the square ball week: try to competeBack
The news of Lewis Cook’s sale to Bournemouth dropped while I was writing for this column last week, and my mood dropped along with it. There wasn’t much coherent analysis going on here, although that probably doesn’t matter. We’ve sold the best young academy player of a generation. What more is there to analyse?
My emotional stability wasn’t helped by the team bus photo of Lewis reunited with his old team mate Max Gradel; the two of them together, wearing the training gear of AFC Bournemouth. They’re always thought of as a sleepy seaside club, Bournemouth, but they were decades ahead of the trend with that AFC naming convention, their club badge has resembled a super-stylised male grooming advert for years, and they didn’t only adopt the anarchist red and black stripes of AC Milan, but signed the anarchist ex-Milan icon Luther Blissett to wear them.
And now they possess two parts of a Leeds United dream. If only we’d kept them, if only we’d kept them all when we had them! We never saw Gradel and Cook in the same first team, but imagine if Gradel had still been in ours when Cook broke through, instead of Nicky Ajose; how much better might he have looked over the last two seasons, when he established himself as the Championship’s best player anyway?
Dream teams and fantasy teams are normally decided by imagining unlimited funds and drawing up lists of multi-million pound transfers in. Leeds United’s dream team is different; it’s a dream of players who were really here, really ours, who we didn’t have to splash out millions to buy, but only had to keep.
Dream of Cook passing wide to Gradel; he lays the ball inside to Howson, who pushes the ball forward to McCormack, for McCormack to switch the play to the other wing and Snodgrass. Snodgrass uses Taylor as an overlapping distraction and crosses with laser-jäger accuracy for Becchio to head into the roof of the net from twelve yards out. It’s not far-fetched because, like a Pokémon champ, we had them all.
The sober response to all this, from fans who like to portray themselves as realists and only have time for the real world, is to say that this is football now; Bournemouth, our latest plunderers, are in the Premier League, and Leeds United simply can’t compete. An undisclosed fee daring to rise to £10m is chickenfeed for them; a signing on fee followed by £30k wages per week will draw barely a blink from their bank manager. Leeds United simply can’t compete.
And that’s true. But the lesson is not that we should give up and shrug when Bournemouth start stacking paper on the negotiating table. The day when Leeds United can engage in a bidding war with Bournemouth is both long, long gone and far, far in the future, and the chances of us signing a player as good as Lewis Cook on the open transfer market are minimal for as long as broadcasting deals pour funds into Bournemouth. We can’t compete with them for signings.
But where Leeds United absolutely could have competed over Cook, and over Byram or Howson or Snodgrass or Gradel or with Taylor or Mowatt to come, is over players Leeds United already own. The lament with each departure has not only been that we’re letting go of a player that we enjoy watching and reinforces our team, but that we don’t have the resources to replace them with better. Unless we produce one at Thorp Arch, Leeds United will not be able to offer a contract to a player as good as Lewis Cook again for a very long time, because we won’t have the bank to even enter the bidding.
The logic has to be — had to be, because essentially Leeds United have totally blown this now — recognising the talent we’re fortunate enough to have produced through the Academy and chucking whatever resource we had available at keeping them here. The counter-argument to this is that £30k per week is £30k per week, and United could never compete on that bottom line wages, but the truth is more nuanced than that.
The policy at Leeds hasn’t only been one of under-investment in the club’s crown jewels; that’s come in tandem with over-investment in garbage. I did the sums when Sam Byram left, and worked out that while they were both Leeds United players, Steve Morison took home nearly £2.1m, and Sam Byram made £1.5m. Who contributed more to Leeds United? Who, when West Ham came calling, better deserved the enormous leap to Premier League wages?
The comparison du jour for Cook is Giuseppe Bellusci. £17k per week; plus bonuses, according to his leak pay information and sundry talk; while Lewis Cook was being paid in the region of £8k. Bellusci was getting more than double what Cook was; and to put them side by side over the last two seasons (and ignoring whatever pay increase Cook may have got last summer, meaning his slice would be even less than this), Cook made £832,000, while Bellusci got £1.77m.
Leeds’ young players aren’t just seeking better pay when they leave Leeds United; they’re seeking reparations, the backpay they’re entitled to compared to team mates — if you can use that phrase about Bellusci — that they outperformed in every game and no doubt every training session, too. Not to mention the extra curricular activities; for £1.77m, was Bellusci included in any marketing campaigns, whether for season tickets or new kits? No, because his brand value to the club was worse than zero. Yet he was paid more than double the players the club has relied on to present itself to its customers (and having seen said players repeating the line, “What’s the score, Norman?” over and over as they attempted to film the 15/16 season ticket advert, they deserved more for their work).
Perhaps Leeds United can’t compete with an £8k to £30k per week pay increase. But would a £17k to £30k increase have been as tempting to Lewis Cook, if Lewis Cook knew that he was the top earner at Leeds United, that his value to the club on the pitch and in the club shop was recognised, and that around him the pattern was being repeated: that Taylor was paid more than Antenucci, that Mowatt was paid more than Bianchi, that Byram hadn’t left, because he’d never been so grossly underpaid compared to Morison?
It’s about value; about making the right players feel valued, and getting the right amount of value from them. Leeds valued Bellusci — who nearly didn’t sign due to his wage demands in the first place — at £17k per week, a statement of belief in his abilities; but got no more than £8k per week performances from him. Cook was valued at less than one half-Bellusci, and people wondered why he didn’t hang around for long when Bournemouth offered him a way out.
Money isn’t everything in football, despite what ‘realists’ say. But value is worth a lot, and value can override cash. Nobody can say for certain whether Lewis Cook would have stayed at Leeds United if, ahead of 2015/16, the club had invested in his wages — extremely cheap compared to a transfer fee for any adequate replacement — and those of his young, excessively talented team mates; Byram and Taylor in particular. But it would have changed the conversation.
Lewis Cook left a club that undervalued its young players, a team that — whatever the quality of Garry Monk’s building, which may turn out well — is falling apart; which is exactly why it needs Garry Monk to do so much building.
Would Cook have left a club that had recognised the talent its young players held, had valued them accordingly, and had placed them at the top of its wage structure and the heart of its future?
Sure, we can’t say for certain. But we can certainly say that it was worth a try. And that’s the truly galling thing: Leeds United didn’t even try.