Leeds United scriptwriters denied Hollywood ending with Gray legacy nobody dreamt after Bielsa call

-Credit: (Image: Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images)
-Credit: (Image: Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images)

Swallowing Archie Gray’s exit from Leeds United will take more than a teaspoon of Gaviscon for supporters. Whatever the reasons for the transfer, and we will come to them, this is the end of a dream for many fans.

When the first murmurings began to seep out of Thorp Arch about the next generation of the Gray dynasty coming through, they came with hushed pleas to keep the pressure off them. Archie and his younger brother Harry were tearing through the youth ranks and as the noise around them grew there was just hope they would keep on the track they had started.

It was a story Hollywood would have been proud of. Who could have imagined an icon like Eddie Gray would see his great nephews go on to be factors at the club he became famous with? Nearly 60 years on from his own breakthrough at Elland Road, his family’s football DNA has proven so strong it is still making waves at the same club.

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If there was any doubt about the direction Archie was heading in, his inclusion in first-team training under Marcelo Bielsa’s direction at 15 said it all. While the club managed to keep a lid on that development, his ascension to the club’s under-23 side at 15 was always going to set tongues wagging.

Leeds had asked local media to keep some measure to its reporting of the revelation Eddie’s 15-year-old great nephew was already effectively playing for the club’s reserves. One official was even hopeful Archie’s name would pass through that under-23 bow without any mention of his lineage.

If playing with the under-23s was one thing, his, now ironic, walk around the perimeter of Tottenham Hotspur’s mega stadium, at 15, as a travelling member of the first-team squad was another. This was not a narrative that could be contained any longer.

All that was needed to sow the seeds of this nascent dream was some proof of just how good he was. Was he the real deal? Would he make a brief bow and fall by the wayside or was he going to establish himself?

Even Bielsa, for whom age was just a number when it came to selection, saw sense in shielding Gray from the top flight at such a young age. He was sensational in a 2022 pre-season friendly under Jesse Marsch that captured imaginations, but injury and United’s eventual relegation scotched his breakthrough in that campaign.

Relegation, a clearing of the squad decks and another year’s extra development finally paved the way for Gray to get his chance. Last season was everything the scriptwriters wanted from the Gray story, barring the storybook ending.

In short: he was mustard. Gray’s class was spellbinding at times. His versatility, fight, engine, tackling, passing, technique and control was a joy to watch. It was staggering to see a teenager do what he did in a debut season, culminating in that masterclass at Stamford Bridge.

This was the story, the hope, the dream the fans had been waiting for. Gray showed he had more than enough about him to become the heart of Leeds United for at least the next few years, with Eddie proudly watching on.

Who knows, if Leeds could keep pace with his development, perhaps he might never need to leave. If that was overly ambitious, it felt distinctly realistic to see him having two or three more years at Elland Road, even if the next year would be in the second tier again.

Everyone knew failure to win promotion would put the club’s best players at risk, but surely it would have been Crysencio Summerville, Wilfried Gnonto, Illan Meslier or anyone before Gray? Paraag Marathe could not guarantee Gray would stay when he faced the local media after the play-off final.

There has been no suggestion Gray wanted to leave this summer. Daniel Farke’s take will be fascinating when he is asked about it during pre-season. Regardless of the profitability and sustainability implications, that non-promotion clause has effectively taken it out of United’s hands.

Only the people inside the room, club officials and Gray’s representatives, will know how or why that clause was included in the contract he signed in January. In agreeing to that clause, this week’s conclusion was always going to be a possibility.

At least £40m coming in for him is, of course, a good deal on the balance sheet and 49ers Enterprises will see this as short-term pain for a brighter long-term gain. The terraces don’t fall in love with balance sheets though. They fall in love with one of their own smashing through a 50-50 to win the ball back or cutting in off the left flank to drive in a 2-1 comeback against promotion rivals.

It will feel horrible seeing him in a Tottenham shirt next season. After so much communal investment in this youngster’s future, it feels odd knowing Elland Road will no longer enjoy that weekly improvement, that excitement of feeling you have one of England’s best future footballers playing for your team, 60 years after his great uncle reached the top of the game.

There will be some token of comfort if the club can now legitimately reject big offers for their players or can at least negotiate sales on their own terms. It’s not the legacy anyone wanted for Gray at Leeds, but this is one of the scourges of modern football.

It feels wrong to have come this far without mentioning Joe Rodon yet. That is an outstanding piece of business. They may be separate deals, but it does not take an Opta statistician to work out there was a quid pro quo going on over the weekend.

Daniel Levy can pick and choose the Rodon offers he likes, but the Welshman can say no to who he likes too. Delivering this correspondent’s 23/24 player of the year, on a permanent deal, from under the noses of top-flight suitors, is some going. It underlines the impact the supporters made on a defender who has not felt loved since leaving Swansea City in 2020.

The Gray anguish, especially when he inevitably starts to light up the Premier League with Match of the Day analysis dedicated to him, will linger. Time will have a good go at healing that wound and, in the meantime, enjoy Rodon going through the back of a grizzled Championship frontman.