'At first I was getting clattered' - Alfie McCalmont on Oldham Athletic loan lessons and Leeds United hopes
Alfie McCalmont plans to report back to Leeds United for pre-season this summer a wiser, better footballer.
The four-year deal he penned at Elland Road last August was a sign of the club’s optimism when it comes to the 20-year-old, his ability and his potential.
It was a reassuring pat on the back that helped him take his next step – a season-long loan at League Two Oldham Athletic – with confidence.
His mind was already made up, however, that the time had come to spread his wings and spend some time away from the nest he grew up in.
“It just came to a time in my career – I’ve played 23s the last two seasons and done well – to try something different,” he told the YEP. “Obviously I still wanted to be at Leeds in the Premier League and it would have been good to be on the bench and stuff like that but, for me progressing, going on loan felt best. First-team football, a new experience – I’ve not really seen how it is in a first-team environment, playing-wise week in and week out.
“With my new contract behind me, at 20, I thought it was the right time.
“Having the four years behind me made me feel like I had something, I was wanted. To go out on loan was just another step. I made my debut and I’ve been in squads and on the bench but I want to establish myself at Leeds so I felt I had to go out and do this. Speaking to my agent and my family, it felt right.”
Oldham boss, Harry Kewell, was sacked a few days ago, seven months into his tenure at Boundary Park, prompting a Latics supporters club to call upon owner Abdallah Lemsagam and brother Mohamed, the club’s sporting director, to rethink their strategy.
McCalmont’s relationship with fellow Leeds academy graduate Kewell went no further than a working one, they never spoke about the Whites. But the midfielder, speaking before the manager’s departure, felt well treated and fully informed about what it was Kewell wanted from him.
Kewell was happy to throw McCalmont in at the deep end straight away, despite a lack of senior experience and no prior Football League appearances.
“People think it’s easy going to League Two, but it’s not,” said McCalmont.
“It’s different, more physical, everyone wants the three points.
“You don’t have the luxuries you have at Leeds, where it’s all nice, the pitches and everything. I signed on the Friday and got chucked in to start on the Saturday, so I was going in a bit blind. The tempo and how physical it is, I’ve never experienced it before.”
Leeds head coach Marcelo Bielsa said earlier this year that the importance of physicality in a game depended on the style of play and what physical qualities were required to meet the needs of that style. “If the ball spends a long time in the air, it is different to if the ball is on the ground most of the time,” he said.
McCalmont is learning all about it and that was the entire point of the loan move. He feels all the better for it, too.
“We don’t play as much football as we did at Leeds but I wanted to play against men every week,” he said.
“You still get a lot of passing but, playing against some teams who go longer, you have to adapt.
“At first, when I went in, I was getting clattered quite a lot but I’ve learnt how to ride tackles and look after myself. I’ve had to be a bit more clever against bigger, more physical players. I’ve learned how to look after myself when the ball is in the air – we played against Carlisle in the most physical game I’ve played in and there were a lot of balls in the air and I felt I dealt with it well. I think I’ve got better all round. That’s the reason I’ve gone out on loan.”
At Leeds, McCalmont was operating in the same deep-lying role that Kalvin Phillips has made his own under Bielsa.
Playing at Oldham he’s taken on more of a Mateusz Klich role and has relished the chance to contribute offensively.
“I’ve played mostly as what you’d call a No 8 at Leeds, box to box, which I’ve preferred,” he said. “I know I can get forward, shoot, drive at people, get assists. I’ve scored five this season and a lot have been from late runs into the box.
“It’s something I feel like I’m good at. At Leeds, I played a bit deeper, so I could read the play. [Kewell] has played me a bit deeper so I can get the ball from the back, keep the play moving.
When we’re not playing from the back as much, I play further forward, get on the ball and get shots off.”
A six-game spell out of the team early on in the season taught him that nothing is handed to you. He said: “You’ve got to work for it, work for your shirt.
“Going back after international duty, I knew I wasn’t going to walk back into the team. I had to work hard and, when the opportunity came, nail down my position.”
Currently on a run of eight starts and with 26 Oldham appearances under his belt, McCalmont feels his decision to go out on loan has been justified and worthwhile. He’s had good feedback from his parent club – academy manager Adam Underwood and Under-23s boss Mark Jackson have made contact, Leeds have received all the footage of his games – and successive Oldham bosses have backed him to play. So there’s good reason to be full of confidence ahead of a pre-season return to Leeds.
Having watched the Whites from within as part of the Thorp Arch set-up, he has joined the masses of interested onlookers as Leeds look to establish themselves in the top flight.
That, too, has been enjoyable.
“It’s been really good to watch,” he said.
“It’s mostly the same players that were in the Championship so it’s really good to see how they’ve gone on to progress in the Premier League and show how good we are. We haven’t looked out of place. We haven’t held back; we’ve shown the same desire and played the same football as we did in the Championship.”
He wants to walk back through the doors of Thorp Arch as an improved version of the young man who left and take the next step towards his ultimate goal.
“I didn’t want to come to a standstill, I wanted to progress, become a better player and then go back,” he said. “I feel like I’ve matured, playing against men and some very good, experienced players. The experienced players at Oldham have taught me a lot, too.
“I wanted to go somewhere I would be playing and it’s given me a lot of confidence to go back to Leeds in pre-season.
“I’m looking forward to that.
“Ultimately my goal is to play for Leeds, be in the first team and be a regular.
“That’s always been my goal since I was young. This step, going on loan, was to help that. I’ll go back in pre-season and see where it takes me.”