In an ideal world Izzy Brown would have left the Championship behind by now. He is on the books of one Premier League club and in the summer before last at least two others wanted to sign him. At that stage it was reasonable to think that his apprenticeship had been served.
It took a gamble on Leeds United’s part to bring him back to the top tier of the EFL in August but, as Brown works through the final few weeks of rehabilitation from the ACL surgery which has held him back, the potential he holds starts to feel tangible: a loanee from Chelsea who Huddersfield Town tried to spend £8m on 18 months ago, and who Brighton’s Chris Hughton took under his wing before the beginning of last season. That move, Hughton said, was “natural progression for Izzy.”
The transfer felt natural because two months earlier, Brown had played in Huddersfield’s play-off final win over Reading at Wembley, signing off a five-month spell in West Yorkshire by helping Town make the Premier League for the first time. There are obvious parallels between then and now as he prepares to involve himself in a Championship promotion bid at the halfway stage.
The 21-year-old started the 2016-17 season at Rotherham United but was nicked by David Wagner in January after Chelsea recalled him and paved the way for a different loan elsewhere. Huddersfield were in good health when he signed, sitting comfortably inside the play-off positions, but Matt Glennon, the club’s former goalkeeper who works as a pundit for BBC Radio Leeds, remembers Brown as a clever deal at the right time.
“Building up to him joining the results had been decent and the position in the league was good but everyone felt that Huddersfield needed that little bit extra to see them through the rest of the season,” Glennon said.
“It’s easy to forget how many games you’ve got left at Christmas and Izzy Brown provided that spark, that bit of something different. He exploded onto the scene.” Brown scored in four of his first six appearances, including a precious finish in a 2-1 win over Leeds in February 2017. “That’s always going to endear you to people in Huddersfield but there was more to him than that goal,” Glennon said. “The touches of magic Wagner got from him helped to get the club over the line.”
With Huddersfield, Brown had the advantage of having played regularly for Rotherham and in the Championship prior to his move. Leeds took on a player who underwent major knee surgery while at Brighton in January and has not played a first-team match since. He came though his first 90-minute outing in an Under-23s fixture at Burnley on Tuesday, scoring in a topsy-turvy 6-3 win, and has progressed gradually through three appearances with United’s development squad. They are, to date, the sum of game time.
Leeds accepted when they loaned him from Chelsea in August that Brown was unlikely to be fully fit until January. Their willingness to complete his rehabilitation was reciprocated by Chelsea agreeing to seek no payment of wages from United until Brown was ready to play. He has not yet made Marcelo Bielsa’s bench but might have a chance of featuring at Bolton Wanderers this weekend.
“As it turns out, it could be a clever signing,” Glennon said. “If you were in a situation where you desperately needed your signings to make an impact, it wouldn’t be much use having Brown when he can’t play. But the results at Leeds have been so good that this will be like a new signing for them, and not in the usual clichéd way.
“You’d think that without the injury problems he’s had he’d be playing in the Premier League so as long as he’s fully over his injury, they’ve got a quality player there. And on top of that, he’s joining a very good team. The injuries at Leeds have been ridiculous and it’s a credit to Bielsa that he’s kept them where they are in the league.”
Bielsa has felt no pressure to rush Brown – or any other of his absentees for that matter – into the fray. His squad are second in the Championship, five points clear of third place, and mooted injury crises at Elland Road have been nothing of the sort. United wanted Brown to provide firm competition for Samuel Saiz but even Saiz’s dip in form at number 10 has been managed effectively.
Glennon said Brown would be most effective in the pocket which Saiz likes to occupy, with the same licence to play freely.
“He’ll work hard and Bielsa, a bit like Wagner, doesn’t have it any other way but he’s best in areas where he can be creative and push on without having to think too much about tracking back,” Glennon said.
“At times he can be a bit of an enigma but he does have that ease about him.
“You couldn’t got as far as saying that Huddersfield wouldn’t have gone up without him but they needed a spark and they got it from him. I’m pretty sure he’ll have that season in his head because the situation at Leeds is similar.”
Brown’s recovery in the Under-23s has been a steady process: 45 minutes in his first game, 80 in his second and 90 in his third. His goal against Burnley on Tuesday was put in the shade by a hat-trick from Patrick Bamford – another player returning from a knee injury – but barring any niggles, he is almost there.
“It was important that they have more minutes,” said Under-23s coach Carlos Corberan. “Only with time can they get the right performance to be helping the first team. I think both players can be happy.”