'A poor man's version of Leeds United' - Morecambe boss Stephen Robinson makes sense of Alfie McCalmont loan
Leeds United’s Alfie McCalmont met a dropping ball as it bounced, not quite making the contact he would have liked but enough to deceive an unsighted David Stockdale for the first League One goal of a loan that raised eyebrows in the summer.
McCalmont scored eight goals in the division below for Oldham Athletic last season, handling his first real taste of men’s football so comfortably that there was talk of interest from bottom-end Championship and top-end League One clubs.
There was talk of a possible permanent exit too - McCalmont was in a group for whom Leeds would have listened to offers - but his preference was to remain a Whites player and go on loan.
On July 2 he joined Morecambe, promoted to League One via the play-offs and predicted to drop straight back down by 22 of 24 journalists covering the division’s clubs.
Three weeks prior to McCalmont’s arrival, the Shrimps appointed former Motherwell boss Stephen Robinson as their new manager. Derek Adams, the man who guided the club to third tier football for the first time in their history, had quit for Bradford City.
Eleven league games into Robinson’s tenure they are outperforming expectations, sitting 13th, five points clear of Charlton Athletic and just a point behind Sheffield Wednesday and Portsmouth.
McCalmont has appeared in 10 of those fixtures, starting six times.
After just a few minutes listening to his manager for the season, his loan move starts to make sense.
“I know Alfie from the Northern Ireland set-up,” Robinson told the YEP.
“I knew I was getting a top quality young signing. He scored a lot of goals in League Two. He hasn’t quite replicated that but hopefully with Saturday’s goal it’ll start to come.
“We want more from him on the ball because we know he’s very capable of that. It takes a wee bit of time, the understanding with his team-mates, getting to know everybody.
“In the last three or four games he’s been excellent and he’s been a big part of what we’re doing. He’s got a brilliant attitude and fitted into the group really, really well.”
McCalmont was seen as an understudy to defensive midfielder Kalvin Phillips at Leeds. At Oldham he played further forward and relished it. Robinson uses him as one of two ‘eights’ in a three man midfield, making the most of the education McCalmont received at Leeds under Marcelo Bielsa and former Under-23s boss, Carlos Corberan.
“With the personnel we’ve got he’s much more of a benefit playing further up the pitch,” he said.
“We press in what you might say is a poor man’s version of Leeds. We’re not quite as cavalier as Leeds or as good as Leeds at it, but Alfie obviously brings those attributes. You can see he comes from a club that does that. Him and Shane McLoughlin in midfield they both rat and bite all the time, constantly, double pressing and it sets everybody else off. You can definitely see that’s a trait from Bielsa and the coaching he’s had at Leeds.”
Ben White, now at Arsenal but still a promotion hero at Leeds, was a classic example of how the loan system can help develop talent. He glided up through the divisions, one at a time, from League Two to the Premier League.
League One, Robinson warns, is a ‘huge jump’ from League Two, this season especially, but it will benefit McCalmont.
“Look at the clubs - Sheffield Wednesday, Bolton, Pompey, Charlton, Wigan, Rotherham - it’s probably the strongest League One I’ve seen in a long, long time,” he said.
“It’s a big step up for Alfie. He did really well last year, he’s got a sensible head on his shoulders and good advisors who wanted him to go and play with a team who replicate how his parent team play. We try to do that and Alfie has fitted in.
“There’s a lot of good quality at this level, you come up against teams who play with a style you won’t see in the Premier League, constantly pumping balls into your box and it’s all part of the learning curve - how can you deal with the physical element of the game? He’s getting better with that as well.”
A quirk of McCalmont’s career is the level of experience he has gained at international level, despite never having played in a higher division than League One.
Last month he made his full international debut and is now just three shy of the seven caps Robinson won for Northern Ireland. The experience of 90 minutes in a friendly against Estonia and a substitute appearance in World Cup qualifying against Lithuania has already benefited him at club level.
“I’m very close with Ian Barraclough, we speak regularly about Alfie and the other players in our team who represent Northern Ireland,” said Robinson.
“I was extremely proud when he played, he’s playing for my country and he was very good. It’s a different experience, a different level again.
“The more exposure he gets to that level the better a player he will become, because all these experiences add up to help your development.
“In the last few weeks since he came back from international duty he’s been full of confidence and started to really make his mark on the team.”
Robinson hopes that progression will continue. His desire for McCalmont this season aligns with that of the player’s parent club, but knows it won’t be plain sailing.
“Hopefully he’ll maintain his place in the team, help us to stay where we are - mid-table looking up the way, rather than down the way, with him playing a big part in that.
“He has to be the best player at this level as many times as he possibly can, you can’t control anything else. Like any young player they get disappointed very quickly, they’re quite hard on themselves if they come off or don’t play. The emotional reactions and how you deal with it, the mental side of football, is absolutely huge. I believe that’s something myself and my staff are very good at.
“We’re real with them, we tell them the truth and it’s a massive part of their learning because not everything is an upward curve.”
Beyond the League One season, Robinson wants to send back an even better version of the player he received from Leeds this summer.
“The idea of the loan, when I spoke to Victor [Orta, Leeds director of football] he was very happy for Alfie to come and work with me after what we did with the younger players at Motherwell,” he said.
“Hopefully we send Alfie back and he can either be in contention to be a Leeds first team player or he goes to his next loan move in the Championship. Our aim is the same as Leeds’ - to continue to develop a young boy.
“He’s getting better and better with each game.”