This season it has all come at once for Bailey Peacock-Farrell: first choice at Leeds United and propelled to the front of the queue with Northern Ireland too. It can hardly seem real that this time last year he was finishing up a loan with York City in National League North.
It can hardly seem real either that in February, after the appointment of Paul Heckingbottom as Leeds’ head coach, he was facing pointed questions about his future. Heckingbottom took issue with Peacock-Farrell’s attitude and told the goalkeeper that United would be better off releasing him than watching him stand still. A year has been a long time in Peacock-Farrell’s career.
The past week has been a long one too; an examination of the character of a 22-year-old who is suddenly in the spotlight at home and internationally. He won Marcelo Bielsa’s faith in the summer – no small feat given the Argentinian’s reputation and elite-level background – but Bielsa has quirks and Peacock-Farrell discovered one of them last week when Bielsa stated publicly that the keeper was about to be dropped and replaced by Jamal Blackman.
There was no obligation on Biesa’s part to say so. Blackman, his only other experienced keeper, had suffered a broken leg six days earlier and gone back to his parent club Chelsea. Peacock-Farrell was carrying a minor knee injury and was set to miss Saturday’s 2-0 win over Bristol City anyway. Bielsa, nonetheless, said his piece and claimed his honesty about Peacock-Farrell’s form would help the youngster to improve.
Peacock-Farrell returned to Bielsa’s line-up on Tuesday and earned a 1-0 win over Reading with a 90th-minute penalty save, a moment to counterbalance the costly mistake he made in a 4-1 defeat to West Bromwich Albion earlier in the month. Over 18 games he has generally been in the large grey area between outstanding and disappointing – prone to the odd glaring error but more often a steady member of Bielsa’s team.
“I’m 22 and still learning,” Peacock-Farrell said. “That’s always the case with a keeper but I don’t like the tag of being a young keeper. Regardless of your position, if you’re good enough then you’re old enough. Sometimes you make mistakes, as simple as that.
“It’s not down to age or anything like that, it’s just that sometimes you do something wrong. We’re not robots. There’s loads more to come from me and hopefully we can build and have a positive season.
“These last couple of weeks sum up football. You get the ups and downs. The manager said what he said and it was really disappointing for Blacks. No-one wishes that on anyone. He was going to play and deserved to play so to see him go out like that was a real shame.”
Bielsa was at pains to say last week that the plan to demote Peacock-Farrell did not point to a lack of belief in him per se. He called Blackman “the best young English goalkeeper” and said: “The fact that Farrell was a starter during 17 games while having Blackman as a second goalkeeper shows I trust him.”
After those comments came a vote of confidence in the keepers at Thorp Arch as Bielsa rejected the chance to sign cover on an emergency seven-day deal and, in the absence of an injured Peacock-Farrell, gave 20-year-old academy player Will Huffer a debut against Bristol City instead.
“The gaffer trusts the keepers we have or he wouldn’t have put Will in,” Peacock-Farrell said. “He (Huffer) was more than good enough to step in. He’s been in and around training so he knows how we play.
“The manager maybe thought that bringing someone in fresh without the knowledge of how we play might not have worked. It was an easy decision.”
Peacock-Farrell’s penalty save on Tuesday night was full-length, a dive to his right to tip Marc McNulty’s low effort around a post. The game was in the last minute of normal time, leaving little scope for Leeds to respond to a late equaliser. Without Peacock-Farrell’s save, it would have been the first occasion under Bielsa in which United had scored first and failed to win.
McNulty, a substitute, took the spot-kick in the absence of Reading’s chosen penalty takers, Liam Kelly and John Swift. Any pre-match analysis Peacock-Farrell had done is likely to have been obsolete.
“We do have a bit of analysis where we look at who takes what and who puts it where,” he said, “but you also have to assess the situation: what his body shape is like, all sorts of things.
“I made my mind up, guessed right and got across quickly. The main thing was saving it and it felt good to have something to do. Sometimes I’m a bit cold watching all these goals from the back. Although I’ll take that back – I’d rather not have anything to do. But it’s nice to help the team.”
The game turned on that moment but also on Bielsa’s forthright decision to substitute Gjanni Alioski and Lewis Baker at half-time and send on Samuel Saiz and Jack Clarke. Leeds took control of the pitch, played deeper in Reading’s half and did their usual trick of generating enough pressure to force a breakthrough when Stuart Dallas scored on the hour.
Peacock-Farrell said: “At half-time the manager was looking for some more movement, switching the play when teams like that come and drop back.
“We have to get them moving, not necessarily over the top or through the lines but side to side. Get players coming out of their positions and making wrong decisions. That’s when we strike.”
Bielsa has watched Leeds respond to their heaviest defeat of the season – a trouncing at West Brom – with back-to-back home wins and two clean sheets, in matches which Leeds were under pressure to win. Bristol City and Reading both sit in the bottom half of the Championship and a return of six points leaves United one behind league leaders Norwich City.
“It’s so tight at the top,” Peacock-Farrell said. “Back-to-back home games means we have to get six points. These little key moments add up over the course of a season and it puts pressure on others.
“We want to be going up automatically and what we need to do now is go on a run and create a space to the teams below. It’s early days but that’s the main objective.”