On Wednesday, Leeds United chief executive Angus Kinnear sat down with The Square Ball podcast for a discussion about the events that led the club to one of its most challenging summers in recent history.
The conversation ranged from the reasons for United’s relegation from the Premier League to the accountability of senior figures, including Kinnear, as well as the loan clauses that hampered Leeds through the transfer window, their new strategy for recruitment and the future under new manager Daniel Farke.
It is only natural for Leeds to ponder the positions of strength they held so recently. Three years ago, they were entering the Premier League with the momentum of a train. Two years ago, they were into season two having finished ninth at the first attempt. All of that and so much progress after 16 long seasons outside the top division.
But from the summer of 2021 onwards, it felt as if relegation was creeping up on Leeds — and there was no escape in May. What followed, and what ended on Friday night, was a summer and a transfer window like very few others, a wildly complex spell in which the owners changed and Leeds were forced to face up to their return to the Championship.
It poses countless questions about how they got here and the ways it could have been different. In conjunction with The Square Ball, The Athletic is publishing key excerpts of the interview with Kinnear here — his take on events that took United back to where they started and thoughts on what comes next.
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Leeds went down with 31 points, winning seven games and going through three head coaches, the last of them Sam Allardyce. It was put to Kinnear: did things spiral out of control after the sacking of Marcelo Bielsa in 2022?
Kinnear: “Being a custodian of a club is difficult because there’s only one real metric that matters — and that’s results on the pitch. We can do fantastic things with the foundation, we can drive our commercial revenues, we can sell more shirts, we can do brilliant work in the academy, all of which I think we’ve done, but we know that we’re going to be viewed through whether we won football matches.
“Winning seven matches in a season is miserable for everybody and it colours absolutely everything. That’s why the mantra within the club and particularly for this season is ‘football first’. We’ve got to start by getting things right on the pitch.
“I don’t think it spiralled out of control (post-Bielsa) but there are a couple of factors that made things really challenging. The first one is trying to replace a manager who had as much success and played as great football and connected with the fanbase as Marcelo did. Lots of clubs have found moving on from somebody who’s been particularly successful really difficult.
“That’s caused us issues on the pitch. When you speak to my counterparts in the Premier League, if you get one managerial appointment wrong, you have a very high chance of going down. Similarly, if you have a bad window and the players you recruit don’t work, you have a very high chance of going down. Both of those things coincided last year.
“From a supporter perspective, the sense that things were spiralling out of control was probably linked to the fact that we’ve managed to coincide getting relegated with a fairly challenging owner transition. If we had a long-term custodian in the shape of the 49ers and maybe they’d bought (the club) a year earlier, perhaps the fanbase would have been more confident about the ability to return.
“I see how they perceive a position where the club was without control. But I don’t think we are. We’re back in control and we’ve got a very strong foundation for the season.”
Appointing and sacking Marsch
Marsch was Leeds’ choice to replace Bielsa, identified by the club’s former director of football, Victor Orta. Marsch succeeded in staving off relegation at the end of the 2021-22 season but was sacked midway through last term, with Leeds in 17th place. The American had been touted as a ‘natural successor’ to Bielsa.
Kinnear: “There were certain things Victor saw from a technical perspective when he was looking at coaches that showed there were synergies (between Marsch and Bielsa). Marcelo is the definition of unique. Trying to find anybody able to deliver in the same way as he did was going to be difficult.
“But from Jesse’s (team’s) pressing stats, the running stats, we thought he was going to be able to leverage the fact that the team was really fit. We thought that was an important part of his game. The fitness did fall away and we didn’t expect that.
“There were some challenges with (Biesla’s) man-to-man approach. We thought Jesse was going to bring a more pragmatic style of play, which was perhaps better adapted to the Premier League. Clearly, it didn’t work.
“Jesse worked very, very hard. He was very committed. He was always, as he said, ‘all in’. Jesse would hold his hands up and say it didn’t work. He had a very good track record as a coach but you have to accept it failed, and it also failed from a recruitment perspective.
“In the run-up to Christmas, we were in a difficult position. The trajectory wasn’t moving in the right direction. We had a significant dip and it was probably the Bournemouth and Liverpool games (victories at a time when Marsch was under major pressure) when we thought we were moving in the right direction. Perhaps if we hadn’t had those two results, we might have made the decision earlier.
