Like a lot of young footballers, Leeds midfielder Alex Mowatt’s focus is first-team selection and playing on a regular basis, but concedes it’s not easy to block out the happenings at Elland Road. Phil Hay reports.
Footballers need distinctive signatures and Alex Mowatt has perfected his: sweeps and curves which wrap around the figure 27, his shirt number at Leeds United.
People close to him would have told him long ago that one day he’d be signing autographs by the dozen. It’s easy to be presumptuous about someone else’s career. But when did Mowatt know he’d make it as a pro’? “Never,” he replies, as if the question answers itself. “Until I actually got my chance I never thought I’d make it. It’s okay for other people to tell you it’s going to happen but yourself, until you’re given a shirt, you don’t think that way. What’s the word? Complacency. No-one thinks like that. You don’t feel it coming. You go in, you work and if you get a chance you take it.”
Mowatt has taken it. He has the trophies to prove it. At the end of last season – his first as a professional – he was named as young player of the year by Leeds and tomorrow, before their final league game at home to Rotherham United, he will receive the YEP’s player-of-the-year award. Further prizes might come his way at the club’s official awards ceremony tomorrow night.
Mowatt says his house is full of trophies, many of them won with Bentley Pumas, the junior team he played for in Doncaster. “There was nothing better,” he says. “At the end of the year you wanted to feel like you’d had a good season.” But his most recent prizes are different; acknowledgments which say he has not only broken through at Elland Road but risen to the top.
The poll for this season’s YEP award was tight, with Mowatt and Lewis Cook separated by two votes. The fact that it resulted in a straight contest between a 20-year-old and an 18-year-old tells a story about United’s season and the inspiration behind the better parts of it. Mowatt wonders if his goals – nine and several of them spectacular – tipped the balance in his favour.
“Quite a few players have played well all season,” he says. “Maybe I deserve it (the award) but if it was going to someone else then I couldn’t argue. I’ve scored a lot of goals, or a lot more than I did last season – more like the number I want to be scoring. It’s probably helped.
“That was my aim at the start of the season – to get to 10. I always thought of myself as a midfielder who scores but to look at my record last season, when I scored once, you might not think so. Goals aren’t everything but in my position I feel like I have to be scoring. I want to get one more before the season ends.”
The quality of Mowatt’s finishing has almost mattered less than the timing of his goals. In a squad where only Mirco Antenucci has reached double figures, Mowatt found a way to carry Leeds at a critical point of the season. Edge-of-the-box strikes against Middlesbrough, Millwall and Wigan yielded three 1-0 wins in the space of three weeks and by the middle of March, United no longer worried about relegation.
Mowatt says it was never a worry for him, even when United finished 2014 a point and a place above the Championship’s bottom three.
“I didn’t ever think about that. There was a time when we weren’t getting points and it did get frustrating but the weeks go quick and the games come round. You don’t have time to think about the table – and it’s not like you aren’t trying to win every game anyway.
“I always felt if we got on a good run we’d be all right. I always thought we’d get on a good run. I train with the players every day and I just knew.”
It’s a vote of confidence in a squad which, to some on the outside, appeared at times to suffer from a lack of form, cohesion and unity. Fifteen players came to Elland Road last summer and three more were signed in January, the majority arriving from abroad. Only the players know how well the group has knitted together but the controversial withdrawal of six players before last month’s defeat at Charlton – withdrawals which Leeds said were down to genuine injuries – did not help to paint the picture of a happy camp.
Mowatt says the mood has been healthier and more productive since the players arranged a night out en masse midway through the season. “It’s got a lot better as the season’s gone on,” he says. “It wasn’t the best at the start but it’s definitely got better.”
What was the problem initially? “It’s hard to explain,” he says. “It just wasn’t the best. But we all had a meal together, a team-bonding night out, and that helped everyone to get to know each other a bit better. We went on our good run after that.” Was it a case of clearing the air? “Yeah, pretty much that.”
