Sam Byram has learned some harsh lessons in a relatively short space of time whilst being side-lined. Phil Hay reports.
Football seasons are like lottery scratchcards; they can’t all be winners. The 12 months of 2013 have taught Sam Byram that. Leeds United’s player of the year understands now that fortune goes down as well as up, regardless of intentions or attitude.
Unforeseen setbacks are the bane of footballers – like a hip injury suffered in training one Friday which takes almost six months to heal. Only now does Byram feel that he is ready to adjust his focus and think about replicating the success of his breakthrough year at Leeds United.
Byram was nigh-on ever-present last season and walked away with almost every player-of-the-year award going. Since August, he has started a total of four league games, including Saturday’s draw with Watford. The consolation with his fitness intact again is that the Championship is far from done.
“My mum’s got a little list of all the games and I was looking at it the other day,” Byram said. “I’ve got loads of football to get stuck into this season, plenty of games left. That’s the best way to think of it.
“I’m only young and people would say I’ve got years ahead of me. I know that. But it’s not nice to feel the weeks passing you by. Frustrating is the word.”
His club have been no less rueful about the injury which deprived them of a box-to-box player whose physique and energy lends itself perfectly to the formation used by Brian McDermott since the middle of October.
Byram is an archetypal wing-back and United have depended on wing-backs for the past two months. Their first experiment with a 3-5-2 formation resulted in a 4-0 win over Birmingham, a result which has shaped their season ever since. Byram played that day but pulled a quad muscle at Huddersfield Town a week later. For a while now he has put up with a stop-start existence.
His problems relate to a hip injury sustained in April, the day before United’s penultimate league game against Brighton. Leeds managed the problem throughout the summer but found no way of curing it before this season began.
Surgery was considered and Byram felt resigned to it but an injection designed to reduce the swelling around his hip had the desired effect in the nick of time, sparing him from an operation. The 20-year-old says he has felt no pain for the past five weeks and is merely short of match fitness.
“Last season was great for me,” Byram said. “But at the end of it I was thinking to myself ‘right, now I need to push on, keep improving and get better.’ I’ll look to do that all the way through my career.
“To not be able to play and to have such a stop-start run has been difficult. But I’ve had no pain or no problems for the past five weeks and I’m getting better every day. Touch wood, I’ve avoided an operation.
“The gaffer (McDermott) was always far more positive than I was in my head. I guess over the years you learn how to handle the feeling of being injured but I was quite down and struggling to get myself right.
“There was a period where it didn’t seem like there was much improvement. So I was thinking ‘if something needs doing, let’s do it.’
“But the gaffer told me I was getting stronger every day. We gave the injection a try and it worked. I’m having no problems physically now. If I’d had an operation I’d have been out for three to four months so you’d be speaking to me now and I’d be talking about rehab. That’s why the club know better than me.”
The cost to Byram of his injury was plentiful. He was denied a pre-season in the conventional sense, failing to play in a single friendly, and was compelled to withdraw from England’s squad after being called up for the Under-20 World Cup in Turkey. England sent him back from St George’s Park just as he was preparing to travel.
“It was the night before they flew out that I ended up coming home,” he said. “I was absolutely gutted at the time.
“For a couple of weeks I’d had it in my head that I was off to the Under-20 World Cup and thinking about what an amazing experience it would be. Then overnight it’s taken away from you.
“It’s a huge tournament for players of my age and it won’t come again. I’m too old for the Under-20s now. But I’ve spoken to loads of people in the game and they all tell me that football is full of ups and downs.
“You’ll have bad periods and then you’ll have other periods where you’re right up there getting brilliant news. I tried all along to tell myself that the injury wouldn’t last for ever. But it hasn’t been great.”
Byram completed the whole of Saturday’s game against Watford, recalled in place of the injured Tom Lees, and he felt the creep of fatigue towards the end of an exhausting 3-3 draw.
“I’ve been training hard, doing extra work on crossing and all that and I’ve been in the gym to try and get physically stronger,” he said. “But to get match fit you need to play matches.
“I can train as much as I want and do extra running but nothing compares to being match-fit.
“It’ll take a few games for me to get back up to where I was last year; to be able to get up and down the pitch all game.
“On Saturday I coped quite well for 70 minutes and then the tired legs kicked in for the last 20. But fitness will come with playing games. It would be nice to get a good run going and get back to my normal self.
“But no-one can expect to walk back into this team. The players are doing well and in the position where I’d have been playing, Lee Peltier’s done a fantastic job.
“I knew that there would have to be an injury or the manager wanting to change things around for me to get my shot but hopefully I’ve done enough to impress and show him I’m worthy of a place.”
All in all, it has been a learning curve for Byram – an alternative lesson to the many he gained in the Championship last season.
“I’m more grateful for my fitness now,” he said. “You kind of take it for granted when you’re training every day. But when injury comes along, you start to see things differently.”