Monday, 24 January 2011

Leeds United must win promotion to keep Simon Grayson's young stars marching on together

One thing that was evident during Leeds United’s FA Cup replay against Arsenal last Wednesday was the vibrancy, belief and expectancy that has flooded back to Elland Road under manager Simon Grayson.
The dark days at Leeds — the fire-sales, relegations, administration, points deduction — are beginning to become a distant memory and the good times appear to be heading back to one of English football’s biggest clubs.
But every silver lining has a cloud and the flip side from all of the positivity generated by the two third round battles with Arsenal is that Leeds are now firmly back on the radar and so are Grayson’s players.
And despite Grayson’s confidence that the likes of Jonny Howson, Luciano Becchio, Max Gradel and Robert Snodgrass can achieve all of their footballing ambitions at Elland Road, any failure to win promotion to the Premier League this season will leave Leeds exposed to the same kind of talent drain that marked their decline in the last decade.
Ten years ago, Leeds possessed one of the most exciting young teams in Europe, with David O’Leary’s youthful outfit reaching the Champions League semi-finals in the 2000-01 campaign.
But once the financial nightmare began to take hold at the club, the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Jonathan Woodgate, Paul Robinson, Lee Bowyer and Alan Smith were all sold off to ease the debts.
Leeds lost a generation of players which, had they stayed together, could have delivered league titles and other major trophies to Elland Road.
Without them, the fall was apocalyptic and it is only now, almost ten years on from the start of the decline, that Leeds are showing signs of bouncing back.
Much of that is down to Grayson’s readiness to put his faith in the club’s latest batch of brought young stars, led by the 22-year-old Howson, a local boy now captaining the team he supported as a boy.
Howson’s performances against Arsenal and his refusal to be intimidated or overawed by the prospect of taking on the likes of Cesc Fabregas highlighted what many have known for a while about the midfielder.
Simply, either with or without Leeds United, Howson is a player who will go places and might even be a contender for a place in England’s Euro 2012 squad.
To achieve that, he needs to be in the Premier League and that is the problem facing Leeds.
Bradley Johnson, the midfielder who scored a wonder goal against Arsenal last week, has already refused to sign a new contract in the hope that a top flight club will snap him up in the summer.
So what will happen if Leeds, who only returned to the Championship following promotion from League One last season, fail to achieve back-to-back promotions this term?
Can they hold onto Howson, Becchio, Snodgrass, Gradel and Johnson? And will Grayson’s achievements at the club also tempt a Premier League owner to lure him from Elland Road?
Grayson is right when he says that the stature of Leeds is such that any player can realise his ambition at the club.
But while they remain outside the Premier League, they will be vulnerable to losing their best players and, having suffered that once already in recent years, it would be a devastating blow should it happen again.

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