Tom Lees is one of the quieter members of Leeds United’s squad. For a player so unassuming, this has been quite a year.
Lees cut his teeth on loan at Bury and Accrington Stanley but his education as a young footballer intensified in 2012, exposing him to international controversy, freak injury and life in the firing line as a permanent fixture in United’s team.
The 22-year-old has two wishes for 2013: that it brings Premier League football to Elland Road and takes him to the European Under-21 Championship in Israel.
One looks more attainable than the other at present but Lees thinks both are intrinsically linked; make something of the domestic season and an international call-up might follow.
England did not even integrate Lees into their Under-21 squad until September of this year, by which time he was approaching his 22nd birthday, but his contribution has been such that he is widely expected to be taken to Israel by coach Stuart Pearce for next summer’s European finals.
“It’s a huge deal for me personally,” said Lees. “I think the club can benefit from it, too.
“If I’m picked for the finals, it’ll only be because I’ve playing well for the club. I’m well aware that the two go hand-in-hand and I know what my first responsibility is.
“On a personal note, I’d be over the moon to go the finals. I only got my first cap a couple of months ago and these things don’t come round very often. At Under-21 level, it won’t come round for me again.
“But I’m not stupid and it’s a massive ask. If the manager’s got a full selection of players to pick from then you’re talking about top-quality defenders. Some are playing regularly for top-six teams. I’m not complacent but it is an ambition to be involved.”
England’s qualification was guaranteed by a play-off victory over Serbia in October, claimed on a night of controversy like few others in the history of European Under-21 internationals.
A decisive 1-0 win in Krusevac ended with scuffles between the two sets of players and allegations of racial abuse made by England against the Serbian crowd. Following a lengthy investigation, a range of punishments were handed down by UEFA this week, including bans for Tom Ince and Steven Caulker. Serbia were fined £65,000 and ordered to play their next competitive Under-21 fixture behind closed doors.
Lees was implicated in the trouble after reports in Serbia claimed that the centre-back would be charged by local police for an unspecified offence relating to the violence which occurred after full time.
Both the Football Association and United offered him their full support and an FA spokesman told the YEP yesterday that neither the Serbian authorities nor Interpol had informed the British government of criminal charges brought against Lees. “We’ve heard absolutely nothing,” said the spokesman. “At the moment, there is no charge.”
The worrying news from Serbia, arriving in early November, was the start of a bad week for Lees. Days later, he suffered an injury in a 2-2 draw at Brighton which temporarily blinded him in one eye. He was ruled out by manager Neil Warnock for several weeks but returned within a matter of days after damaged retina healed more quickly than anyone anticipated.
“I was expecting to be out for a lot longer,” said Lees. “It wasn’t pleasant but at the time the injury sounded a bit ridiculous. You’re embarrassed coming off the pitch after someone’s poked you in the eye.
“But it was very painful and I had a bit of a tear in my retina. The reason I couldn’t see out of that eye was because of the blood inside it. I went to hospital and they cleaned it up and basically told me that once I could see properly I could get back out on the pitch. I don’t think I expected to be back a week later.
“I’m glad it healed quickly and I just glad it healed, full stop. Getting blinded in one eye is no joke.”
United’s defeat at Burnley in the week after his injury is the only league game missed by Lees this season. He made his 50th senior appearance for the club in September and has held onto a starting place despite the recent arrival of Alan Tate on loan from Swansea City. The victim of Tate’s introduction has been Jason Pearce, the defender signed by Warnock for £500,000 in May.
Leeds’ academy at Thorp Arch has produced players with more swagger and flair than Lees but few have taken such a convincing hold of a shirt at Elland Road. Since the emergence of Jonathan Howson, only Aidan White among the youth-team products has played more times for United.
The extent of the defender’s potential is difficult to gauge but there are some who believe him to be a Premier League player in the making. Contracted to Elland Road until 2016, United expect Lees to be part of their squad by the time they finally cross an elusive threshold.
Barring a sudden demotion from Warnock’s line-up, he and 10 other United players will immerse themselves in Premier League opposition when they host Chelsea in the quarter-finals of the Capital One Cup next week.
Leeds have already dispatched two top-flight teams – Southampton and Everton – from this season’s competition and Bradford City’s victory over Arsenal earlier this week raised the stakes at Elland Road. Wednesday’s tie is Chelsea’s to lose but the London club do not fly home from Japan until after the final of the FIFA World Club Cup tomorrow and they are scarcely blessed with the aura of European champions.
The winners will join Bradford, Swansea and Aston Villa in the last four, a draw which offers much potential for the sides involved in it. “The top four have just about gone,” said Lees, “but I don’t think that’s relevant at this stage.
“A lot of people would say they fancy Bradford in the semis but I honestly think that would be a dangerous draw over two legs. You can’t disrespect the teams who are already there. You could say ‘Arsenal have gone, Man City have gone, Man United have gone’ but that’s because they’ve been beaten by teams who can obviously produce the goods on the night.
“Not many Championship clubs expect to get to this stage and you need to ride your luck a little bit in the draws. It’s been good to have games at home but we’ve played well and that’s why we’re in the quarters.
“We’ve got a massive task ahead of us next week and Chelsea would be a huge scalp. But if we overcome them then you’d have to say that anything’s possible.”