Lewis Cook was 13-years-old when he first appeared for Leeds United’s Under-18s. The club discovered soon after that he was too young to play, a fast achiever who accidently broke the rules.
Cook’s entire story is one of rapid progression and self motivation. People at Thorp Arch remember poor performances driving him to tears of annoyance. Over time he learned to stamp his feet and iron out the flaws in his game.
Now 17 and lodged in United’s first team, those flaws are almost invisible. Cook is part of a long line of academy graduates but at Leeds they place him in the highest bracket – not as outrageously skilful as Fabian Delph but every bit the same animal and pedigree.
It’s tradition these days that an unheralded junior shakes the ground at Elland Road at the start of each season. Sam Byram did it in 2012, Alex Mowatt a year ago and Cook again in the past few weeks. A defensive midfielder with pace and exceptional awareness, the signs were there in the summer months as Cook received mentions in dispatches from the European Under-17 Championship and the mouth of United owner Massimo Cellino.
David Hockaday, Leeds’ head coach for the first six games of the season, took a passing interest in him but the club’s caretaker – Neil Redfearn – has lumped on Cook entirely. The teenager made his full league debut late last month and has started the past three matches. He will play against Huddersfield Town today, an automatic choice for an academy manager who knows him inside out.
Cook looks like a fixture in the side but he sounds anything but presumptuous. “I wouldn’t say I am established, no,” Cook said. “I still feel quite young.
“I do want to be playing week in, week out, that’s my overall goal, and hopefully I’ll feel like that one day. But definitely not at the moment.
“I love running out at Elland Road and it’s a dream for me after being at the club so long. It’s something I’d wanted to do ever since I was a little boy.
“I’d watch games and think ‘what will it be like to play in front of these fans?’ Now I’m lucky enough to be doing that.”
Redfearn says that Leeds have “scouts camped on their doorstep” which stands to reason if Cook is an example of the youngsters beneath the surface at Thorp Arch. He was hidden for a while and signed a professional contact without much publicity, committing to Leeds until 2016, but his ability was flagged up during England’s victory at the European Under-17 Championship in Malta earlier this year. Cook played throughout the tournament, including 68 minutes of the final against Holland.
“I think that tournament helped me to be recognised,” he said.
“It was a great experience for me and an unbelievable feeling. I also think it gave me a lot more confidence and put me in the manager’s eye.
“I’d never been to a tournament like that and won it before. Things were pretty mad. But I really enjoyed it and want to build on it. I’d known the England lads for a long time and we had some great banter. I felt comfortable with the set-up.”
Cook has advanced into England’s Under-18 squad since that tournament and he played in a friendly against the Netherlands during the recent international break. He is settling in for a year of senior football at Leeds, a commitment he will mix with attendance at school. Some at United think Cook was ready for the first team a year ago, several months before his 17th birthday.
Redfearn tends to back the players he has worked with in the club’s academy and he recalled Alex Mowatt to United’s starting line-up as soon as Hockaday’s sacking began his third spell as caretaker.
“It’s good to have someone like Redders in charge,” Cook said. “Me and Alex played for him quite a bit. He’d been our coach (in the academy) for a long time so we know him well and that helps because we know how to speak to him.”
Cook singled out Steven Gerrard as his footballing role-model, saying the Liverpool captain was “such a team player” and “a leader”. Cook has a taste of captaincy last season, skippering United’s Under-21s during their development league campaign.
“I liked Steven Gerrard when I was growing up,” Cook said. “I’d consider him a role-model. He was such a team player and his technique was so good.
“I love how much of a leader he is to his club and that’s a special player.”
Cook helped to change in the balance of United’s visit to Bournemouth on Tuesday, a game which Leeds won 3-1 with a convincing fightback in the second half.
The squad around him are showing signs of settling after a busy summer of transfers and the dismissal of Hockaday, and Cook said: “I do feel we’re coming together as a group now.
“Everyone gets on and I feel we can achieve anything we want, as long as we put our minds to it.”