“Based on where we ended up, it was the wrong decision because we got relegated. That’s what everybody was trying to avoid. It was debated a lot at the time. If we had the decision again, knowing what we know now, we’d have absolutely made the change then. Without going into the individuals involved, there wasn’t alignment on the board at that stage.
“You have to look at what type of change you can make, what type of manager can you get in, what are the chances of that manager making it better. You have to take all those things into account. But a change would have been better at that point.”
Marsch’s dismissal on February 6 prompted Leeds, after a spell with under-21s coach Michael Skubala as caretaker, to recruit Javi Gracia. The Spaniard was then sacked in May after failing to guide Leeds away from trouble. Allardyce took charge of the last four matches but could only deliver one point — not enough to keep Leeds up.
Kinnear: “It was no secret that we were looking for somebody to save our Premier League status. It was not a long-term hire. With Jesse, someone Victor had tracked for a long while, we thought he could manage the club for years, not just save us from relegation. Javi came in with a specific job to do.
“We thought Javi had a good sense of what needed to change in the team. We thought he was going to be pragmatic and get results. It started reasonably well but by the end, the performance at Bournemouth felt so far below the standard required to keep us up over the last four games that he was let go. We felt he’d lost the dressing room and we needed one last throw of the dice, not from a tactical perspective but from a leadership perspective.
“By that stage, we were in miracle territory. There’s no hiding from the fact that when you come to the appointment of Sam Allardyce, that has nothing to do with the project at all. That’s one final roll of the dice.”
Iraola and Slot
Leeds’ initial target after sacking Marsch was Andoni Iraola, then at Rayo Vallecano and now at Bournemouth. They also targeted Feyenoord’s Arne Slot having courted Real Madrid legend and youth-team coach Raul.
Kinnear: “The people identified — if Jesse left — were Iraola, Slot and Raul. Raul had told us earlier in the season that he wasn’t prepared to come. Iraola and Slot had both told us that they would be prepared to come and would be made available.
“Then when the process started, and obviously it happens quite quickly, Iraola decided he wasn’t prepared to come anymore, even though he had an exit clause. Slot had misjudged the vehemence of his club to keep him. There’s only so much you can do.
“Javi Gracia was definitely further down the list. Both of those candidates had greater pedigree than Javi and could have been longer-term hires. The fact that Iraola has ultimately found a Premier League job suggests we weren’t the only people to think that he was an appropriate candidate.”
Failures of recruitment
Helped by funds from the sale of Kalvin Phillips and Raphinha, Leeds signed players designed to fit Marsch’s style of play — regarded by many as the ‘Red Bull’ model, successfully used by RB Leipzig and Red Bull Salzburg. The majority of those players have left the club in the wake of relegation, the result of recruitment that comprehensively failed.
Kinnear: “We struggled with the loss of Kalvin and Raphinha. One of the things Sam Allardyce said when he came in was that he felt the club lacked any world-class players. He said in the Premier League, even the worst teams normally have one or two world-class players.
“We lost those in Kalvin and Raphinha. The theory was that in the next transfer window, we’ll be able to spread that income across a number of signings and be stronger in more positions. Because those signings didn’t work, we weren’t.
“We’d invested heavily in Jesse in terms of players. But ultimately, they all probably ended up being ‘five out of 10s’ when they needed to be ‘seven out of 10s’. If you lose your two best players and recruit a number of players who are only ‘five out of 10s’, you give yourself a problem. In a window where we lost Raphinha and Kalvin, who were so critical to securing results, the signings we made didn’t compensate.
“The mistake was probably trying to find players who had the potential to be ‘eight out of 10s’ or ‘nine out of 10s’ but were too high risk. Perhaps we should have had a strategy where we were hiring the ‘six or seven out of 10s’ that keep you up
“I’d like to think that (this summer) the supporters would see there’s been a different approach. There’s been a more pragmatic, perhaps more obvious, approach, a clearer strategy which will hopefully deliver.”
Italian businessman Radrizzani ended a six-year reign as Leeds’ majority shareholder and chairman when he agreed to sell the club to 49ers Enterprises in June. He had overseen the club’s return to the top flight after 16 seasons in the English Football League and the appointment of Bielsa, but ultimately left with the club back where they were when he bought in.
Kinnear: “There are lots of ways you can criticise Andrea but he invested generously in the squad and took huge risks, including hiring Marcelo. No other club in the Championship would have hired Marcelo based on the terms of his financial requirements.
