisting mainly of money earned through the league’s lucrative broadcast deals. The EFL has just renegotiated its TV deal with UK broadcaster Sky Sports but the figures involved are still a world away from the cash earned by the Premier League through such rights. Last season, for example, Leeds’ central distributions were £95million — more than three times Nottingham Forest’s entire turnover in the Championship that year.
So at a stroke, a large chunk of that funding disappears with relegation. But as it has for years now, the parachute payment scheme exists between the Premier League and the Championship, giving those clubs who go down assistance to cope with the financial hit of dropping divisions. In year one back in the EFL, Leeds would receive 55 per cent of the basic payment made to Premier League clubs — around £45 million. If they then fail to bounce straight back, the year two figure drops to 45%. In year three, the final season of parachute payments, it’s 20%.
Used smartly, parachute payments can help a relegated club reframe their squad, be competitive in the promotion race and go again. That cash can facilitate signings other sides in the Championship cannot afford and support larger salaries. But they don’t last forever and they won’t avert sizeable losses, because virtually every club loses money in the second tier. They are no guarantee of promotion either.
Relegated clubs have little choice but to substantially reduce budgets, and Leeds would be no different.
Leeds’ last recorded wage bill, for the 2021-22 year, was £121million, and after so many signings made this season it can only have increased. Plainly, they could not afford to carry such high costs while in the EFL, but they would be helped at the outset by substantial reductions in the salaries earned by their first-team squad.
The players stand to incur hefty wage cuts in the aftermath of relegation, with drops of up to 60 per cent (some in line with the increases a number of them received after winning promotion three years ago). Clauses in their contracts allow Leeds to automatically decrease their earnings when in the EFL, bringing down the outlay overnight.
None of that would stop Leeds having one of the highest Championship wage bills but between parachute payments, transfer income and shareholder investment, it is possible to manage a large salaries figure for a finite period.
The problem comes if a relegated club find themselves stuck outside the Premier League for a sustained spell. An expensive squad becomes harder and harder to maintain in those circumstances.
Whatever happens against Spurs at Elland Road this weekend, this summer will be an intensive and busy transfer window for Leeds.
Many of the first-team squad have relegation-related release clauses in their contracts, giving other clubs the right to buy them for a fixed fee (usually one that is less than their true market value). Leeds pulled in almost £100million by selling Raphinha and Kalvin Phillips last summer. Because of release clauses applying to both players, the club would have recouped merely half as much had they been auctioning them on the back of relegation.
Departures from Elland Road in the coming window could well run into double figures if Leeds are relegated.
Weston McKennie is certain to leave, however the season finishes. Neither he nor Leeds are minded to activate the option to make his half-season loan from Italian giants Juventus permanent. Goalkeeper Illan Meslier has endured a difficult season but his valuation remains relatively high and Leeds were always open to the possibility of accepting a worthwhile offer for him in this window. Robin Koch has a year left on his contract and, as a Germany international, would naturally attract bids if Leeds are an EFL club again. So too would Colombia international Luis Sinisterra, a footballer with high-level potential provided he stays fit.
Jack Harrison has only just signed a new five-year deal but it is understood to include a release clause, and there is ample Premier League interest in him. Rodrigo is on course to be a free agent in 12 months’ time and, as a top earner, would cost too much to keep in the Championship.
There are some who Leeds would be very keen to retain, though. McKennie’s fellow USA midfielder Tyler Adams is one. They would be reluctant to lose Wilfried Gnonto too, though his performances have put him on the radar of clubs in Europe.
But it is accepted that a large turnover is inevitable, partly because some names are too expensive, some names have no further part to play and some names are a route to transfer fees which can help to build a suitable team to contend in, and win promotion from, the Championship.
The window ahead will be active from start to finish for Leeds. A critical part of it will be finding takers for surplus players — a task which is never simple on the back of a relegation.
Unlike short-lived predecessor Javi Gracia, there is no agreed provision in place for Sam Allardyce to remain as head coach beyond the end of the season. His contract was as short as four games and no discussions have taken place about his future. Whether Leeds are in any way tempted by the idea of Allardyce in the Championship, a division he has got Bolton Wanderers (2001) and West Ham (2012) promoted from in his career, remains to be seen but there will be a clamour among the fanbase for fresh thinking.
