Fire-fighter Birch: 'We mustn't sell any players'

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Give him his due, Trevor Birch is always up for a challenge. This is a man who, bearing the burden of being Bill Shankly's last-ever signing, tried to break into a Liverpool forward-line of Keegan, Toshack and Heighway, with David Fairclough as the regular supersub; then, having lost that battle, had to replace Ian Rush at Chester ("After most games the manager used to come in and lament, 'If only Rushy was still here', which taught me about man-management"); was a 16-year-old school-leaver who took a degree at 23; then jacked in a partnership with an accountancy firm to return to the crazy world of professional football, where the numbers never quite seem to add up.

As managing director of Chelsea (estimated debts £98m), he performed such wonders of juggling that not a player had to be sold, and administration was avoided. Just the man then, after being rewarded for his achievements with constructive dismissal (Manchester United's Peter Kenyon was given his job) to take on the running of the financial madhouse that is Leeds United. Debts there, after all, are a mere £88m, including payments due to a litany of sacked managers, and wages still being paid to players like Robbie Fowler to make them go away and score goals for someone else.

Ask the softly spoken Birch why he even thought of taking on this latest challenge at the start of last month and he replies "good question" before adding an ironic: "Club in crisis, sack the manager, players being arrested for rape. But perversely I'm enjoying it, because it plays to the skills I have in terms of previous business career. Having done a little bit of it at Chelsea too."

There is understatement in that last sentence. For all Ken Bates's bluster, Chelsea were in a parlous state, yet Birch's strategy not only kept the blue flag flying but prevented the sort of panic and fire sales that turned Leeds from Champions' League semi-finalists to relegation contenders in all-too-few easy lessons. He will use the same methods at Elland Road: "When I first joined Chelsea [18 months ago], costs had escalated and there was a big squeeze, so we got the creditors together and explained that if you start selling players, there's only one way it will go. We had the semblance of a good team, had just missed out on the Champions' League and the important thing was to keep at that top table and maintain the status as a big club. I really worked on the creditors and said, 'Trust me, because I've done this kind of thing before and I've a football background'."

The argument has already achieved a "standstill" agreement with Leeds's major creditors, who include American bondholders, the Inland Revenue and a finance company still owed money from the purchase of Mark Viduka more than three years ago. That gives Birch until 19 January to find a new buyer, which is the only way to avoid administration - something he is desperate to do despite the possibility of minimising debts as Leicester City did - because as a football man well versed in the sport's politics he can envisage repercussions such as a deduction in points or enforced relegation.

"To attract someone as a buyer the last thing we're going to do in January is start selling players," he promises, "unless there was, as they say, an offer you can't refuse. But even then the player has to want to go. My stated policy would be not to sell any players. The short-term gain of selling a player can't possibly be the right decision when you could lose £20m next year by going into the First Division. Look at James Milner, one of the brightest prospects I've ever seen, only 18 in January - somebody like him is undoubtedly the future of the club. And in a fire sale you don't get the right prices, you're seen as a club in crisis and people will take advantage." As others tried to do with bids for Viduka, Alan Smith and Paul Robinson in the final week of the last transfer window. The next one, from the end of this month, covering the deadline for a sale, will test Leeds's nerve again.

Unless an open and approachable man is keeping somebody up his sleeve, discussions with potential buyers have not progressed very far. The colourful Sheikh Abdulrahman bin Mubarek Al-Khalifa of Bahrain is a genuine Leeds fan, previously at college in the city, but he sounds Third Division compared to Roman Abramovich, whose largesse transformed Birch's summer into the "wonderful experience" of signing 13 players for £120m, while Leeds were begging and borrowing loanees from France. Throw up, Peter Reid. "Roman is not just once in a lifetime, it's once in the history of football," Birch says. "For it to happen twice in the space of six months is asking maybe a little bit too much. Lowering our sights, it's more likely to be a consortium of some sort."

How did it all come to this? Although reluctant to dwell on the mistakes of the previous regime, the new chief executive can analyse the downward spiral with a trained accountant's eye: "Debt is not bad thing per se as long as you can afford to repay it. And it depends what you raise the cash for. Southampton used it to build a ground, which was sensible. Leeds were perhaps not. We should be sitting here with a developed ground. Ken Bates has got a great ground with 5,500 corporate season-ticket holders, bringing in a significant amount of revenue. Leeds got the money from a securitisation loan, bought players, paid big wages and had some success. But if Chelsea are generating £30m from their ground, Leeds are only generating £13m or £14m, which, like Champions' League qualification, is a massive difference every year."

Additionally, they suffered as badly as anyone from what Sir Alan Sugar famously called the "prune juice effect" - income passing through the clubs and going right out of the game to players and agents. Birch believes that a new reality will be reflected in contracts from now on, probably with a much greater performance-related element. In the meantime, performance has suddenly picked up, with four points taken from Charlton and Chelsea and reasonable hope of more at home to Fulham this afternoon.

"I'm spreading a very positive message because I think we are nearing the end of all the uncertainty," Birch says. "We will come out of this stronger, I really do believe that. But the people you are trying to attract have to be assured there is potential for this club and there is, because historically it is a top-five club." Top five - now there's a challenge.