Why Leeds have signed Alex Cairns – nine years after he left

The last time Alex Cairns played for Leeds United, the scoreline was pretty bleak.

Coming on at half-time in place of Paul Rachubka after an error-filled performance, Leeds were 3-0 down to Blackpool when Cairns walked on for his senior debut. It was 2011, Simon Grayson was manager, and the game finished 5-0.



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Cairns left Leeds after loan spells at Barrow, Stalybridge Celtic as well as playing for Chesterfield, Rotherham United, Fleetwood Town, Hartlepool United and Salford City. Now, at the age of 31, he is a Leeds player again and joins up with Daniel Farke’s squad as they prepare for the new Championship season.

Leeds’ reasons for bringing him back for a nominal fee are twofold — one part simple, the other complicated.


Cairns playing for Leeds in 2011 (Joe Giddens – PA Images via Getty Images)

The simple answer is that following the sale of Kristoffer Klaesson to Polish Ekstraklasa side Rakow Czestochowa, Leeds needed a replacement backup goalkeeper. Klaesson was allowed to leave Elland Road after a three-year spell in which he made four senior appearances after signing from Norwegian side Valerenga under Marcelo Bielsa. It has been a summer of exits so far at Leeds, with eight senior players heading out of the door permanently since defeat in the Championship play-off final in May.

In each case, there is some justification or logic. Including academy players, 12 left the club at the end of their contracts (the most notable being Luke Ayling, Ian Poveda and Lewis Bate). Among them, Jamie Shackleton turned down a new deal and signed for league rivals Sheffield United, while Liam Cooper is out of contract and has interest from other Championship clubs, so is looking likely to move on.

Then came the sale of Marc Roca to Real Betis and the big one, Archie Gray to Tottenham Hotspur for a fee in the region of £40million ($51.2m). That was a painful one but necessary in improving the picture of Leeds’ chances of meeting profit and sustainability rules. There was, and remains, no obligation for Leeds to sell any more players, but the past week has seen the exits of Klaesson, Charlie Cresswell to Toulouse, and Diego Llorente to Betis, all for fees.

Barring Gray, few of the exits at Leeds would have been key players for Farke and represent good housekeeping to tidy up the squad or move on players who had little desire to stay.

Aside from Cairns, arrivals have been limited, with Joe Rodon the only other new face after his £10m move from Spurs, which was linked with the Gray deal. Following the exits of Llorente and Cresswell and with only four centre-backs on the books (Rodon, Pascal Struijk, the versatile Ethan Ampadu and Max Wober, who few expect to rejoin Farke’s squad after spending last season on loan at Borussia Monchengladbach), bringing in more depth in central defence will be a priority.

And so to Leeds’ other reason for signing Cairns and the more complicated matter of the EFL’s homegrown player and ‘club-developed player’ rules.

EFL rules dictate clubs must name a minimum of one ‘club-developed player’ (a player who was at the club for at least three years before the age of 21) and eight ‘homegrown’ players (who have played for a club in England or Wales for three years before the age of 21) in the 25-man squad list for the season. On matchdays, the rules state that at least one ‘club-developed player’ must be in the starting line-up or on the bench. A similar principle applies in UEFA competitions but with slightly different wording — teams must have one ‘club-trained player’ in their 25-man squad list.

Cairns solves a problem. United lost two ‘club-developed’ players in Cresswell and Shackleton, leaving Sam Byram as the only player meeting the criteria. Their exits, with Shackleton, 24, and Cresswell, aged 21, have more bearing on this situation than that of Gray, 18.

Players under the age of 21 (who are not at the club as loanees from another club) do not need to be named in the 25-player squad list, so do not count towards the ‘club-developed’ quota. Crucially, however, they can be used in first-team games at any point in the season and if they have been at Leeds for three years or more, they would satisfy the requirement for one ‘club-developed’ player in a matchday squad.


Cairns spent the past 18 months with Salford City in League Two (Pete Norton/Getty Images)

Cairns is classed as a ‘homegrown’ and a ‘club-developed’ player, satisfying Leeds’ concerns on the squad list quota front. As for the matchday quota, that is now rectified by Farke including Cairns, Byram or one under-21 player with three years on his Leeds CV.

There is more value than just satisfying squad depth and legislative loopholes with Cairns. Adding experienced players like Cairns to the squad will be beneficial as Leeds chase promotion and Farke made no secret of the fact he felt his team lacked that last year.

Cairns’ 300 professional games and his association with the club made this a no-brainer. It will not win the award for most exciting signing of the summer, but it is significant in giving Leeds more freedom as they identify other targets and as balance in an exciting young squad.

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