Over the past couple of weeks, 49ers Enterprises gave thought to Marcelo Bielsa returning as an avenue worth pursuing if they went down, but he has now taken the Uruguay national-team job and, in any case, the doubts about the ownership structure at Leeds would not have made his old job easy to sell to the Argentinian — without even touching on the two sides’ uncomfortable parting in February last year.
If Leeds were to stay up, they would like to try to engage someone such as Graham Potter, who did well in three Premier League seasons at Brighton but lasted just seven months of this one after joining Chelsea last September. Should they go down, recently-sacked Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers is likely to come into the equation, at least in terms of the sort of coach they would want. Whether Rodgers is open to working in the EFL again, having led Swansea City up from it in 2011, is another matter altogether.
Expect a swing towards more established domestic candidates, or coaches with experience of that league, because nobody at Elland Road is trying to pretend going out on a limb with Jesse Marsch as Bielsa’s replacement worked.
But Leeds will not be able to sell themselves on name or reputation alone. They have masses to do to make sure that, on the other side of this summer, they are ready to attack the new season.
Director of football
Leeds have operated under a director of football model since Andrea Radrizzani bought out Massimo Cellino and appointed Victor Orta in 2017. But Orta’s exit this month leaves that position vacant, and dealing with it is one of various priorities facing the board.
The first thing for Leeds to decide is whether they want to stick with precisely the same model — a structure in which a single director of football oversees that side of the business. In contrast, certain teams split authority between a specific head of their recruitment department and a figure who takes charge of other football operations.
While some of Orta’s staff are departing with him — scout Gaby Ruiz, for example — some other scouts remain in place, but Leeds need a fresh tier of management around whoever ends up becoming their next head coach.
Norwich City’s Stuart Webber, a lifelong Leeds fan, and Kieran Scott of Middlesbrough are two names from the Championship touted as possible options, but at this stage the club have not taken any firm steps towards filling the void. In many ways, recruitment on that front will be as crucial as any player-transfer business — because the director of football’s input is what tends to create ethos and philosophy, for better or worse.
The capacity of Elland Road has not just been inadequate in the Premier League, but inadequate since the start of the Marcelo Bielsa era five years ago next month. Leeds’ home games sold out consistently from his arrival onwards and the waiting list for season tickets soared very quickly, to a peak of 22,000 names.
This is a handicap in two senses. Firstly, supply is a long way below demand and supporters who would like to attend matches cannot. And secondly, Leeds are missing out on the commercial and corporate income a bigger stadium would let them generate.
But for all the talk, the idea of redeveloping the ground has been exactly that for a few years now — an idea.
The proposed project would start with the rebuilding of the West Stand and the club have architectural designs for that in place but they would have to go through the process of applying for planning permission and that was only due to happen once 49ers Enterprises assumed control of the boardroom. In itself, planning could take 12 months to secure.
The project would also require large amounts of funding, many tens of millions of pounds predominantly secured via loans, and it has been clear for a while that any such work was not going to start on Radrizzani’s watch. It is a sad aspect of these three seasons aboard the Premier League gravy train that Elland Road has hardly been touched to any great extent.
If Leeds go down on Sunday, there is no expectation that redevelopment would move forward in the Championship.
Upgrading Elland Road has long been described as Premier League-dependent and, given the financial impact of relegation, it is not something the club can prioritise — and there is very little point securing planning permission for the project if they are not able to push the button on it rapidly.
Back in a division where every penny counts, increasing the capacity of Elland Road would slip into the background once more, delayed by the immediacy of trying to get promoted again.
The question is essentially this: do Leeds need a 50,000 or 60,000-capacity home playing in the EFL?
This is about as close as you’ll get to an upside of relegation.
Those 10 per cent rises in costs for next season? They’ll be canned if Leeds go down. You’ll get more games for your money (46 league matches in the Championship, up from the Premier League’s 38) and if you’re on that long, long waiting list, your chances of reaching the front of it might be slightly enhanced.
Still, good news about the chocolate oranges.
(Top photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images)