WHEN Paul Heckingbottom took over he felt United’s rookie keeper was “coasting”, but after a pep talk the youngster has responded and now finds himself in possession of the No. 1 shirt. Phil Hay reports.
Paul Heckingbottom’s first impression of Bailey Peacock-Farrell was that of a young professional coasting in his job. Leeds United’s head coach was blunt about it, asking Peacock-Farrell if the club should cut him loose instead of leaving him to go through the motions.
Even Peacock-Farrell’s appearance against Wolverhampton Wanderers last month was driven by circumstance, a game which Andy Lonergan would have started had Lonergan not been carrying a neck injury, but a few choice words and the chance to play was all it took to switch Peacock-Farrell on.
In the space of five weeks the 21-year-old goalkeeper has forced Leeds to consider his claim for more concerted backing next season.
At the time of Peacock-Farrell’s outing at home to Wolves, a second senior appearance two years on from his Leeds debut, the club were already resigned to changing their goalkeeping resources. Felix Wiedwald, who United signed for £500,000 from Werder Bremen nine months ago, had become trapped in a spiral of form and confidence and was cast aside after a 3-0 defeat at Middlesbrough on March 2.
Wiedwald has two years left on his contract but there is no expectation of the German remaining at Elland Road for a second year. In the plan to create a smaller, more competitive squad, Wiedwald is among those players who Leeds intend to shift from their wage bill.
Lonergan is tied down for the next 12 months but the 34-year-old is unlikely to be seen as the solution to a position which United undermined last summer by bringing Wiedwald to the fore, ostracising Rob Green and recruiting Lonergan as number two after Green left for Huddersfield Town at the very end of the transfer window.
Lonergan is currently serving as Peacock-Farrell’s understudy but Leeds were happy for him to discuss a move to Sunderland in January. They would have released him without any argument had Lonergan’s negotiations with Sunderland not fallen through.
I had a chat with Bailey about pushing on and wanting to improve. I felt, and he agreed, that he’d become a bit static. I told him it’s down to him. If he wants to push forward then it’s up to him where his career takes him.Paul Heckingbottom on goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell
The situation leaves Peacock-Farrell as the only one of the three keepers with assurances about his future.
He holds a contract to 2020 and his run of eight appearances, the latest a very able display at Aston Villa on Friday night, have given his career some necessary impetus.
For two years he was trapped down the pecking order at Elland Road, looking for loan deals which failed to materialise. York City took him on before Christmas but his time in National League North was not flattering and Peacock-Farrell returned to Thorp Arch after a month.
When Heckingbottom took charge in February, he found him drifting.
“I had a chat with Bailey about pushing on and wanting to improve,” Heckingbottom said. “I felt, and he agreed, that he’d become a bit static.
“I told him it’s down to him. If he wants to push forward then it’s up to him where his career takes him.
“You can’t just come into training every day, train and go home. You come in for a reason and a purpose.”
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In spite of his inactivity, Northern Ireland have courted Peacock-Farrell who qualifies for the province through one set of grandparents. He was invite to train with their senior squad last year and Michael O’Neill, Northern Ireland’s coach, was considering taking Peacock-Farrell to the 2018 World Cup as third-choice keeper had his squad qualified.
Three weeks ago he made his debut for Northern Ireland’s Under-21s in a European qualifier against Iceland. The game finished goalless.
With Wiedwald’s reputation shot and Lonergan in the latter stages of his career, the question facing Leeds is how heavily they should trust in Peacock-Farrell next season.
Behind a brittle and ever-changing defence, his composure and reflexes have been commended. His performance at Villa, where he denied Lewis Grabban, Robert Snodgrass and Albert Adomah, was typical of his overall record and an average of almost four saves a game, as high a tally as any keeper makes in the Championship. Peacock-Farrell’s handling is underlined by a 92 per cent success rate when it comes to claiming crosses.
Wiedwald’s distribution was better but, as the factor on which Wiedwald’s signing from Werder Bremen was based, not so superior as to represent a significant difference.
It transpires that United’s most convincing keeper is the one who began this season in the Under-23s.
The decision over Leeds’ next move is which one the club have faced before. In 1998 Paul Robinson made his debut for United at the age of 19. Agile and highly-rated by the academy, there were further chances for him over the next three years but Robinson did not become an out-and-out regular until 2002, owing to a fall-out between Terry Venables and Nigel Martyn.
Martyn, since his arrival from Crystal Palace in 1996, had kept the goalkeeping position to himself, susceptible to nothing other than injury. Even in the 2002-03 season, with Martyn out of favour and Robinson in vogue, Venables had the security of an England international on his bench. It was never case of Robinson or bust.
United, after the events of this year, might come to the conclusion that throwing their weight behind Peacock-Farrell is a dereliction of duty; that in spite of his progress and maturity, they would be exposed without signing a senior alternative who is good enough for a full term in the Championship. “In my opinion I can do it,” Peacock-Farrell said on Friday, and the evidence is there.
But United’s season has made the point that a club will pay a high price for getting his position wrong.