Two full seasons, two Premier League titles, plus an FA Cup victory and a Champions League Semi Final. It was fair to say I’d not done too badly in charge of Leeds United, but would this be sustainable? With the club starting to get used to success, the demands upon me would surely increase. Was I up to the task?
To begin, there would be a little pruning of the squad. Midfielder Bogusz had only played in a handful of games last season – he was offered to other clubs for £17 million. Mondaca, another midfielder, was put up for sale for £2.5 million. I’d have to see who else would be surplus to requirements. Meanwhile, I couldn’t help but notice that German giants Bayern Munich had an opening, though I had made a mental commitment to Leeds and only one club could possibly tempt me. Rather than focus on where I might go, I focused on how I wanted to strengthen Leeds. I wanted a new right-back, in fact I needed one, and I cast my eyes on new ‘keepers too.
There would also be a renewed focus on the players coming up through the youth team.
Crazy fact – in the 28/29 season Man City spent a staggering £143 million – to finish 6th. No wonder Pep Guardiola’s days appeared to be numbered. And no, City were not the club to tempt me, even as they did indeed finally sack Guardiola following City’s 2-0 defeat to fierce rivals Man United in the FA Cup Final. Would this have any bearing on me whatsoever? Well, I was interesting in taking a look at City’s players, in case any of them wanted to make a swift exit from a club that appeared to be stalling.
My first dip into the transfer market focused on Manchester United’s superbly talented young goalkeeper Pericles, of Brazil. Aged just 22, Pericles was already considered to be a quality ‘keeper, and I wanted him. A bit of upwards of £40 million didn’t move Man Utd, and I didn’t have a bottomless pit of cash, so I put in a bid for Spurs ‘Keeper Aaron Ramsdale, who wasn’t as highly-regarded as Pericles but still looked like the real deal. Meanwhile I was warding off interest in Adam Williams – Inter Milan were sniffing around and that just would not do.
A public declaration of interest in Ramsdale appeared to unsettle him – he was not at all happy – or at least rumoured to be unhappy – with Spurs boss Conceicao’s refusal to let him speak to us. Since Spurs appeared to be determined to price Ramsdale beyond my reach, I took a look at Bayern Munich’s Arozena instead.
The negotiations to bring Arozena to Elland Road were lengthy and fraught with obstacles. Bayern kept demanding eye-watering sums of money and I was resisting their demands, whilst utilising monthly instalment plans and appearance-based fees to the best of my ability. Elsewhere, several players were signing new contracts, but curiously, Talles Magno was not one of them – I could trigger a one-year extension of his contract if I wished, but for the immediate moment, I was in danger of losing him at the end of the 29/30 season. To cover off this potential loss, I approached Harry Kane, out of contract with Man City, with the offer of a one-year deal. My hope was for one or two of my youth strikers to develop a bit more, and then unleash them.
Whilst of all that was going on, there was the small matter of preparing for the new season. A training camp had been scheduled for the USA, with the first friendly against NY Cosmos. As the squad prepared to head to America, Arozena finally completed his transfer. Kane rejected Leeds in favour of Aston Villa. Ah well. I decided to cash in on Talles Magno, and in almost the same breath decided against doing so. I did decided to put Brewster up for sale, along with Gutierrez and Marino.
My plan was for the transfer money to help fund a new right-back, but that would depend upon actually selling the players. In the meantime, a comfortable 6-0 win over New York Cosmos got the pre-season efforts underway nicely.
The Talles Magno situation took a strange turn, with interest from Real Madrid of all sides. The offer wasn’t worth nearly as much as I would have liked, but for a player whose contract was due to expire I was happy to accept. His head had been turned and keeping him against his will was unlikely to lead to anything good. Bayern kept bidding for Williams but the bids were weak, and he didn’t want to leave anyway.
The sales of Marino, Gutierrez and Talles Magno injected some transfer funds into my war chest, and on the pitch, Leeds delivered an 11-0 win over Indy Eleven, in a game that was never a contest. Next was a trip to France to face the titans of Paris Saint-Germain.
