Not too long ago, many would have thought Charlie Taylor would slip straight back into the side once clear of injury and fully fit, but the versatile Gaetano Berardi could take some shifting. Phil Hay reports.
At the end of Saturday’s win over Sheffield Wednesday, Charlie Taylor felt the Elland Road turf under his feet for the first time in a while. There was no ball for him to kick in anger but his presence in the warm-down was a sign that Taylor is ready to step back into Leeds United’s ranks.
The defender trained last week without any reaction to the Achilles injury he suffered before Christmas, and Garry Monk, who considers Taylor to be as naturally fit as any other player at Leeds, will not expect him to linger on the fringes for much longer.
“We have a plan for any player coming back from injury,” Monk said. “What he was doing on the pitch is part of his programme.”
Taylor was ever-present in league matches before his injury, Monk’s established left-back and only natural option there aside from a fledgling Tyler Denton, but in what remains of his career with Leeds he might become the victim of Gaetano Berardi’s versatility and combustive defending. Berardi had left the field by the time Taylor was put through a series of sprints on Saturday but his performance against Sheffield Wednesday was that of a full-back who does not intend to be moved.
The story of Berardi’s career with United – now into its third season – is the story of a footballer who has never quite made himself stick in one position. Discipline was his problem initially and injury an issue latterly. A series of head coaches rated him a useful asset but swayed towards other first choices: Sam Byram and, more recently, Luke Ayling on the right side of defence and Taylor on the left. Berardi was the safety net, a reliable and adaptable tool for days when vacancies arose. The Square Ball, the popular Leeds fanzine, summed him up aptly last month with a cartoon depicting the 28-year-old as a Swiss Army knife.
Berardi saw that sketch and liked it so much that he asked for a copy. There is an appreciative relationship between the crowd at Elland Road and one of the quietest, least flamboyant members of Monk’s squad.When Berardi first signed from Sampdoria in 2014, one member of staff at Thorp Arch called him ‘the silent assassin’; short on small talk but in possession of a direct, piercing stare. From the earliest days football brought out his personality.
“Berra is one of those professionals who gets on with his job,” Monk said. “You think he’s very quiet but underneath that there’s that edge you need.”
Berardi’s popularity was helped by him keeping his distance from the events of April 2015 when six of Leeds’ foreign players were unexpectedly declared injured before a game at Charlton Athletic. The withdrawals were seen as a challenge to the authority of Neil Redfearn, Leeds’ then head coach. Berardi had sustained an injury himself but made the journey to London while the six remained at home. “You could see he went right up in the other lads’ estimations,” Redfearn later told FourFourTwo.
Monk has been glad of Berardi’s professional streak since losing Taylor during a 1-0 win over Brentford on December 17. On Saturday he was glad of his edge. Berardi’s aggressive tackling and five interceptions helped Leeds through a derby in which the balance tipped back and forth. His display peaked with a sliding block to prevent Ross Wallace sticking the rebound away after Rob Green turned Jordan Rhodes’ 54th-minute penalty onto a post.
Even Berardi could not resist a punch of celebration towards the Kop and a celebratory shove of Green’s chest.
It added to his cross earlier in the game which laid on Chris Wood’s 23rd goal of the season but the attacking side of Berardi’s game is where Monk’s dilemma lies. Statistically, Berardi is as defensively sound as Taylor and Ayling but offers less service from out wide. Monk’s hand might soon be forced in any case with Ayling and Kyle Bartley a yellow card away from suspensions. But it is still true that in the period of Taylor’s absence, he has not be gravely missed. “Considering it’s not Bera’s natural position, he’s done an incredible job covering for Charlie,” Monk said.
Monk nonetheless rates Taylor and was adamant in January that Leeds should not be drawn into selling their reigning player-of-the-year. Taylor was injured throughout the transfer window and Leeds did not receive any tempting bids for him but there was little appetite for cashing in on a defender who is out of contract in the summer.
United’s new co-owner, Andrea Radrizzani, bought into Leeds with the quiet hope of initiating discussions about Taylor’s future but the 23-year-old appears set on leaving when the season ends. Sources close to him believe a move to Liverpool is possible, although any club signing him will be forced to pay United compensation on account of his age.
Berardi, meanwhile, has another season on his deal and a position to fight for. He risked painting himself as a liability in his earliest days with Leeds, dismissed twice in his first four matches, but his disciplinary record this year is an example to others around him: 18 games and one yellow card, shown to him during January’s FA Cup win at Cambridge United.
“This is the reality of a Premier League club,” he told the Swiss newspaper Corriere del Ticino in a recent interview. “The city lives and breathes football.” Berardi is proving himself to be no different.