Of the eight defenders included by Stuart Pearce in the latest England Under-21 squad, Tom Lees was the only one taken from a club outside the Premier League.
As a whole, Championship representation at Under-21 level is limited. Leicester City provided England with two players this week – Martyn Waghorn and Ben Marshall – and Crystal Palace striker Wilfried Zaha joined Bolton Wanderers’ Marvin Sordell in a pool of forwards sourced from the Football League, but Pearce generally works from the top down.
It was for that reason that Tom Ince, Blackpool’s outstanding midfielder, appeared in an England Under-21 squad for the first time last Wednesday, called up for their Euro 2013 qualifiers against Azerbaijan and Norway. Ince has come to the attention of coaches other than Pearce and was touted for a transfer to the Premier League before the August deadline passed. Even he has had to wait his turn.
By the time it came, Ince’s call-up was inevitable. Lees’s selection on Tuesday night – his first international summons – was more sudden and came without warning or any news of injuries in Pearce’s camp. The Leeds United centre-back was drafted in at late notice to give him experience of international football, perhaps with an eye on next summer’s European Championship finals in Israel.
United manager Neil Warnock said: “It’s a hard squad to get into, the Under-21s. Really tough. Anyone who’s in it is there on merit and deserves to be picked. He should think of this as a big achievement.
“I can’t say I’m surprised because he’s got a lot going for him. I’ve worked with him for six or seven months now and I can see what a player he is. Anyone watching him will see that, too, and I’m really pleased. He’s earned this call-up through his own hard work.”
Lees is the third self-produced player at Leeds to break into England’s Under-21 squad in the past three-and-a-half years.
Fabian Delph, the midfielder sold to Aston Villa for £6million in 2009, made enough of a stir in League One to merit his first call-up and Jonathan Howson’s performances in the Championship two seasons ago earned him a debut, and ultimately his only Under-21 appearance, in a friendly against Italy in February 2011. Howson was named in the provisional squad for the European Championships later that year but failed to make the final cut.
The former Leeds captain was already 22 by the time he came to Pearce’s attention, and Lees’s 22nd birthday falls later this year. The centre-back would still be eligible for next year’s finals, having fallen inside the age limit at the start of the qualifying campaign.
His call-up on Tuesday came little more than 72 hours after an eye-catching performance against Blackburn Rovers. Lees was asked to handle Jordan Rhodes – Rovers’ £8million signing from Huddersfield Town – and marked the striker out of the game in the second half, with Warnock admitting: “He kept Jordan quiet.”
The United boss has seen much to admire in Lees since he took over as manager in February. He called the centre-back his “one bright spark” towards the end of last season and said Lees has established himself as one of the automatic inclusions in United’s starting line-up. Though he started Leeds’ first Championship game on the bench after suffering a minor groin strain, he was recalled four days later.
Warnock said: “The thing that impresses me most is his willingness to learn. He’s got all the attributes you’d want in a defender but he’s very good at taking on board the advice he gets from us and players around him.
“He’s not the finished article and you don’t really get the finished article with a 21-year-old. He’ll still make mistakes from time to time but everyone does. I don’t mind it so much when you see a player’s game improving in the way it has.
“I like my defenders to take responsibility and he’s doing that more and more. He’s talking a bit more too – something we really wanted to bring out of him. Marking on set pieces is an area we need to brush up on but if you’re looking for good, young English defenders then he’s one of them.”
The Under-21 caps given to Delph and Howson came less than a year before they moved on from Elland Road, with Delph joining Villa and Howson leaving for Norwich City.
Delph was tied down to a long contract but became an obvious target for any Premier League club with money. Villa paid handsomely to sign him. Howson, by comparison, was less than six months from the end of his deal when he signed for Norwich in the last January transfer window.
Lees is as well protected as any player at Leeds, contracted to Elland Road until at least 2016 with United holding an option to extend the agreement by another 12 months. In all, United’s squad is more protected than it has been in the past. Of Warnock’s senior outfield players, only Michael Brown, Andy Gray, Patrick Kisnorbo and El-Hadji Diouf are due to reach the end of their deals before the start of next season.
Lees’s profile and reputation will rise on the strength of his selection by Pearce but Warnock said: “He’s on a good deal and I think the days of players looking to leave the club have gone.
“We’re at a stage where all of the players who are here want to be here.
“That’s the impression they’re giving me. I don’t have any worries about any of them.”
Lees was due to link up with the England squad today after Pearce’s players flew home from yesterday’s European qualifier against Azerbaijan in Baku.
The 21-year-old missed the trip to Eastern Europe after his last-minute addition to the party originally chosen by Pearce nine days ago but he has a chance of winning his first cap when England complete their schedule of qualifying fixtures against Norway at Chesterfield on Monday night. Having lost David Norris to a thigh strain, compounding a more serious knee problem suffered by Paul Green last month, Warnock is awaiting the safe return of a number of other players from international duty.
Aidan White is abroad with the Republic of Ireland’s Under-21 squad and Rodolph Austin flew across the Atlantic for two World Cup qualifiers between Jamaica and the USA.
Striker Ross McCormack, meanwhile, has been training with Scotland all week ahead of tomorrow’s game against Serbia and Tuesday’s clash with Macedonia. Leeds do not resume their Championship season until their visit to Cardiff City on September 15.