Tom Lees: The defender epitomises the new ethos of developing all elements of leeds, from the the training ground to the playing squad. Phil Hay reports.
Leeds United’s training ground – so long the apple of the club’s eye – has been trapped in the past for a while.
Brian McDermott thought so and at the end of last season he organised a renovation project like nothing Thorp Arch has seen in 10 years.
In his eyes the complex was begging for an upgrade and he provided it with the financial support of United’s board. “From the moment I got in there, I saw ways in which things could be different,” he said. “Ways to modernise and make the best of it.”
Sometimes the little things tell the story best. Up and down the walls of reception are photographs of players who graced the academy and served Leeds with distinction.
All hark back to David O’Leary’s tenure, the era which drew a line in the sand between the good times and the bad. There is no acknowledgment of Jonathan Howson or Fabian Delph and nothing of Tom Lees; three England Under-21 internationals who fail to merit a mention among Jonathan Woodgate, Paul Robinson, Stephen McPhail et al. Time stands still.
There is nothing sinister in all this; it is merely true that Leeds have had more to worry about in their years of Football League existence than refreshing a few pictures at Thorp Arch. But in seasons to come – and perhaps already – they will use Howson, Delph and Lees as examples of drive and personal development. Lees is a player who knows what he wants and usually gets it.
The defender turned professional in 2009 and went on his first pre-season tour to southern and Northern Ireland later that year, training with Simon Grayson’s squad. Lees was raw at the time – slight, a little anxious and noticeably less fit than the others around him – but 2009 was his watershed year, the first of four in which he has grown immeasurably. He starts the new season looking ever-more the seasoned pro, no longer the kid looking for loans with Accrington Stanley or Bury.
“One of the goals I always set myself is to be better at the end of one season than I was at the end of the last,” Lees says. “Every year I go away in the summer, look at what I’ve done well and think about what I haven’t done well. I try to be honest with myself and tell it like it is.
“I don’t like the idea of feeling comfortable and that’s partly what my time at Accrington and Bury was about. I needed games and that was the main reason for moving away on loan but I wanted to challenge myself to go somewhere unfamiliar and make a go of it. Those loans really opened the door for me at Leeds.
“But I’m coming back this season with the same attitude I had two years ago, before I made my debut here – nothing’s guaranteed for me. The moment you get comfortable is the moment you get complacent. Thinking you’ve done all right basically allows other people to overtake you. That’s not going to happen with me.”
The irony of Lees’ attitude is that much is guaranteed. It will surprise everyone if the centre-back is not one the 11 players chosen to start against Brighton on Saturday. He did all he could to keep McDermott sweet and impressed by appearing with England at the European Under-21 Championship last month and returning for pre-season without much of a holiday. His body stood up to a summer of football in a way which the younger Sam Byram’s did not.
Lees’ trip to the European Championship in Israel should have been an experience like no other, and to some extent it was. But he found himself in the middle of a political minefield as England’s Under-21 blew up and exited the tournament at the end of group stages. Stuart Pearce was sacked as coach and, by now 22 years of age, Lees signed off from the Under-21s during a 1-0 defeat to Israel, by which stage England had already been eliminated.
The post mortem was cutting and continues still with debates about Pearce’s replacement and ingrained problems with the English game. It said much about Lees that he was seen as one of the best 23 players available to Pearce before the tournament. You merely wonder if being part of that maligned group will be something to remember.
“People might not think it after what went on in the summer,” Lees says. “You didn’t need to be on the Internet every day to know what was being said back home. It was pretty scathing.
“The results weren’t great and neither was the way we played. I really don’t know the reasons for that. It’s quite strange. Whenever I trained with the 21s, the quality of the players in the squad and the standard of what we were doing seemed unbelievable. We should have done better in Israel and I don’t know why it all went wrong.
“I look at the experience in two ways – first of all, I’m proud to have made the squad for the Euros because not a lot of players do that and it gives you a bit of recognition for what you’ve been doing at your club. But it’s not going to be enjoyable when you’re losing games and getting criticised. Basically we were a shambles in terms of our performances and you can imagine how we felt when it became clear that we were going out.
“But I said a few times last season that going to the Euros was a massive goal for me, especially because I’d come into the squad so late. Whatever happened out there, it was still a fantastic experience in terms of development. You had the top young players in Europe in Israel and it was a chance for me to take everything in. I was grateful for that.”
Another ambition achieved, in short. Which leaves a very obvious target to aim at – Premier League football, the likes of which some of his England Under-21 colleagues soak up each week.
Both senior and academy coaching staff have repeatedly marked Lees out as a defender of that calibre and four full seasons – averaging 48 appearances a time – have enhanced his game. When Leeds last extended his contract, they pushed it on to 2016. They also included a one-year option ensuring that Lees should in theory be theirs until 2017. His value to them is extremely transparent.
The centre-back admits that playing in the Premier League is “100 per cent my target.” “You have a lot of ambitions as a young kid – getting a pro contract, getting into the first team, playing regularly, international experience. But another of mine has always been to be a Premier League player and that’s probably the same for everyone in the Championship who’s never been there.
“It’s not for me to say if I’m ready to play at that level or good enough but I’d love to get there and I’d love to test myself. Without being arrogant or over-confident, I’d honestly give it my best shot. I really hope we can get it together this season.”
That is code for winning promotion, though Lees – like his manager – prefers not to talk about the p-word. It was everywhere last season, mentioned constantly by McDermott’s predecessor, Neil Warnock, in a one-off term for him.
Warnock came to Leeds with a single agenda but failed to deliver it. United were more worried about relegation when they sacked him and sent an urgent missive to McDermott.
“I don’t think we can take much out of last season,” Lees says. “It wasn’t very positive. We weren’t miles off the play-offs but we struggled a bit towards the end so we got what we deserved – mid-table. You can dress it up however you like but it’s best if you’re honest with yourself. I’ve tried to be honest about it and to see where I went wrong. This time around I don’t want to talk about promotion. We need to avoid all that. It’s not to say that we don’t want to get there – of course we do – but when you start chasing it with 46 games to play, that’s a long time and an awful lot of talk.
“I’d much rather just focus on our opening fixtures, get a few wins on the board and then move on. No-one ever knows what’s in store after four or five games.
“Even after 45 last season there were still places up for grabs and plenty of football left. Let’s not look too far ahead.
“We need to concentrate on performances too and we didn’t play well often enough last season. Nicking flukey results doesn’t get you anywhere because you get found out eventually. If you’re getting lucky results at the start of the season, they’ll dry up later on. You’re either the full package or you’re nowhere.”
Spoken like the competitive beast which Lees has become.