Jack Harrison’s appearance at Accrington Stanley on Saturday had everyone watching him reading between the lines.
There was no celebration when he buried the first goal in Leeds United’s 3-1 FA Cup victory, just a deadpan reaction to a classic strike. There was a smile, a chat and a hug with Jesse Marsh when he was substituted in the second half, more affection than a head coach usually shows in the heat of battle. Did Harrison stay or did he go? Did any of this mean anything?
After full-time, Harrison emerged from the tunnel to be interviewed by LUTV, Leeds’ in-house TV station. He looked happy and relaxed as he completed the kind of media duties players prefer to avoid when their future is in doubt. But even as he wrapped up the conversation and climbed onto the team bus, all bets were off. Leeds should keep him. Leicester City can sign him. No one with skin in the game was prepared to predict how the January window would end for him.
It closed on Tuesday with Harrison a Leeds player, retained after a week that came close to producing a different result. Much of the saga surrounding him played out in private, and never achieved an accurate picture of what the various people involved wanted. But until the last hour before the deadline, a deal with Leicester was still mooted.
On Tuesday evening, Harrison actually made the trip to Leicester’s training ground, preempting the possibility that he could be sold at the last minute. The city received medical treatment. Then, with the clock counting down, Leeds reached the decision to keep him and the prospect of him leaving finally died a death.
Leicester took a shine to Harrison in the previous window, but as January went on, they were made to feel like capturing him was more achievable than it had been in the past. They wanted wingers – among their targets was Brazilian Tete, who joined them from Shakhtar Donetsk on Sunday – and were set on Harrison if Leeds were willing to accept a £20m ($25m) fee. An approach was made club-to-club late last week in the build-up to Leeds’ fun with Accrington Stanley, but Harrison started the match regardless. His appearance was symptomatic of the fact that Leeds were undecided about their next move.
Oh this is brilliant Jack Harrison 👏
His second goal of the season ⚽️ #BBCFootball #BBFCACup pic.twitter.com/0lkbtqTCCE
– BBC Sport (@BBCSport) January 28, 2023
Harrison is a well-known player at Elland Road, an established face since Leeds first signed him on loan from Manchester City in 2018. He has made close to 200 league appearances for the club and has built a reputation as a reliable and tough Premier League footballer: Committed , rarely injured and, for all that his form can ebb and flow, a source of goals and assists.
His contract, however, ends in 18 months and at the end of last weekend, when Leeds finalized the loan signing of Weston McKennie from Juventus, the club had effectively committed to £70m of first-team players in January. Although McKennie’s deal is initially temporary, a £30m option is due to be activated at the end of the season if Leeds are not relegated.
Selling Harrison, therefore, was a means of balancing the books and offsetting some of the expenditure on incoming transfers at Elland Road. At £20m, Leeds would have turned a profit on the £11m paid to buy him from City in 2021. The discussions have been going on for several days at boardroom level, where so much is now linked to the planned sale of the club by the chairman Andrea Radrizzani to minority shareholder 49ers Enterprises.
Although Leeds did not jump on Leicester’s approach, and although Marsh said twice last week that he wanted Harrison to say put, they did not knock it back in any hurry. Only when the window closed, the club categorically indicated that they would not sell him. Harrison then traveled south in case a deal was struck at the death.
Harrison, for his part, is not agitating for a transfer or actively declaring a desire to leave. On Tuesday, he was simply philosophical to realize that if Leeds want to cash in on him, it makes sense to take an offer elsewhere.
Joining Leicester would have meant a pay rise through a substantial contract, potentially as long as five and a half years. Their pay structure is higher than at Elland Road. However, like Leeds, they have had a difficult season in the Premier League. Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers recently spoke about his side in a relegation fight. This fact also weighed on United – the question of whether it is prudent to sell to a club so close to them in the table.
When Marsh was asked about Harrison after Leeds’ victory at the weekend, he said his perception of the winger was that he was not “itching to leave”. Director of football Victor Orta recruited Harrison from City in the first place and advised the club to keep him. Harrison has been influential for some time and was still relatively young at 26. He made Gareth Southgate’s provisional England squad for the World Cup, without actually making it to the finals. He has started all but four of Leeds’ Premier League fixtures this season, despite the wide range of attacking talent on offer to Marsh.
Last summer, when Newcastle United made moves to sign Harrison, Leeds fended them off by placing a £40m price tag on him. Rodrizzani said the athletic, In advance of the window closing, that Harrison is essentially off limits, too good to lose. But six months have passed since then and Harrison’s dwindling contract has inevitably lowered his value.
Leeds plan to hold talks over a new deal with him in the weeks ahead and hope Harrison is open to accepting improved terms and staying beyond his current contract. The reality of football finance is such that if an extension cannot be reached, more consideration will be given to selling him when the season ends, at which point his contract would be just a year away from expiring. He has developed too well for Leeds to allow a scenario where Harrison goes on a free transfer.
Leicester were aiming to sign two wingers before the January deadline. Rodgers likes to say that competition in a squad is the game’s greatest coach, and in Tetteh and Harrison, he has been targeting left-footers who can play wide on the right and cut off the flank. Tete’s move from Shakhtar went off without a hitch, but when the crunch came on Tuesday evening, Leeds thought twice and resisted Leicester’s bid for Harrison.
City felt from Tuesday morning onwards that deadline had most likely passed with Harrison remaining at Elland Road – the process had become too complicated to unravel in time. With Tette on board, all that was left was for them to loan Marc Albrighton to West Bromwich Albion And Ayuzeh Perez for Real Betis. Albrighton has rarely played under Rodgers this season and wanted more game time, but the transfer nevertheless reduced bodies in an area where Rodgers hoped to strengthen. Another reinforcement did not come And ideally, they would have kept Albrighton.
Harrison is training as usual with Leeds this week and will be in contention for Sunday’s league game at Nottingham Forest. Marsh was as unequivocal as he could be about keeping the winger, his importance in the dressing room, and that it was not the Americans’ intention for the embrace between them on the touchline in Accrington to be the equivalent of a goodbye.
When the time came to put up or shut up, Leeds felt the same – resolving to reject Leicester’s approach and focus on a contract extension instead. For Harrison, it was the archetypal deadline-day experience: a late push and a transfer that never happened.
(Top photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images)