A training ground tete-a-tete between Luke Murphy and Steve Thompson seems to have been the catalyst for a transformation in fortunes for a player almost at the end of his tether. Phil Hay reports.
The development league game between Leeds United and Sheffield United three days before Christmas was not staged for Luke Murphy’s benefit. More heed was given to Brian Montenegro, the scorer of two goals in a 4-1 win.
The only observer who took an interest in Murphy’s involvement, or one of the few, was Steve Thompson. Newly installed as assistant to Leeds head coach Neil Redfearn, Thompson collared Murphy at full-time, walked him round the pitch and asked him where it all went wrong.
The answers he received are staying between them but Thompson caught the midfielder “on a downer”; deflated by the realisation that his £1million transfer to Leeds from Crewe Alexandra had been so unsuccessful it had virtually failed. At that stage Murphy was estranged from the first team and training with the Under-21s.
Thompson sympathised with everyone concerned. He sympathised with a player he rated and with a head coach in Redfearn who, in the weeks before Leeds brought Thompson on board, was trying to single-handedly manage a squad of 30-plus. Redfearn told several seniors to work with the development squad because there were too many of them.
“Neil on his own can’t look after 30 or 40 players,” Thompson said. “How he did that and how he held the fort, I don’t know. I’m another pair of eyes and having been a midfielder myself, Murphy looked similar to me – a ball player with an eye for goal.
“When I first came he was nowhere near the first team. I saw him in an Under-21 game. He’s a player I’ve always liked so I asked him ‘what’s gone wrong?’ We had a good chat, a little walk around the pitch and I tried to put some confidence back in him.
“He wasn’t enjoying it here. He wasn’t in or even around the first team and he said things to me that I won’t tell you but he needed an arm around him, a bit of confidence and a bit of belief. We gave him the responsibility and threw him in at Sunderland. Well, not threw him in. That’s the wrong way to put it. He’d earned the right to play again. And since then he’s grown into himself.”
Murphy’s transformation in the space of two months has been astounding; from the fringes of the transfer list to the centre of Redfearn’s midfield. Speaking to the club’s official programme last weekend, the 25-year-old said his recall for United’s FA Cup tie at Sunderland was “a surprise” and “unexpected”.
He spoke honestly about the demoralising effect of training with United’s development players – “with no disrespect, it wasn’t where I wanted to be” – and said Thompson’s influence was “first class.” In return for his effort, Thompson has received messages of thanks direct from Murphy’s family.
The input, nonetheless, has been two-way. With Murphy in their line-up, Leeds have taken 14 points from their last seven league games; promotion form were the Championship season not so far advanced. The club travel to league leaders Middlesbrough tomorrow with a relaxed spring in their step.
Murphy looks more content too. The past two months have freed him of the albatross created by his £1m transfer fee. Both Redfearn and Thompson agree that his price was a hindrance, primarily because of the attention is caused.
“The lad can’t dictate what money people pay for him,” Thompson said, “but they put a £1m tag on him for a reason – because he’s a good player.
“Sometimes it takes time to get going and if you’re not in the team or not doing well, the fans get on your back but Murph’s risen above that. Players show their disappointment in various ways. Some of them can be complex. But the way he’s handled himself has been fantastic.
“He’s one of these players who always wants the ball and when he’s on the ball, he can make us play. The good thing is that I still think there’s a lot more to come from him. He’s well capable of playing in the Premier League, and so are others in the team. I mean that.”
It is acknowledged by more people than Murphy that Thompson’s presence at Thorp Arch has made a difference. Redfearn cut a lonely figure in the seven weeks it took Leeds to prise Thompson away from his previous coaching role at Huddersfield Town, left to work without an assistant, but the pair have known each other for years, going back to their days as youth-team players at Bolton Wanderers in the early 1980s.
“Being two midfielders who played together, I know what Neil’s weaknesses are,” Thompson joked. “But me being here means there’s another opinion, another man at the coalface.
“It’s got to be hard when you go back into your office after training with no-one to speak to. I’d like to think I’ve been a big help to Neil. We’re a good team, put it that way, and we all want the same thing. We trust each other. I don’t think you’ll get a harder-working pair.”
By the end of Thompson’s second week in the job, Leeds were in grave trouble; beaten away at Derby County and a point above the Championship relegation places. It was then that Redfearn decided to abandon his diamond midfield and take on a formation which allowed room for Murphy and gave an equally rare opportunity to Steve Morison up front.
“Back then we knew where we needed work and we knew what our problems were,” Thompson said. “We shored the team up and gradually we got a system that suits us. People went on about the diamond but you play a system which suits. At the same time, you have to realise that teams will watch you and try to stop you playing so you also need a plan B.
“We’ve got a happy balance at the moment without being the finished article and what we want is the players to get out and express themselves. If you make a mistake, so what? As long as we see a reaction that’s okay. We can work on things they’re not good at but we like to play football in a certain way. Our system’s showing that.”
Leeds, in Thompson’s view, have “nothing to fear” about other clubs in the Championship. They might think that they have little to fear about Middlesbrough. United beat Boro at Elland Road on the second weekend of the season and have already accounted for two others league leaders – Derby County and Bournemouth twice. Were Thompson a betting man, and if the rules allowed it, he might be tempted by Leeds at odds of 6/1.
“We need to stay in the game first and foremost and then look for the goals we’ve got in our team,” he said.
“You respect every team and you take nothing for granted but the players should know now that if we play well, we’ve nothing to fear from anyone. We can match anyone on our day and no-one’s going to walk away with this division. That’s obvious now.”