Opinion at Leeds United is divided over many subjects but most people can agree that Liam Bridcutt has been a clever signing.
Steve Evans says his squad have taken to calling Bridcutt “son of the gaffer”; a title which, in a backhanded way, reflects the fact that he is one player who Evans will happily hang his hat on.
Brighton saw Bridcutt in exactly the same light: dependable, trustworthy, an easy pick. The midfielder goes back tonight to a club where in his words “my career really started”. He was a promotion winner at Brighton and made the Championship play-offs, a two-time player of the year for Albion. He ticks boxes that Leeds should by trying to tick if this mediocre season as Evans described it is not to be repeated.
Bridcutt clearly has standards in mind. On loan at Leeds from Sunderland until May, he says he is open to the option of joining Leeds permanently – so much so that he like Evans talks about “building for next season” – but only if the transfer makes sense. It sounds less about money for a player who earns in excess of £25,000 a week at Sunderland than it does about outlook and competitive prospects. To put it another way, Bridcutt would be willing to commit long-term if the club’s vision mirrors his.
“I’m really happy here,” he said. “I’m playing football, which is what I came here for, and that mattered more than anything else. I said when I first joined that there was no point talking about the future there and then because I wasn’t playing games (at Sunderland). Playing games was about my only priority.
“We are all thinking about next season now though. I don’t know what’s ahead of me but that doesn’t mean I’ll just play out the games we’ve got left. I want to play well in them. The better I play the more options I’ll have in the summer. The more options I have the better it is and you only get options by playing well. Leeds would only want me if I’m playing well.
“For me, yes I’d like to stay at Leeds if the circumstances are right so every time I go out on the pitch, I’m playing for a place in the team and not just for this season. But I do want to play in the Premier League. I’ve been at that level before. Every club I’m at, I want to be aiming high and I want the club to aim high. If Leeds are willing to do that in the summer then I’d be happy to stay.”
Evans’ interest in taking Bridcutt permanently is not even remotely in question. The midfielder, 26, was his first signing as head coach and a player he spent a month chasing in November, finally talking both Bridcutt and United owner Massimo Cellino into a loan deal at the very moment when Cardiff City thought they had an agreement in place.
Bridcutt’s debut for Leeds was harsh – a 1-0 defeat at Queens Park Rangers with no chance to find his feet and no chance to feel any warmth from an away crowd who turned on Evans and his players at full-time – but a long unbeaten run followed in December, earning Evans a nomination for manager-of-the-month. Bridcutt started out as a solitary defensive midfielder. More recently he has paired up with Toumani Diagouraga in front of United’s backline. A tally of five losses in his 17 appearances says he has done his specific job to very good effect. What did Bridcutt think after his debut? “Not that I’d made a mistake,” he insisted. “I knew the club were in a transitional period but I felt before that game that the group of players was a good group. Since that day we’ve not looked back to it. We’ve taken some steps forward, although obviously we need to take more. December was the best period since I came, performance-wise and results.”
There was a feeling at the end of that month, in Evans’ mind anyway, that Leeds might find a way of gatecrashing the play-offs. Back-to-back defeats to Ipswich Town and Sheffield Wednesday in early January – a pivotal stage in which United lost ground – drew a line under that hopeful aim.
“You never write anything off in the Championship because that kind of ignores the way this league can be but we knew it was going to be a massive ask to get in the play-offs,” Bridcutt said. “It has been a massive ask but that December period showed that we could have been closer. It wasn’t to be.
“I think we know now that it’s not going to be the play-offs for us. That’s the truth. But what we can still do is show that we’re a team who are getting better.”
Brighton, Bridcutt’s former club, are in a different frame of mind. Having fought relegation for most of last season, they are fourth in the Championship and in the running for automatic promotion after riding a wobble around Christmas. They started the season with a 22-game unbeaten run. One of those results, a 2-1 win at Elland Road sealed by Bobby Zamora in injury time, earned Evans’ predecessor Uwe Rosler the sack. Albion’s infrastructure and ambition has grown immeasurably since they took Bridcutt from Chelsea in 2010, a stage when they occupied the Withdean Stadium with its athletics track and modest capacity. Bridcutt had completed three loans spells by then but his period under Gus Poyet at Brighton set his career moving.
“It was probably my best period in football,” said Bridcutt, who returns this evening after missing Tuesday’s 1-1 draw with Fulham after travelling to Reading to attend a funeral.
“That was my opportunity to properly showcase what I could do and I had brilliant times there. I know the place well and I’d call it home. My first child was born there and it’s where my family started. It’s where my career really started and it’s a club where, if there was the right opportunity to go back at some stage, I definitely would.
“Even when I first joined the club always had direction. There was always a plan. Nothing happened by accident. They hit a bit of a rocky patch after losing Gus but like most clubs, it happens.
“They seem to have got their stability back. I’m happy to see that.
“They’re 100 per cent guaranteed top six now but my best games seem to be when we play the top teams. That’s true of the whole team (at Leeds) and it’s one of the reasons why we’re not near the top of the league.
“Top teams always do it. We can do it against the bigger sides but not so much against teams lower down the league. There are teams we should be beating who we haven’t and that’s the difference between being in contention and not. It’s one of the things that needs to change next season and in terms of building, finishing on a good run would help.
“Looking at the league form, you could say I’m a bit disappointed but other than that, this has been a really good experience for me.
“I’m happier and as a footballer you have to be playing. If you’re not playing then what are you doing?”