WHETHER it’s for the next six months, one year or two, Pablo Hernandez’s commitment to the Leeds United cause is unwavering – and promotion is definitely not a pipedream for the ‘veteran’. Phil Hay reports.
PABLO HERNANDEZ is one of three outfield players at Leeds United who were born in the 1980s. He is the only outfield player over 30. Hernandez doesn’t class himself as long in the tooth but he understands that the average age of United’s squad makes him look that way.
The same could be said of his new contract at Elland Road; a permanent deal to the end of the season with the option of a 12-month extension to the summer of 2018. It gave the impression that Leeds were hedging their bets, waiting to see how his body coped with a season in the Championship, but the terms of that transfer were agreed when Hernandez first arrived from Qatar on loan in August. There is every chance, on the basis of his form since then, that Leeds will take the option up.
League status might influence their decision too and United are a long way down the road to promotion from the Championship. A win over Derby County tonight would be another big step forward. Hernandez, a footballer honed in La Liga with Valencia, last played in the Premier League in 2014 – the year he left Swansea City for the warmer climes of Doha and Al-Arabi – but the evidence of this season is that his talent has not left him. Monk acquired a bona fide playmaker, a source of goals, assists and majestic reverse passes, when he looked to the Middles East towards the end of pre-season.
Hernandez himself is comfortable with the idea of another chance in the Premier League. “Of course,” he said. “When you look at the age of this squad you can think ‘oh, Pablo’s an old player, no?’ because a lot of young players are here.
“But my feeling is like a young player. I know myself, I know I can give all of me for the next two or three years and I’ll fight for this – to play in the Premier League next year with Leeds. I need to show my experience for these young players. I need to be an example on the training ground, in the games but I know this. When I came here I knew this and I’m happy with that.”
Hernandez’s transparent ability begs the question of why in 2014, a time when Monk was manager of Swansea, he took himself out of Europe and into the Qatari leagues. It was a partial commitment – Hernandez spent all of last season on loan at Rayo Vallecano in Spain and the first half of this season on loan at Elland Road – but he was 29 and a signing who cost Swansea £5.5m two years earlier. Chris Wathan, a journalist in Wales, wrote on the day of his sale that the Spaniard would go down as one of City’s “most agonisingly talented players”.
“Football is difficult,” Hernandez said. “I always say this. You don’t know what will happen and football can change your life. You think ‘I won’t play in that league’ but then you have a chance to go to that league.
“It’s true that when I left Swansea for Qatar I always thought that maybe in the future I’d come back to the Premier League or English football. I like this football and I like the atmosphere in the stadiums.
“Last year I played in the Spanish league and it wasn’t a good experience for me because I (was relegated) to the second division with my team but when Leeds called me and gave me this chance I said yes because it’s a great challenge.
“If I’m here for one year or two years, I don’t know, but the most important thing is that the club have given me confidence for the next six months. I know I’ll finish the season here and in my head I only have one thing – to give 100 per cent for the team and to go to the Premier League.”
Hernandez said the option of another 12 months at Elland Road was both appearance related and dependent on both parties wishing to extend his contract. There is no doubt at all that Monk rates him and values his talent and his nous. Rob Green, a former England goalkeeper, is United’s oldest head at 36 but there is more about a midfielder in Hernandez for players like Ronaldo Vieira and Kalvin Phillips to relate to.
“He’s someone to aspire to,” Monk said. “The club should be very happy to have Pablo in the building.”
Hernandez feels the same about Monk, a head coach whose record has defied the attitude that managing Leeds is a hiding to nothing other than a pay-off.
“In the past he was a player and he understands the players, in the good moments and in the bad moments,” Hernandez said. “The first games of the season were a bad moment. We didn’t have a good start. But he always talks with the players and the players don’t let their heads go down.”
Hernandez was in need of support at the end of August, a month in which his influence was stunted by a wide role, United’s brittle performances and the time take by him to settle back into English football. Monk persisted with him and Hernandez has been first choice at number 10 since mid-September, albeit under pressure from Kemar Roofe.
“This is important in a team,” Hernandez said. “In my career I’ve always played with this. At big teams, in Valencia and in Swansea, I always had competition for playing in the starting 11. When the gaffer has a problem for making his 11 because there are too many players who should play, it’s good, no?
“The season is long and you need all the players at different moments but I have confidence in myself.
“I know when I play 100 per cent I can give many things to the team. I train 100 per cent always and I play 100 per cent.”
Leeds will need that level of performance against Derby at Elland Road tonight. Monk said on Wednesday that he was “not bothered” about the Championship table but Hernandez is plainly aware of it and alive to the value of an eight-point lead over Derby in seventh.
“It’s an important one against a direct opponent in the table,” he said. “Maybe the most important game this season.
“The best for us would be to finish in the top two because we’d go direct to the Premier League but it’s not easy.
“Newcastle and Brighton are strong teams and it’s a mistake to think about that. More important is to win the next game because then we open a gap over the seventh team in the table.
“When you play with a gap you can play with more calm. This is a great moment for us.”