In his first season as a professional at Leeds United, an enquiry about Sam Byram from Cardiff City was met with an asking price of £8million.
Leeds thought that valuation was fair and accurate, and it had the desired effect. Cardiff never asked about him again. West Bromwich Albion were also impressed and scouted the right-back without ever bidding for him.
That flurry of interest came in the early months of 2013 but ended abruptly when Byram injured a hip. The time since then has been so stop-start that the 21-year-old is still trying to start afresh at Elland Road, in the manner of any new professional.
Neil Redfearn, United’s head coach, describes Byram as “one of the best young full-backs in the country” but thinks his spectacular emergence and a player-of-the-year award in his first season bred complacency about him.
Byram started only 17 games last term and has been in-and-out again this year as people wonder what had happened to the prospect who surprised them in 2012.
He was back in the team during Tuesday’s 2-2 draw against Charlton Athletic, however, and back in the mood which earned him his reputation. Redfearn will use him again at home to Blackpool tomorrow. At his best, Byram is defensively sound and positively aggressive – a wing-back who looks as happy around the opposition’s box as he does protecting his own.
“It’s been a stop-start season for him so far,” Redfearn said, “but in essence he’s still one of the best young full-backs in the country. He’s had to force his way back into the side but he looked far more like himself on Tuesday and when he’s on form he’s a real asset. He gives us a threat, that little extra dimension in the final third, and he’s a major plus. He looked much more like the Sam Byram of old.”
Byram’s campaign was disrupted in late August by a red card at Watford which he still disputes but injury has been his biggest problem over the years.
In his maiden season, the 2012-13 term, he played in all but two league matches and started no fewer than 42. His hip gave way on the penultimate weekend, however, and he took the best part of a year to get over the problems it caused.
Neil Warnock was the manager who gave Byram his debut and Brian McDermott used the full-back when he could. Redfearn, who ran the academy while Byram was developing in it, said his development at first-team level “hadn’t been handled as well as it could have been” and claimed Byram was in the unfortunate position of being judged more harshly than players of a similar age and pedigree.
“We tend to forget about this with Sam,” Redfearn said. “We see this full-back who’s worth all this money, with all this interest in him, but we separate him from the other kids – which is wrong.
“He’s still the same age as (Alex) Mowatt, (Lewis) Cook and (Chris) Dawson. He’s still young.
“It’s maybe one of those situations where we’ve taken it for granted that he’s Sam Byram.
“We’ve lost sight of the fact that he’s still young and still developing. Perhaps mentally he can’t handle the tag of being this top young full-back yet and we probably haven’t handled his development as well as it could have been handed. I’m talking about previous regimes.
“But he knows me, he understands me and he knows what I’m about. He knows that he’s got my backing and confidence and he knows what I think about him as a player. Hopefully he can be a bit more relaxed.”
Byram’s injuries cost him an appearance with England at the Under-20 World Cup last year and international opportunities have not come his way since.
Cook, though, has been called up to the England Under-18 squad for a match against Poland next week and Mowatt is included in the England Under-20 squad for meetings with Canada and Portugal. Mowatt has come to the fore at Elland Road in the past week with three eye-catching goals against Cardiff and Charlton, and Redfearn will look to the midfielder for more inspiration this season.
“His finishing has been out of the top draw,” Redfearn said. “It’s been absolutely outstanding.
“I know from my own experience as a player that midfielders who score goals are like gold dust. They can turn an average season into a promotion season.”