They are, on the face of it, difficult circumstances for a young footballer to cope with. Leeds have had four different managers and head coaches in 12 months and the club’s assistant, Steve Thompson, was suspended last month. Steve Morison, a veteran at 31, remarked recently that he had “never seen anything like” this season at Elland Road, admitting “every day something different happens. Every week.”
Mowatt seems less ruffled by it. “The stuff that’s going on around the place is, well, obviously I’ve only ever been at Leeds ... so I just think it’s normal. Everyone else, players who’ve been at other clubs, say a lot of what’s going on isn’t normal. I just try and play. But yeah, there’s a lot going on. That’s obvious.”
It makes his form and that of others around him, particularly United’s younger players, all the more creditable. “I think the young lads just try to keep playing,” Mowatt says. “We’re not really bothered by what’s going on round about us. Some of it can be difficult but I don’t think about anything more than getting on the pitch and playing. I don’t know too much about it all and to be honest, I try not to know too much.”
Getting on the pitch has not been a simple as it sounds. For the first month of the season, while David Hockaday was head coach, Mowatt was sent back to train with United’s Under-21s. “Getting young player of the year and then not one chance under Hockaday was hard to understand,” he says. “You’d have to ask him about it. But in a way it helped because it motivated me to train harder and get back in the team. I wasn’t taking anything for granted.”
The day after Hockaday’s sacking, on August 28, Mowatt returned to United’s starting line-up. Neil Redfearn, who had taken charge as caretaker, recalled him without warning for a game at home to Bolton Wanderers. “It was better that way,” Mowatt says. “I didn’t have time to think about my fitness or anything like that. I just went out and played and I did all right.”
As caretaker then head coach, Redfearn’s commitment to Leeds’ academy-produced footballers has been absolute. The 49-year-old is out of contract this summer and Mowatt says he would “love him to be in charge next season.”
“We know him so well and we know how he wants to play. The one thing he always says to us is ‘play with confidence’. I don’t want to make mistakes but sometimes it happens. With Neil you never feel like someone’s watching you, waiting to have a go if you do something wrong. He doesn’t get on your back. I find it helps.”
The affinity that Mowatt, Cook, Sam Byram and Charlie Taylor share with Redfearn is shared in equal measure with each other. Mowatt says playing with those three is like “playing with my mates”.
“That’s how it’s always been,” he says. “The reason we won the league with the Under-18s (two years ago, when Mowatt was captain) was because of how close we were as a team.
“In the academy there’s no-one who thinks they’re big time or better than everyone else. It’s a set of nice people who get on and really want each other to do well. You’re more likely to win things when it’s like that.”
Leeds contend that none of their four emerging assets – Mowatt, Cook, Byram or Taylor – will be sold this summer and insist their intention is to negotiate new contracts with them. Mowatt says he has had no offer and no negotiations but his deal runs for another two seasons. Cook and Byram are more exposed, with both out of contract in a year’s time.
Around the club, many are clinging to the talent of these four. It created a light in the gloom during Massimo Cellino’s first year as owner, something for supporters to cling to. “The crowd liking you can only be a good thing,” Mowatt says, “but they only like you if you play well and put in performances.
“If I played badly every week then I don’t think the crowd would have much time for me. I doubt they’d be voting for me to win trophies. The fans want to see young players coming through but they’ve got standards. If all four of us were playing rubbish then they’d let us know.”
Does Mowatt understand why so many fear that his classy left foot or Cook’s irrepressible ability will lead to transfers elsewhere? “Leeds have sold young players in the past so I can see why people feel like that,” he says. “It would be gutting if anyone left but we don’t speak about it. It’s not like the four of us stand about and joke about who’s going to be going.
“It’s something that other people go on about and ask us about but honestly, I just train and play. It would be good if we all stayed though. It would be good for the club too I think. It’s got to be good if the players who are coming through are staying at Leeds and playing for Leeds. It would show that Leeds aren’t just a selling club.”