Daniel Farke is becoming so reacclimatised to the potholes blemishing England’s roads that he seems to regard them as something of a metaphor for his Leeds United team’s travails.
“I don’t want to sugarcoat the situation – I want to speak quite openly and honestly about it,” the German manager says. “I’m confident and in a good mood but I also know it will be difficult. I predict a bumpy road through August.”
Despite the club’s relegation from the Premier League last spring, a subsequent full takeover on the part of the San Francisco-based investors 49er Enterprises allied to the recruitment of a promotion specialist in Farke had prompted a surge of close-season optimism around Elland Road.
It was to prove as fleeting as the sun’s recent appearances in West Yorkshire during this dismal washout of a summer. Two games into the Championship campaign Leeds have one point and Farke’s press conference before the home game against West Brom on Friday night was dominated by talk of the three former first-teamers banished from the dressing room by the former Norwich and Borussia Mönchengladbach manager.
With Willy Gnonto, Luis Sinisterra and Hélder Costa agitating to leave Leeds before the transfer window’s closure, Farke has exiled them from first-team training and the locker room.
Costa, loaned to Al-Ittihad in Saudi Arabia last season, is likely to be allowed to depart but a legal dispute is raging as to whether Sinisterra’s contract contains a still active exit clause. Gnonto, meanwhile, has no escape clause and, despite the Italy forward’s alleged recent refusal to play, Leeds, at least publicly, maintain they intend to keep him.
Exit clauses have been something of a recurring theme for Farke. They are the reason why several of the 12 senior players to have left Elland Road, including Jack Harrison, Max Wöber, Brenden Aaronson and Robin Koch, were able to avoid second-tier football, often on season’s loans.
To date there have been only four arrivals: Ethan Ampadu, Karl Darlow, Sam Byram and Joe Rodon. This dictated that Leeds could name only eight substitutes, including two goalkeepers, for last weekend’s defeat at Birmingham.
The average age of Farke’s squad is 23 and supporters were concerned by the side’s naivety during a hard-fought draw against Cardiff during Elland Road’s season opener.
“I don’t think we’ll be at our best in August because pre-season was too short and we had other distractions with outgoings and not too many incomings so far,” Farke says. “But the quality and personality of the players we bring in is the most important thing. I want lads who are fully committed to Leeds and willing to defend the shirt. We have to be smart because there are financial restrictions but I’m confident there will be additions.”
Outgoings appear top of Farke’s agenda. As Harrison, one of his best players, sealed a loan to Everton this week, Bournemouth attempted to activate the possibly now expired £20m release clause in the USA midfielder Tyler Adams’s contract and last season’s leading scorer Rodrigo settled into his new life in Qatar with Al-Rayyan.
The 49er Enterprises had hoped that Gnonto in particular would prove a key part of an intended attacking rebirth but the gifted 19-year-old is worried that a season in the Championship would damage his chances of involvement in next summer’s European Championship.
“I’m quite pragmatic,” says Farke. “If someone doesn’t want to be with us he goes out of the dressing room and no longer trains with us. I only want people who are fully focused and committed. I’m not begging or praying for people to play for Leeds. This club’s too big for that. But with Willy there is no exit clause and we’ve made it quite clear that we won’t sell him.”
Despite an apparently sanguine demeanour, Farke has made plain that he thinks far too many of last season’s squad possessed contracts furnished with escape clauses that were too easy to trigger. “It’s a lot,” he says. “I had a similar situation at Norwich after relegation but I’m not sure any club in western Europe had more of these clauses than Leeds. You have to smile but you also have to learn from it. It’s not what you want. As long as I’m in control you can be sure it won’t happen again.”
If Paraag Marathe, the Leeds chairman, may be pleased the loans and sales have contributed to slashing the wage bill in half, he will surely wonder where the goals will come from.
With Rodrigo in Doha, Georginio Rutter inexperienced and Patrick Bamford injured – again – and unavailable until after the September international break at the earliest, Leeds are pursuing Aston Villa’s Cameron Archer.
Archer’s record of 11 goals and six assists in 20 Championship games on loan at Middlesbrough last season shows he is a very decent striker. But he is also being courted, assiduously, by Luton, Sheffield United and Middlesbrough.
Whatever the composition of his eventual squad, Farke intends naming a full complement of substitutes come September. “We can’t make ourselves a different reality,” he says. “But we’re not panicking. I’m here for sport, not to talk about our financial situation, but I totally believe in the in quality of the people above me here. I’m 100% confident we’ll get the players we need.
“There’s only a small period left and it’s tricky and complicated but remember that old quote about leaving the best to last …”