Keane may be sacrificed for Van Bommel

Leeds eager to keep their principal assets but one star recruit will have to leave as returning Bridges raises options
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The Independent Online

The turbulent waters are beginning to subside after a period those inside Leeds United describe as "a feeding frenzy". No doubt, a victory in their last Premiership game against Ipswich, a week of denials by major personnel that they are about to be lured to the salary-lavishing clubs of Italy or Spain, and the "acquittal" of Mark Viduka and Alan Smith by an FA disciplinary panel on elbowing charges will not satisfy those with an urge to exercise their savagery further.

But at least, for one week, in this most traumatic of seasons, Leeds have been able to quietly proceed with the business of securing Champions' League qualifications, without which the club will be forced to embrace a rather less certain future than manager David O'Leary and his chairman Peter Ridsdale have anticipated under their five-year plan.

On Friday, after training at the club's Thorp Arch base near Wetherby, O'Leary was absent on "family business", leaving assistant manager Eddie Gray, when he was not pounding the running machine to keep that 54-year-old frame in trim, to debate with head coach Brian Kidd the strategies required to defeat Blackburn Rovers, the side which the latter briefly managed.

Meanwhile, the players' words remain brave, if the conviction behind them appears less than absolute. Defender Danny Mills insisted that his team was capable of amassing at least 20 points from a 27 possible. But that would still leave Bobby Robson's men having to yield 14 over the same period.

During an interview with the Leeds defender, there were the inevitable interruptions from his team-mates. At one stage, a voice boomed through the window of the office we were using. "You boring, bald man." Mills raised his eyes to the ceiling in mock horror. "That's Jonathan Woodgate," he explained. "The amoeba, as I think he's known."

It is just typical of the banter that you would expect at any club and Mills, who returns to contention today after suspension, as does Woodgate after injury, insists that team spirit has endured, despite elimination from Europe, a sequence of only one Premiership victory since the New Year, and the fall-out from the Bowyer-Woodgate trial.

Yet, the statisticians will tell you that Newcastle would have to commit hari kiri to concede fourth place now. The reality is that there are nine games remaining for Leeds to save themselves from the ignominy of the InterToto Cup. Otherwise, the club may have to contemplate the hitherto unthinkable, we are informed by the harbingers of doom, a wholesale summer sale.

By all accounts, that is not strictly true. Despite Leeds' near £14m losses reported a week ago, the Yorkshire club's priority is to remain among the elite, and will not succeed in that by cashing in on their principal playing assets. My understanding is that only one "big-hitter" is likely to depart – unless Leeds are offered money they simply cannot reject for Harry Kewell, Olivier Dacourt, Lee Bowyer or Mark Viduka – and that is primarily to raise the funds required for the possible purchase of PSV Eindhoven's Dutch midfielder, Mark van Bommel, a member of the side who ousted Leeds from the Uefa Cup.

The likeliest sacrifice is Robbie Keane. Once the highly-rated England Under-21 international Michael Bridges, Leeds' top scorer in 1999-2000, recovers from a long-term ankle injury by the end of the season, O'Leary will have five strikers, the others being Robbie Fowler, Viduka, Smith and Keane. The Republic of Ireland international will not relish, in any case, being effectively Leeds' number four striker in O'Leary's estimation, and, if Leeds can attract in excess of the £12m they paid Internazionale for the former Coventry man, they are likely to do business.

That is not to say there will be strenuous attempts to procure the likes of Dacourt or Viduka, despite their protestations last week that they are content to honour their contracts at Elland Road, or Kewell or Bowyer, should Leeds fail to acquire a place in Europe. Deportivo La Coruña, Roma and Milan are all said to covet Viduka while Lazio have made their interest in Dacourt apparent, but the French midfielder would be unlikely to entertain that prospect because of the racist attitudes of some supporters.

Ridsdale has emphasised in these columns previously that, although certain individuals are likely to leave in the summer, they will be squad players. Names including Jason Wilcox, Michael Duberry, Gary Kelly, Stephen McPhail, currently on loan to Millwall, and perhaps David Batty have been aired. As Ridsdale explains: "That's mainly because the squad is bigger than it would ordinarily be because of the appalling injury problems we've had."

The sale of such performers would bring in something approximating to the losses that Leeds have sustained. It has been suggested in some quarters that Leeds are £60m in debt, but that sum is in the form of a bond issue, repayable on a 25-year basis. Ridsdale maintains the club is "comfortable" with that. When Leeds' new stadium is constructed, by 2004 at the earliest, it is expected to increase income, at today's prices, by £8m a year. The chairman remains philosophical. "Don't forget, we were 14th at one stage last season and had that excellent run. There's no reason why we shouldn't do that again. Without being disrespectful to the clubs we are due to play, our remaining fixtures, apart from Manchester United, appear to be ones we can approach with optimism."

Yet, there is no doubt that the decline from Champions' League semi-finalists and the record of the Premiership's best-performing club in the second half of last season to a state of desperation a year later has shaken even a man of Ridsdale's great faith. It was on 14 March that O'Leary's depleted forces (including Alan Maybury and Tony Hackworth) had just drawn 3-3 with Lazio in their final Champions' League second group phase fixture. They had already qualified for the quarter-finals, which paired them with Deportivo and after a 3-0 victory at Elland Road in the first leg, a semi-final place was assured.

Those who have pursued a curious agenda of attacking the club apparently because of its transparency and candour in handling the issues arising from the trial and almost condemning the accessibility of its chairman and manager, will presumably feel that there is a certain justice about Leeds' subsequent headlong pitch from such splendid heights.

If anything, you suspect that the criticism meted out will merely serve to strengthen, rather than diminish, that indefatigable Elland Road spirit. Thirty years ago, under Don Revie, the argument was raging about whether Leeds were ruthless and unscrupulous. The debate is rather different today, but somehow you feel O'Leary might just have the answer.

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