Ramon Nunez turned down an international call-up from Honduras to play in Leeds United’s Carling Cup tie against Bradford City and enhance his prospects of integrating himself into the senior squad at Elland Road.
Nunez rejected an invitation to appear in yesterday’s friendly against Venezuela and plans to suspend his international career in the short term after breaking into United’s first-team plans.
International friendlies robbed Leeds manager Simon Grayson of three key players for Tuesday’s League Cup clash with the Bantams – Robert Snodgrass, Max Gradel and Darren O’Dea – and fringe left-back Aidan White also missed the game after taking up a place in the Republic of Ireland’s Under-21 squad.
Nunez was another potential absentee but chose to remain in England to make his first competitive start for Leeds, and the forward dragged United through a pulsating first-round tie with two second-half goals at Elland Road.
The 25-year-old has been a regular part of Honduras’ squad for several years and he played in the recent CONCACAF Gold Cup in the United States. His first year with Leeds was interspersed with regular international appearances but he appears increasingly reluctant to sacrifice opportunities at Elland Road after playing his way into Grayson’s plans.
Honduras and Venezuela met in Fort Lauderdale last night, and Nunez said: “It (refusing the call-up) was something we touched upon, knowing that I wasn’t fully settled in the squad. I just wanted to show my commitment to the team and let them know I’m here to stay.
“I’d like to take a couple of international games off and try to focus on Leeds. I don’t have a place in the team and I wanted to stay here and fight for a starting spot.
“Last season was frustrating because I’m 25 and I need to be playing first-team games. But I knew if I was patient my time would come and, thankfully, it’s come at a good time.
“Personally, I just want to help the team this season and obviously as a team goal we want to get promoted.”
Honduras are scheduled to play another two matches in America next month, against Colombia and Paraguay, and Nunez is likely to be considered for both fixtures.
But his decision to stay in England this week was vindicated by his match-winning performance against League Two City and his first competitive goals for Leeds.
The confirmed absence of Snodgrass and Gradel made Nunez’s selection on Tuesday evening highly likely, and he was handed his full debut on the left wing. His strikes in the 46th and 75th minute averted an upset which Peter Jackson’s side threatened by taking the lead twice at Elland Road.
Nunez rose to prominence during the summer after a quiet first year with United, a term in which he appeared twice as a substitute and later left for a brief loan at Scunthorpe United.
Grayson used him towards the end of Saturday’s heavy defeat at Southampton but his appearance against City was a more inviting opportunity to catch the eye.
Only a wasteful finish from close range in the first half denied the forward a hat-trick after a delicate cross from Adam Clayton left him with visiting goalkeeper Oscar Jansson to beat.
“It could have been a hat-trick,” Nunez conceded. “I was disappointed with the first-half chance – I could have done so many things with it – but, unfortunately, I missed.
“But I knew it was still early on in the game and I couldn’t let my head go down. I knew more chances were going to come and, luckily, I put two away.
“It’s important for me and hopefully it’s just the start. I’m happy about the two goals, but more happy about the win.
“Credit to Bradford, they made it tough, but I think at times we made it tough on ourselves. There are things we need to work on.
“The first half was disappointing and more of a wake-up call. We needed to be sharper with the ball and defend better.”
Nunez’s assessment was in tune with that of his manager, who welcomed a first win of the season, but admitted to obvious failings in a 3-2 victory.
Grayson was especially concerned by the concession of two goals, three days after a 3-1 defeat at St Mary’s, and his side were at risk of a humiliating exit from the Carling Cup after an hour of Tuesday’s first-round tie.
Centre-back Andy O’Brien endured jeers from the crowd as he left the pitch after being substituted, and United’s boss is likely to rethink his backline ahead of Saturday’s meeting with Middlesbrough at Elland Road.
Despite his two goals Nunez might return to the bench for that fixture, with Snodgrass and Gradel due to report back to Thorp Arch in time to be considered.
Snodgrass made little impression on United’s game against Southampton but remains one of Leeds’ most influential players.
Nunez, however, stressed the importance of claiming a victory over Bradford ahead of back-to-back home matches against Boro and Hull City, who come to Leeds on Tuesday night for another Championship fixture.
“With two home games coming up, it was very important for us to win,” he said. “Especially after the tough loss at Southampton. This result will lift our attitude and self-confidence.”
Nunez’s contribution against Bradford was particularly vital after a combination of injuries and international calls left Grayson with a threadbare squad lacking experience.
United’s bench consisted of a goalkeeper and five defenders, with untested teenager Zac Thompson the only player capable of taking up a position in midfield.
A thigh strain sustained by Billy Paynter denied Grayson the services of his only spare striker with Davide Somma and Luciano Becchio already out after recent operations, and all three forwards are expected to miss Saturday’s meeting with Tony Mowbray’s Boro.
“We had a 17-year-old and 18-year-old (Charlie Taylor and Thompson) who’ve just signed professional contracts with us,” Grayson said.
“There were four defenders and a midfield player on the bench, so we were struggling. But we’ve managed to get a result and we’ll get our international players back now.”