Jordan Botaka’s career was founded in adversity so his problems at Leeds United were never likely to beat him overnight. The winger says that at times this season he had “second thoughts” about the wisdom of joining Leeds but those doubts never tempted him to look for an exit strategy.
The winger was kicking his heels a few weeks ago, told by head coach Steve Evans that his input in training and at Under-21 level was not worth a run in the first team, but a vibrant finish to his first year with Leeds would allow him to think that the campaign behind him had been worth something.
“It’s going the right way now,” he said. “I’m giving what I can give. I’m giving all my best.”
Botaka punched the air in delight after his skilful run laid on Stuart Dallas’ late equaliser at Hull City on Saturday.
“I had to get it off my chest,” he posted on Twitter at full-time. “God I missed this feeling!”
It has certainly been a while. Prior to his two appearances as a substitute last week, Botaka had not played since February and the day when Evans publicly criticised him after an FA Cup defeat at Watford.
He has not started a game since October, though that wait might end at home to Charlton Athletic this weekend.
When Leeds signed Botaka from Excelsior last August, they did not expect him to be more than a slow burn. But they didn’t expect him to be so far detached from the first team either. United looked first at another winger in Holland, Anthony Limbombe, before signing Botaka but could not negotiate a deal to buy him out of NEC Nijmegen. Limbombe, according to Dutch media, will leave NEC this summer after agreeing a move to another unnamed side. Botaka was Leeds’ alternative and they took the 22-year-old in the knowledge that he might need some work.
In spells, and in both of his past two outings, Botaka has shown why United and Massimo Cellino were tempted by his signature.
“I’m playing with a lot of confidence because I know what I can do,” Botaka said. “I said it from the beginning – I want to prove to everyone that I’m capable of making a difference on this stage.
“I’ve been through a very difficult period. I had to play a lot of games with the 21s and it was hard for me because I didn’t want to start for the 21s. I wanted to start with the first team.
“Getting myself back in the team was very, very hard so sometimes I had second thoughts. But I came here for a reason and no-one told me before I came that it would be easy. I’m a man and I’m fighting for my place in the squad.”
Botaka left behind young siblings in Holland, the country his family sought asylum in after being forced to flee civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the week after he joined Leeds on a two-year contract, he said it was his “dream to come to England” and his dream to play in the Premier League.
“To be fair I thought that it would be very difficult coming here because my English is not so perfect,” he said. “But from the moment I came, the players stayed with me after training, we went to get a drink in the city or to eat something. They were showing me around, they came to my apartment as well, so it was very easy. I’ve always said it – I’m very happy to be here, despite the fact that I didn’t play much.”
Botaka spoke after Saturday’s game about the very frank exchange of views which took place between him and Evans as his first-team exile went on but he said United’s head coach had given him a more positive outlook in the build-up to last Tuesday’s 2-1 win over Wolverhampton Wanderers, a match in which the winger shone and hit the crossbar.
His trickery in the lead up to Dallas’ equaliser on Saturday was more eye-catching again, pulling open a Hull defence who were trying to defend a 2-1 advantage.
“I had a good conversation with (Evans) last week and he told me just to stay calm and to prove myself whenever I’m on the pitch,” Botaka said. “That’s what I’m trying to do. He gave me credit after the game (at Hull) for my performance in the second half.”
Evans revealed that he had singled out Botaka for praise in the dressing room after full-time at the KC Stadium: “The first thing in my eyes is a real desire to turn up every day. If you don’t have that then I wouldn’t want you in my squad. But he’s shown that and I specifically mentioned him in front of the whole group.”
It remains to be seen if Evans has any further influence on Botaka’s career. The Leeds boss is in the final throes of his contract and Botaka admitted on Saturday that he and other players at Elland Road were keen to discover who will be managing them next season.
Both United and Evans are making noises about mounting a serious promotion challenge, encouraged by a period of form which could see the club finish in the Championship’s top-10 next week. There is, nonetheless, a 14-point gap to the play-offs and a considerable amount of work to do.
Botaka said: “I think this season was a season to get to know each other better, to understand everyone’s way of playing.
“Next season, if we get good guidance and if we stick together the way we did this season – because it was very hard and very difficult – then I think we can surprise a lot of people.”