Matthew Pennington sees his future at Everton so Leeds United, as a transfer on loan, felt to him like an obvious fit. There is much in common between the clubs, in stature, support and the fact that both have more potential left to unlock.
Pennington found out how well Leeds travel on Thursday, smiling to himself as a gathering of hundreds massed around United’s players after a friendly against Borussia Monchengladbach in Austria. “It’s pre-season,” he said, “and you’ve got this many fans here. It tells you everything.”
Elland Road will give Pennington the chance to play in a goldfish bowl, where the crowd expects and pressure comes naturally. The 22-year-old was asked to handle it in spades in April when, in his first Merseyside derby he scored his first Everton goal, albeit in a 3-1 defeat to Liverpool at Anfield.
“I enjoyed that one,” Pennington said. “I’d like some moments like that at Elland Road. I’ve come to a big club where you’re under pressure to perform and that’s what I wanted. It’s a big club with a big fanbase and a great stage to perform on at Elland Road. It feels like the perfect place to come and I’m really glad to be here.”
There were other clubs offering Pennington an opportunity on loan, in particular Hull City who believed last week that the centre-back would be joining them.
By the start of this week, central defenders were a pressing priority for Leeds and a deal for Everton’s academy product was agreed in time for him to fly to their pre-season camp in Austria on Tuesday. He trained the following afternoon and was blooded immediately by head coach Thomas Christiansen in a 1-1 draw with Monchengladbach, completing the second half.
“It’s been a busy week but I’m really glad to be here and I’m glad to get 45 minutes in,” he said. “You want to get started as soon as you can.
“I’d only been here a day, just arrived really, and I’d trained for the first time (on Wednesday). I feel part of the squad already and it felt really natural going into the team. I think that says a lot about the atmosphere here.”
Everton rate Pennington highly enough to have extended his contract to 2019 earlier this year. A serious hamstring injury held the defender back last season and competition at Goodison Park was heightened dramatically by the £25m signing of Michael Keane from Burnley, part of Everton’s heavy spending this summer.
“I needed to get some games under my belt after the last couple of seasons,” Pennington said. “I realised in the last week or two that I’d be going on loan and once that became clear, it was a case of get out and get games which I might not get (at Everton). Once I knew what the plan was it was all about assessing my options.
“Leeds were definitely the best option for me. I did have other options and you think about all of it because you’ve got to make the right move but I knew this would be good for me and I wanted to come. There wasn’t any more to it. Other clubs were keen on me but you make your choice.”
Pennington began pre-season with Everton on July 3, a week after Christiansen’s squad resumed training at Thorp Arch. Christiansen was impressed with his performance and conditioning against Monchengladbach, saying Pennington had “jumped in like he’d been a player here for some time.”
Christiansen needed competition at centre-back and far more than he had when Leeds left for Austria last Friday. Pontus Jansson and Liam Cooper were on the plane but United released Giuseppe Bellusci on Tuesday and realised early on in the summer that re-signing Kyle Bartley – a pivotal loanee last season – from Swansea City would be difficult. Bartley is currently on tour with Swansea in the USA.
Pennington is likely to be followed into Elland Road by another central defender but said he was happy being asked to fight for a place.
“I’m hoping to play and I’ll be looking to play, that’s why I’m here, but I’m under no illusions,” he said.
“I’ll have to perform and I’ll have to show what I can do to get into the team. I’m not going to get picked for any other reason. I’ll look for a chance and when it comes I’ll look to take it.
“I’ve been in training since July 3 and I kept myself in good shape over the whole of the summer. I’m feeling fit and I felt good out there. I’m ready to start.”