PSG’s run of French league titles wasn’t even funny. They had won Ligue 1 twelve seasons running, but their run of titles had a counter-weight – only once had the phenomenally rich club won the Champions League – in 2024. This was surprising, for in their ranks they possessed two of the best players in the world – Erling Haaland (take a look at him in real life for Dortmund and you’ll know) and Kylian Mbappe, who lifted the World Cup as a teenager in 2018 with France. It might be argued that, in real life, Haaland and Mbappe are the heirs to the thrones of Messi and Ronaldo – they can easily be that good, and on the game, they were.
Mbappe didn’t start but Haaland did. It didn’t matter. Williams was as good as I had ever seen him in a game where he scored all of our goals in an emphatic 4-1 win in Paris. Granted it was only a friendly, but such a performance served us in good stead. I was very happy!
I was happy for another reason too. Leeds signed versatile defender Gabriel Menino from Barcelona. This guy could operate as a right-back, as a defensive midfielder, and even as a right-winger. I planned to train him up a bit as a central defender too. He’d get his first opportunity to shine in a friendly at Elland Road against Dutch side PSV Eindhoven. The key player to shine here was Erwin, who was magnificent in a 6-1 win.
The final friendly was against… ourselves. Sort of. The Leeds Under 23s would give the first team a last working over before the Community Shield game against Man Utd. Before I considered that game, I had to consider something else – I had spent an awful lot of money on just two players. In fact, I had spent all the money and the wage bill was bulging. Not only did I really really want to sell Brewster – I had to have a good season – the chances of a repeat of a financial collapse like the one Leeds suffered previously were unlikely, but not impossible.
One thing I could do was put players out on loan. This included Azeez, who could hopefully gain some invaluable experience. I also put Brewster up for loan as well, to give myself more options.
The friendly against the Under 23s went exactly as I expected it to – Leeds won 10-0, but the exercise was about fitness and team unity, ahead of the Community Shield against FA Cup winners Man Utd. Community Shield games aren’t typically full-on matches, but my encounters with Man Utd have usually produced drama, and this was no exception. A 5-3 win demonstrated yet again how both sides were quite prepared to throw caution to the win and play high-octane football from start to finish.
From the Community Shield to the true bread and butter work of the Premier League. Leeds would kick off the season at home to West Ham United. The performance and result were both excellent – we ran out 5-0 winners, Ramon netting a hat-trick, with Harwood-Bellis and Gibbons netting the other two goals. It was a satisfying start to the new campaign. Another win followed, a 2-1 away win against Southampton through Ramon, and we could have won by more.
From the south coast back to Yorkshire for the visit of Newcastle. Ramon picked up a knock prior to the game – would he be fit in time, and if not, who would replace him? Seyithan Kaydas ended up being shifted from the left wing to the front, with Muchanga shifting from the middle of the park to the left. Kenny Martin would make his first start of the season, and 17 year-old Daniel Sanders was named on the bench. I had high hopes of him becoming a big thing for Leeds – he had the makings of a good striker.
We looked a bit ragged in the first half hour or so, but grew into the game and Williams scored his first of the season shortly before the break. We controlled the second half but took forever to get the goal to kill the game off – in injury time Sanders, on as a sub, scored on his Leeds debut. However, as good as that moment was, I really wanted Ramon fit and raring to go for our next match – away to Liverpool. A sudden bout of food poisoning for Erwin gave me another headache to contend with. Would Erwin be alright for the Liverpool game?! Well, he recovered quickly, but then Diez took a knock. Would he be alright?
Whilst I sweated on player fitness, Leeds’ Champions League Group Stage opponents were revealed. Atletico Madrid, Roma and CSKA Sofia stood between us and the knockout rounds. Those games would soon be upon us, but first, back to the Premier League and Liverpool (and the end of the summer transfer window, that saw Leeds fend off Man City’s interest in Williams, who was definitely going nowhere).
Manager of the Month came my way for August, which was nice. Would Leeds carry on their good early season form against a good Liverpool side?
Yes. We won 4-1, thanks to two goals from Williams in the first half and two goals from Ramon in the second half. It was another fine display of incisive counter-attacking football, and it got the job done.
After the international break came the visit of Arsenal, who had been something of a bogey side for me. To make matters worse (or at least potentially worse), my first Champions League engagement, away to Roma, was only a few days after the Arsenal clash. Once again the phantom goal curse struck, benefiting Arsenal in injury to give them a win, but neither Ramon nor Williams were firing on all cylinders anyway. Annoyingly, we’d led the game at one point, only to lose 2-1.