“It was a really bold move by Andrea, but he doesn’t have the wealth to compete in the Premier League. I don’t know whether you can criticise a guy for not being rich enough. I would say Andrea probably put at risk more of his personal net worth than any other owner in the league.
“We’d be in a different world if we had the 49ers funding and full ownership earlier. Andrea sold reluctantly. He loved his association with Leeds United. Maybe if he’d have sold when we stayed up on the last day at Brentford (in the 2021-22 season), his legacy would have been kept intact. It certainly would have been a better financial decision for him to do it then.
“There was a desire from all of the board, but particularly Andrea, to put Leeds on a very steep trajectory to European football. To do that on the budgets we had, we had to take bigger risks on the players we recruited. If I could have the time again, I’d have taken a more pragmatic approach that secured Premier League status over a longer period.”
Farke was appointed as Leeds’ new manager in July. He had the record of twice winning the Championship title with Norwich City and he emerged successful from a lengthy interview process carried out by United’s new hierarchy.
Kinnear: “One of the things we put as a recruitment criterion when we were hiring Daniel was that the successful candidate had to be managing in a top-four league (Farke had just left Borussia Monchengladbach, of the German Bundesliga). We wanted somebody who’d managed both in a top league and the Premier League because that transition risk is significant.
“One of the things we also liked about Daniel was that when we were negotiating the contract, he didn’t want to be called head coach. He said, ‘I’m first-team manager’. That’s a semantic change in terms of job title but it actually sums up his approach, which is much more like Marcelo’s — ‘I want to run everything’. Daniel’s not going to report to a director of football. Daniel’s going to run the football department with the assistance of a technical director, head of recruitment and head of football operations.
“Daniel is proven at this level, supremely confident at this level, but came into his interview and didn’t really talk about the Championship at all. He talked about how he thinks he deserves a Premier League opportunity and how Leeds United is the perfect vehicle to prove himself in the Premier League.
“We’ve been through a really challenging transfer window where lots of managers would have lost their shit repeatedly. He’s been so calm, so collaborative, so focused. It’s exactly what a club the size of Leeds United needs.”
Leeds were badly hampered in the recent window by release clauses that allowed bigger names to leave the club on loan, clauses offered in return for players agreeing to take major wage cuts in the wake of relegation. In certain cases, those arrangements prevented Leeds from pulling in transfer fees to reinvest. Plans to retain key figures were also thwarted by their reluctance to stick around.
Kinnear: “When I’ve spoken to them, the vehemence that the players don’t want to play in the Championship has absolutely surprised me. I don’t think it’s a Leeds United thing. It’s a broader football thing. It’s about the profile of the Premier League. It’s about the money paid in the Premier League.
“What we’ve seen is that players have absolutely no desire to play in the Championship. We thought we could convince them that this was a great project, that playing in the Championship and tearing it up for a season would be good for their careers and wouldn’t harm their international careers.
“I’ve been naive about it but it’s been brutally disappointing at how we’ve seen players crawl over broken glass to leave our club. We’ve had a bad year but I thought there’d be a bigger emotional bond; there’d be a desire to put right the bad seasons they had last year.
“We could have taken offers on some of the players who left on loan but we didn’t because we didn’t want to not crystallise the (Championship’s profit and sustainability) loss of them being sold below their book value. Instead, we’ve taken the salary saving.
“They all want a way out because they don’t want to take the salary cut. We had a choice when we structured someone’s contract — about whether we wanted to have a salary cut or not. The (relegation) salary reductions were somewhere between 40 and 60 per cent, so very aggressive. They’re some of the most aggressive in the Premier League.
“That was done because we wanted to run the club prudently. We knew we couldn’t carry the weight of a Premier League wage bill in the Championship. We didn’t have the funding for it (under Radrizzani). We were still new to the league so the prospect of going down was fairly realistic. The owners couldn’t fund a Premier League wage bill in the league below. There was a conversation to be had and the players want the protection of a loan.
“They don’t know what the ownership situation is going to be (after relegation), who you’re going to hire as a manager, whether you’re going to invest in the squad. If we’d had the 49ers as sole owners, would we have had to be as aggressive in the wage cuts? I don’t think we would. They’d have had the funding to cushion the blow into the Championship.
