Joe Gelhardt's situation at Leeds United not unlike Phil Foden's gradual rise at Manchester City

Phil Foden was nine years old when he first came to the attention of Phil Eyre, who oversaw the coaching programme in Manchester City’s academy.

By Graham Smyth
Thursday, 8th April 2021, 10:02 am
RISING STAR - Phil Foden was marked out as special as a nine-year-old at Manchester City. Pic: Getty
RISING STAR - Phil Foden was marked out as special as a nine-year-old at Manchester City. Pic: Getty

City were keenly aware of how good he could be, so much so that he joined Eyre in whichever age-group session he was personally coaching on any given night.

Eyre and City were right to be excited, as Foden is now proving beyond all doubt.

Like the very best, he’s so much fun to watch, gliding past defenders and using his excellent first touch to give him every opportunity of making something happen. What marked him out as special, for Eyre, was his balance.

“All the best players in the world, Messi, Ronaldo, Zidane, Henry, the best ones have unbelievable balance but it rarely gets mentioned,” he said.

“Phil is the most naturally gifted young player I’ve seen with the ball at his feet in terms of touch and skill and imagination, but it’s the balance that sets him apart.”

Pep Guardiola was quick to recognise Foden’s gifts but not so quick to utilise them with regularity.

Premier League and Champions League debuts came at 17 but he was two months shy of his 19th birthday before he started a top-flight game.

EXCITING TALENT - Joe Gelhardt has made Under 23s football look easy while he awaits a Leeds United first team breakthrough. Pic: Getty

Ahead of the 2019/20 season Guardiola made, for a coach who had worked with Lionel Messi et al, the astonishing assertion that Foden was the best of the lot.

“Phil is the most, most, most talented player I have ever seen in my career as a manager,” said the City boss.

And still, the midfielder had to bide his time, not starting a Premier League game until December and finishing the campaign with nine starts.

It was only after the departure of legendary maestro David Silva last summer that the young apprentice finally began to get something closer to the match minutes such a talent might expect.

“There is a trust between a young player and arguably the best coach in the world, it’s a hand-in-glove relationship,” said Eyre in 2018, when Foden was having to exercise patience, despite calls for game time from all and sundry.

His patience is now being rewarded and the world is at his feet.

On Saturday he welcomes Leeds United to the Etihad.

Depending on injuries, fitness and how training has gone, another special young English talent might be among those stepping off the coach. Joe Gelhardt is also fun to watch.

Although he carries a stockier build to Foden, he too possesses a balance that allows him to beat players with ease, along with strength to bulldoze where finesse can’t take him.

Premier League 2 defences have struggled to cope with him all season and, this week, he was nominated for Player of the Month, thanks to four goals, an assist and two penalties won in four March outings.

Under-23s football is quickly looking a little easy for the 18-year-old, who has played a key part in Leeds’ ascent to the top and likely promotion.

In the Premier League, the senior side is safe, if not mathematically then in all probability, and the final eight games might represent a chance for Bielsa to start drip feeding Gelhardt into the action.

The Argentine, who included Gelhardt on the bench six times recently, said the former Wigan youngster was there on merit.

Yet with Patrick Bamford’s iron grip on the lone striker role and Tyler Roberts taking advantage of fitness and injury issues for Rodrigo and Pablo Hernandez, to grasp the No 10 position, match involvement has not been forthcoming for the boy known as Joffy. Rodrigo’s and Hernandez’s return to fitness makes a breakthrough appear even less likely.

There is a growing clamour for him to feature but that is as likely to sway Bielsa as it did Guardiola with Foden.

As Niall Huggins discovered at Arsenal, Bielsa is not averse to springing a surprise on everyone, including the player in question, by throwing a youngster in when he’s the best fit for the situation.

So you can’t fully rule out a Premier League debut for Gelhardt, but it does feel like patience will be needed.

At least, if he has to watch from the sidelines or on television on Saturday, there will be reminders of potential rewards ahead. Foden, proof that patience can be rewarded, may feature in the City midfield against Kalvin Phillips, proof that Bielsa knows exactly what he’s doing with young players.

And when his chance comes, as it surely will, Gelhardt will know his head coach believes he’s the right man for the job. When it comes, it will be an exciting moment for everyone already convinced of the teenager’s talent. He just has to trust it will come when the time is right and that, like Foden, good things will come to those who wait.