What I didn’t realise was that the defeat marked the end of a 34-game run of home league games without losing. Time to do it all over again – but first, there was a trip to Italy and Roma to contend with. At half-time we’d raced into a 3-0 lead but the game finished 3-2 – I was not at all pleased with how we allowed Roma a toehold into the game. It was the sort of sloppy performance that might have cost us more dearly in other circumstances.
A superb Williams hat-trick couldn’t deliver the points in a 4-4 Premier League draw away to Man City, despite Leeds being 4-1 up at one stage. After that came Queens Park Rangers in the Carabao Cup, so it was time to field a different type of team.
We needed penalties to beat QPR but we made it. One of my youth team players, Jake Lewis, scored on his debut.
When Leeds returned to Premier League action it was at Elland Road, against Premier League new boys Birmingham City. The newcomers had been thumped 8-1 at home by Liverpool on the opening day of the season, and had picked up their first win of the season at home to Bournemouth last time out. I wanted to believe that they’d be easy pickings, but that would have been monumentally conceited on my part. Nonetheless, despite a somewhat slow start, Leeds clicked and, like Liverpool, won 8-1. Williams and Ramon both scored hat-tricks (Williams would claim the match ball for having completed his first), with Ramon scoring the perfect hat-trick – goals with both feet and the head.
CSKA Sofia were next, coming to Elland Road in the second Champions League fixture of the season. Muchanga scored a good curling effort after just 21 seconds, and Harwood-Bellis headed home from a corner on 36 minutes, and that was it. It was a somewhat dull game where CSKA Sofia never threatened and Leeds never needed to get out of second gear. We’d need to go up a gear or two for the trip to Stamford Bridge. Chelsea would not be pushovers.
It was, for the most part, a good game, and Chelsea worked us hard, but in the end Leeds ran out 3-1 winners, Ramon scoring twice and Kenny Martin scoring too, which pleased me greatly.
The international break would give some players a chance to rest up, then it would be back to Elland Road for a home game against Bournemouth, against whom we’d had an exciting 6-3 win away from home the last time the two sides met (on the final day of Premier League action last season). It turned out to be another exciting game, but not for the reason I expected. Bournemouth took the lead with their first shot on target towards the end of the first half, and despite creating a host of chances, I feared we’d have one of those games. We equalised through Ramon on 72 minutes and Erwin won it with five minutes to go. On balance we deserved the three points, but we had made it very hard for ourselves.
A much sharper performance would be needed for our next game. We were hosting Atletico Madrid in the Champions League, and they would test us – or would they? Despite falling behind early on, Leeds rallied to eventually win 3-1, with Almada levelled shortly before the break, and youth stars Sanders and Gibbons both scoring to hand us a good victory. We’d won all three of our Group Stage fixtures so for, which put us in a very strong position.
From the glamour of the Champions League to the bread and butter work of the Premier League. Leeds were heading to Brighton, against whom we’d had two narrow wins last season. We had a slightly better score line, of 3-1, though we were pushed quite hard by a determined Brighton. The Carabao Cup was next, with a home game against Manchester United.
A heavily weakened team ended up losing 4-0, but I could live with that. The competition wasn’t especially important and preserving key players for league and European fixtures would be invaluable later on in the campaign. Up first was a trip to Portsmouth, so in a way I was annoyed at the Utd fixture – we could have stayed on the south coast and avoided unnecessary travel!
We enjoyed a very good win, 5-0, with Ramon scoring three and setting up another in a performance of complete quality. With Portsmouth dispatched so convincingly, it was on Atletico Madrid again, but this time at the Metropolitano de Madrid. This 85,570 capacity stadium would have a red-hot atmosphere, would my players be mentally up to this task?
Despite Muchanga getting sent off, the answer was yes. We won 3-2, with Williams ending a bit of a goal draught and Ramon scoring twice. For the second season in a row we’d booked our spot in the knockout stages with two games to spare.
Things then potentially took a turn. Arozena got injured for a few weeks. Enter Livakovic, who remained a competent ‘keeper. He’d get some Premier League time, starting with the visit of Leicester City. Leicester had ended up surviving a relegation battle last season, but were potentially embroiled in one again this season. Like last season’s home game against Leicester, we raced into a comfortable lead (4-0 at half-time), then switched off, with the game finishing 4-2. I made it clear to the players that slacking like that was not acceptable.
