'I was in shock' - Leeds United's Niall Huggins on whirlwind Arsenal debut and his Emirates awe

The Whites academy product made his debut last month for the first team.

Saturday, 27th March 2021, 6:00 am
Leeds United's Niall Huggins in action at Arsenal. Pic: Getty

When Niall Huggins arrived home on the night of his Leeds United debut in mid-February he had Match of the Day ready and waiting.

The 20-year-old had just hours earlier stepped off the bench for the Whites at the Emirates against Arsenal in the Premier League – realising a dream he held close since he was a young boy.

Huggins isn’t the biggest headline maker in the club’s Under-23s squad but, like many others, has undergone a meticulous footballing education behind the four walls of Thorp Arch.

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He has been somewhat of a silent assassin on United’s left flank in the Premier League 2 this season, running up and down the wing and popping up in both boxes from the full-back position.

Development boss Mark Jackson has utilised his skill set as a utility man, opting to deploy him in midfield and in a more advanced role out wide on occasion.

By Huggins’ own admission his debut came as much of a shock to himself as anyone else in North London and beyond – but on closer inspection it’s not hard to see why.

He does, after all, display the traits of an archetypal Marcelo Bielsa player – those most comparable to Stuart Dallas amid the senior ranks in West Yorkshire.

As his dad finally pressed play and that famous theme tune started to sound, he could pause for a moment and reflect on what had been a whirlwind afternoon.

“I just got told to warm up and I wasn’t really expecting anything,” Huggins reflected to BBC Wales.

“The score wasn’t going our way. He [Bielsa] just called me over and said, ‘Are you ready?’

“I was kind of in shock. I didn’t have time to get nervous at that point, it happened so fast.

“The first few minutes it was a bit like ‘I can’t believe I’m on the pitch in the Premier League at Arsenal away’ but I felt I got into it and settled down.

“It was just the same game I normally play. I play football all the time. I feel comfortable playing with the first team in training and obviously the manager has faith in me to do what I can.

“We scored two straight after I came on so that was a bonus.”

Huggins has quietly gone about his business since being promoted to the Under-23s squad on a permanent basis in recent seasons thanks in part to his technical ability on the ball.

He has had to step up his fitness regime to match that of the senior players and watch his body fat percentages just like everyone else.

Working with the first team in training has become a daily occurrence, as has putting in the sprints and hard yards to reach the level of intensity required to succeed at Elland Road these days.

Little, though, could have prepared him for the spotlight he was entering in the 4-2 defeat to the Gunners.

“I did to be honest – I’m not going to lie,” Huggins laughed when asked if he caught himself looking around the pitch in awe.

“I’m used to watching Match of the Day and the Premier League at the weekend and then I’ve got [Pierre-Emerick] Aubameyang running at me – he’s played across the world and is a top class player.

“It was a bit surreal but you just have to focus on your own game and make sure you’re doing what the plan is for the team to try and make sure you can make a difference.”

It took a couple of minutes for his impact to be felt as he settled into the rhythm of the afternoon, buzzing around the Arsenal backline as Leeds scored twice quickly following his introduction.

For Huggins it was a taste of where hard work can get any Leeds youngster and it has only whetted the appetite for more.

Due to circumstance his debut came with stands in the capital eerily empty but he is someone who knows more than most just how much of an impact supporters can have.

He worked as a ball boy in his youth at Elland Road and LS11 at full tilt on a top flight matchday will be near the top of his Leeds United bucket list.

Given Huggins’ growing involvement in Bielsa’s squads and consistent form in the development ranks, he may not have too long to wait.

“It’ll be amazing. The fans are unbelievable at Leeds,” he said.

“I’ve been on the bench a few times since Christmas and I know even just warming up on the sidelines the amount of cheers you’d be getting from the fans.

“The support they give the players – it’ll be unreal. The noise at Elland Road is unbelievable. I know it’ll push the players on.

“They’ve done so much this past season without the fans, when they come back it’ll only help us more I’m sure.”