Midfielder Alex Mowatt has signed a new contract at Elland Road to the delight of both himself and Boss Brian mcDermott. Phil Hay reports.
Alex Mowatt plays and acts like a hardened professional and after signing his name on the dotted line yesterday he now has a contract befitting of one. But the little things still give him away.
The 18-year-old was made to feel his age earlier in the season when his breakthrough at Leeds United introduced him to the trend of autograph-hunting. His unrefined scribbles destroyed a number of replica shirts – merchandise which in time might become strangely valuable.
Mowatt is one of those players whose name is worth remembering and holding onto, even if the supporters who asked for his autograph struggled to decipher it. “It was shocking at the start of the season,” he says. “I was ruining shirts and I had to get practising. But it’s not so bad now.”
Practice makes perfect and the midfielder has had plenty. The management at Leeds were themselves itching for his signature and he and the club agreed an extension to his deal yesterday morning, pushing it on to 2017. So continues his upward trajectory.
Staff at Thorp Arch spoke of Mowatt’s cultured feet and natural footballing brain long before they were open to public consumption, and 11 appearances for United’s first team have allowed the world to see. Some of those watching him are Premier League scouts, which is why a call was made by Leeds to his agent a little over a month after Mowatt made his debut.
Beyond his ability, his mentors – and Brian McDermott in particular – talk admirably of his fibre; his confidence in stepping into a senior squad where egos and records look unlike anything you find in a development team. Mowatt continues to use the Under-21s dressing room at United’s training ground, though simply because he has never got round to making the move. “I’m just chilling,” he says, as 18-year-olds do.
This time last year Mowatt was a gifted but faceless player in United’s Under-18 squad. In March he signed his first professional contracts. Youngsters pray for deals and extensions so it is a mark of their calibre when a club starts chasing them. It happened very recently with Sam Byram and Mowatt goes down as a chip from the same block.
“I’m glad to have signed the deal,” he says. “I’m delighted about it. There was no doubt in my mind about signing it at all.
“I didn’t think about (scouts watching him) or anything like that and I don’t know anything about it. I’ve been here since I was six and all I’m thinking about is playing football for Leeds. I’ve played 11 times now so I feel very settled. Your first couple of games are nervous but you get used to it after a while. It’s all good.
“But I didn’t expect any of this, not at the start of the season. I got injured at the end of last season and the only thing I thought about was getting fit and playing again.
“I saw Sam Byram get into the first team but to be honest, when you sign your first professional contract you just try as hard as you can to make that happen. You want it to happen. But whether it does or not is a very different story.”
McDermott remembers Mowatt’s demeanour after naming him in his line-up for the first time for a League Cup game against Doncaster Rovers in August. “I watched Alex beforehand, sat in the dressing room quite happy and comfortable,” United’s manager said. “He was letting it all go on around him. I just said to him ‘get on the ball and do what you do.’ It was like he’d been there all his life. He’s getting more outgoing now and the players like him. They respect him. You’ve got experienced players in our dressing room, some of whom have been around the block, but they’re all trying to help him.”
It’s a different world to the situation McDermott found when he was a trainee at Arsenal, waiting to cross the divide between their youth team and their first team.
“At the Arsenal years ago, they had a system where you would be in the away dressing room as a youngster,” he said. “Then there was a ceremony where you stepped up into the home dressing room. It was frightening. Going into that home dressing room at 17, 18 – I remember it myself. It was very, very difficult. You felt like you didn’t want to be there. Things tend to be better in that respect now.”
Mowatt was a six-year-old when Leeds first took him under their wing, around the time of their fated Champions League campaign. As a youth-team player he was able to watch much of that side. “We got tickets for the games,” he says. “I liked Harry Kewell – he was class. You always looked up to those players.
“This season’s been pretty weird because I’ve gone from playing for the 18s with a crowd of zero to playing in front of 25,000 or 30,000. I love playing home games because the crowd are quality. But I need to score my first goal.
“I went close in the Middlesbrough game and I had a half chance against Wigan but the goals will come. For the Under-18s I scored quite a few and created some too so I need to take that into the first team.”
United’s academy over the years has done sterling work for other English clubs, producing gifted youngsters and then trading them for cash, but McDermott believes a selling culture no longer exists at Leeds.
Mowatt is equally adamant that he’ll be a Premier League player with United before his new contract ends.
“As a team we want to get into the top six and get promoted,” he says. “We’ve got a good chance this season but in three-and-a-half years it can happen, definitely.”