The international break brought with it the news that Brenes earned his first full cap for France, which was quite nice – it was a sign that he was developing a a player and I was proud of the role Leeds had in that development. He’d get another chance to show his stuff at home to Everton, when the league campaign resumed. A 3-3 draw was not a reflection of the match – once again the ghost goal situation denied me a win, plus they only had any hope of snatching a draw because of the penalty spot. It would be nice if the phantom goal scenario would benefit me a little more than the opposition…
It was still relatively early in the season but we’d fallen three points behind Manchester United, and I had a funny feeling that a third consecutive title was probably not going to happen. Then again, I’d not believed we’d win the last two titles, so anything was possible…
Roma were up next, in a dead rubber Champions League tie. This was a chance to rest some jaded players and grant invaluable European experience to some of my young local talent. The squad wasn’t completely devoid of experienced players, but I’d certainly handed the keys over to the younger generation for this one. They excelled, with Gibbons scoring twice in a 4-1 win, though Roma injured three of my players, including ruling Menino, my expensive and new right-back, for at least six months.
Gibbons’ agent wanted a new deal for him, but in all honesty, though I was pleased with his progress, the chances were that he would be a good secondary player but he didn’t seem like he’d develop into more than that. I wanted to defer contract negotiations until the end of the season; Gibbons wanted a new deal immediately. I wasn’t going to be forced into anything (frankly, we didn’t really have the money there and then to offer a better deal), and Gibbons’ temper tantrum made me seriously consider putting him up for sale. His threat to diss me to the rest of the team made me laugh – yes, he’d scored a few goals, but he was hardly the next Mbappe or Messi.
At any rate, I felt he would be a minor nuisance, and I had more important matters to attend to. Leeds travelled to Wolverhampton Wanderers, looking for another three points. We left with only one point, after a 0-0 draw with my strikers being curiously under-par – though Williams was replaced by Sanders early on due to an injury.
Next were Spurs, away from home. Conceicao and I had engaged in a war of words last season and he decided to try and stoke that fire a bit more, so I responded in kind. I boldly declared myself a better manager than he, so now I really needed a result! I was able to welcome Arozena back into the team, so there would be a bit more confidence at the back.
We threw away a 2 goal lead to lose 3-2. I was pretty angry.
We faced another big challenge. Leeds were back to Elland Road, but we were facing Manchester United, who were in great form and running away with the Premier League. We were eight points behind them after 15 games, not exactly where I wanted Leeds to be. Granted, we’d massively overachieved over the past couple of seasons, but I privately hoped we could maintain a bit of momentum and at least be there or thereabouts at the end, not cast adrift of the fight.
Given our recent jittery form, I played down expectations of a good result here. Maybe that reverse psychology worked, maybe it had no impact, but we ran out 3-0 winners, with Ramon scoring an early penalty, Seyithan Kaydas scoring midway in the first half and Ramon running through to score again on 81 minutes, sealing the win and the points. We’d also inflicted Utd’s first defeat of the Premier League campaign. Nice.
For the final Champions League Group Stage match I made a number of changes, once again resting key names. Livakovic returned, As did Irwin, and Kenny Martin would line up in the middle of the park. Despite my misgivings with Gibbons, he started on the right, and Sanders started alongside Williams up front. 17 year-old Martin Barrett had already played in a Carabao Cup fixture and a Champions League tie – the left-back would get another go at CSKA Sofia.
A 6-0 win was a sign of good work. Williams scored twice, Sanders scored twice, Gibbons scored, and Kaydas scored. Not a bad day at the office.
Having rested some players, I expected the squad to be fighting fit for the visit of Fulham. We played well as a team, picking up a 3-0 win without having to exert too much effort. After an international pause, we took a trip to Aston Villa for the Boxing Day fixtures.
We won 3-2, but having been three goals up I was yet again annoyed at how we took our foot off the gas. I wanted and needed better things for our next game, away to Burnley, in what would mark the half-way stage of the season. We got the points, but again we did really well and then slacked off, winning 4-3, but it should have been a much more comfortable victory.
We’d arrived at mid-point of the 29/30 season. We were second, three points behind league leaders Manchester United. We were still in the Champions League.