“But out of the players that we’ve lost — and I think Daniel would agree with this — the majority aren’t regretted losses for the project we want. We’ve saved £40million ($50m) in wages and brought in players who really want to be here.”
Adams and Sinisterra moving to Bournemouth from Leeds — Adams permanently and Sinisterra on loan on deadline day — were two of the biggest frustrations. Both were threatening legal action if Leeds refused to let them leave, claiming that release clauses in their contracts had not been handled properly. Asked if he would have wanted to keep either of them in those circumstances, Kinnear answered: “No”.
Kinnear: “I respect all players’ desire to play at the highest level. They have short careers and should have the opportunity to play at the highest level.
“To be fair to Adams and Sinisterra, when they bought into the Leeds United project, one of the things that we sell to players is, ‘You’re joining a Premier League team who are on a trajectory where we’re going to be consistent Premier League performers’. They didn’t want to join a Championship side.
“However, there are ways you can handle your desire to play at the highest level. I don’t think either of those two players handled it particularly well. You need to approach it through discussion and trying to get to a mutual agreement, rather than the avenues they pursued.
“I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to expand but I don’t think it’s a way to behave towards a club that’s looked after you and continues to look after you and was offering you fantastic alternatives to remain. There were players who were, perhaps, led by their agents to employ tactics that mean they’re not on our Christmas card list. The avenues Tyler and Luis were exploring had some risk to the club. We were fairly solid in our position but, ultimately, it was a combination of the legal position and their desire to leave.”
Orta was Leeds’ director of football from 2017 until May of this year when he and Leeds parted company in the wake of Gracia’s sacking. He is now employed by Sevilla. A much-criticised and polarising figure, he had a huge influence on signing players and hiring coaches. Leeds have since broadened their recruitment staff.
Kinnear: “Victor has his critics but that the team with Ezgjan Alioski, Mateusz Klich, Jack Harrison, Ben White, Illan Meslier and all the people who helped get us promoted, and helped get us to ninth in the (Premier League) — there was a collective behind Marcelo.
“Victor had a huge amount of responsibility but (the changes this summer), it’s not reflective of him. It’s more reflective of how we’ve seen other clubs operate. If you look at most clubs now, there’s not one person running such a sophisticated and complicated department. It’s spread across more people. We think that’s a better structure.
“The recruitment around Marcelo, the season that we went up and the season we finished ninth was great. We found some great players. Even in the team at the moment, we’ve got Willy Gnonto, who we paid next to nothing for. We’ve got Meslier, who we paid next to nothing for. We’ve got Crysencio Summerville, who we paid next to nothing for, Pascal Struijk the same.
“Like most clubs, it’s been a mixed bag but with the last window, everybody would hold their hands up. And we look at these things collectively.
“Managers are involved, the board are involved, Victor’s involved, scouts are involved, the medical team are involved. It very clearly didn’t work and it wasn’t good enough. There have been some successes but there have also been failures.”
Kinnear’s position as CEO
Kinnear is a surviving member of the senior management team put together by Radrizzani after his takeover in 2017. Radrizzani and Orta have departed the club. Kinnear has faced criticism for his part in Leeds’ struggle over the past two years. He was asked whether his position as CEO should be under scrutiny.
Kinnear: “It’s difficult to hide from the disappointment of last season, and you can’t hide from taking responsibility for it. I’m the chief executive. I’m responsible for the operation of the club. I’m responsible for managing the ownership and helping guide them in the right direction.
“Last season was a failure and it’s hugely disappointing personally because it makes for a miserable year and it’s not what we set out to achieve.
“These aren’t excuses because we were well-funded enough. We had enough in the transfer market. We had enough choice of manager and time to get all those things right and we didn’t. But there is some context.
“The context is that with the way the Premier League’s structured now, there are 12 teams who could go down every season. Your chances of going down are about 25 per cent so over three to four years, there’s a chance that one year the bullet is going to be in your barrel of the revolver. The margins are so fine.
“You need to build a structure that can withstand it. One relegation, I don’t think, should be viewed as a terminal failure. Out of the first five years, we had one of transition. We had four that were relatively successful or very successful. Then we had one year that was definitely a failure.
“When I look at people in my position, people at Norwich or Fulham or Watford who’ve gone down and come back up, there’s a lot to be said for continuity. We’ve got great ownership now — not that we didn’t before, but the time was right to move to a different level of funding. There’s a lot to be optimistic about.”
(Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images)