Phil Hay: Leeds United young guns to the fore in annual YEP gongs

Alex Mowatt

Alex Mowatt

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The YEP’s chief football writer, Phil Hay, takes a wry look and the ups and downs of 2014-15 and picks his Leeds United player of the year.

Player of the year

Alex Mowatt.

If nothing else it’s good that people can actually fall out over this award. Ross McCormack winning by 29 lengths last season was nice for him but pretty damning for the rest of the squad.

This year you could easily make a case for Lewis Cook or Marco Silvestri, or players like Sol Bamba and Luke Murphy if the vote is based on the most critical part of Leeds United’s season. But Mowatt has been a prime source of inspiration; not necessarily consistent from start to finish (in part because Dave Hockaday had him working with the Under-21s in August) but he’s driven Leeds on at key moments and dragged them through games with timely goals.

Monday’s finish at Molineux was another gem and you could happily marry his left foot. A 20-year-old who comes up with the goods when it matters ticks the boxes for player-of-the-year.

Young player of the year

Lewis Cook. The surest sign of a sensation in the academy is the sound of people talking about him before he’s broken through. Cook was mentioned in dispatches throughout last season, touted as a player to watch. He’s cruised through his first year in the Championship and he’s a delight to watch; blessed with quick feet, a low centre of gravity and the grace of an ice-skater. In amongst the existing mass of talent at Leeds, the 18-year-old revives memories of the group consisting of Fabian Delph, Jonathan Howson, Aidan White and others. No matter how well anyone else performed, no matter the headlines anyone else generated, you always sensed that Delph was the one. Likewise with Cook. Some would say that Leeds need to retain him at all costs. The Pope is still Catholic and bears still prefer the woods.

Goal of the season

Luke Murphy versus Bournemouth. Not quite the Hollywood goal that Giuseppe Bellusci set up for Mirco Antenucci against Huddersfield and Rudy Austin (Watford at home) might have something to say about this too. All the same, Murphy’s 20-yard bullet and the victory it earned marked a turn in the road for United. Leeds had competed at Bolton 11 days earlier and dug-out at draw at home to Birmingham the previous weekend but by the time Bournemouth came to Elland Road on January 20, they badly needed a win. Murphy inspired it, Bournemouth’s feeble finishing nailed the result down and Leeds were nearing a position of safety by the middle of February. Not only a pearl of a finish but a big one too.

Peformance of the season

Reading away, February 10. Probably the last occasion when United’s season could have caved in and another pivotal evening – not least because Millwall magicked a rare victory away at Birmingham on the same night. Leeds went through a long period where the concept of winning midweek matches was beyond their comprehension but Reading away on a Tuesday was as organised and professional a performance as the club have produced all season. Neil Redfearn’s tactics worked perfectly, Reading ran themselves down blind alleys and Murphy and Sam Byram picked Steve Clarke’s side off brillantly in the second half. At a stroke it turned a potentially horrible face-off with Millwall at Elland Road into a more routine fixture.

Signing of the season

Marco Silvestri. Massimo Cellino says Silvestri is a “£5m goalkeeper” which begs the question of how much United actually paid Chievo to sign him last summer. At 24, there are obvious weaknesses in his game. His punching – a very continental trait rather than an idiosyncracy of Silvestri’s – can be problematic and he doesn’t dominate his box as the best keepers do. But his shot-stopping has been excellent and he was the difference at Middlesbrough between a 1-0 win and a hiding by several goals. He also did well to overcome a difficult period around Christmas. Considering that players in his position usually peak in their late 20s or early 30s, Silvestri has ample potential and should be a shoe-in as number one next season. Bamba is the only other candidate who comes close in this category.

Quote of the season

Hockaday talking about the Champions League. Cellino talking about virtually anything. Bellusci’s tweets (which last week were on about dogs and donkeys). Elland Road is a world of wordsmiths these days. But the most perceptive quote – albeit unintentionally – was Darko Milanic’s steely “see you” as he marched out of his last press conference at Elland Road. He was 32 days into his job as head coach and didn’t seem to know what was coming but Cellino had ordered Nicola Salerno to read Milanic the last rites by the time the press were driving out of Fullerton Park. That one-way plane ticket back to Austria – bought for him by Sturm Graz when he left for England – was worth its weight in the gold.

Story of the season

Another goldmine of options but nothing quite eclipses the sacking of Hockaday in August. Has any owner ever been quite as open as Cellino was about almost dismissing Hockaday after a 4-1 defeat to Watford? “Yes, at Watford I decided to sack him,” Cellino said the following day. “I said ‘he’s finished’. I wasn’t happy. But sacking him is now is not fair.” Hockaday clung on, saying he was unaware of Cellino’s comments, but lost a League Cup tie at Bradford City five days later and was thrown under a bus anyway. “I realised that my decision to keep David at the club was wrong,” Cellino said. “I had to change my mind.” There’s been a bit of that this season.

Best of the rest

(Championship XI based on performances against Leeds):

Button (Brentford); Iorfa (Wolves), Dunk (Brighton), Tarkowski (Brentford), Friend (Middlesbrough); Marshall (Blackburn), Teixeria (Brighton), Pritchard (Brentford), Abdi (Watford), McClean (Wigan); Deeney (Watford).

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