Leeds United: Alex Mowatt making his presence felt

Alex Mowatt fires in a shot against Cambridge United. (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)
Alex Mowatt fires in a shot against Cambridge United. (Picture: Bruce Rollinson)
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With contract talks as yet unresolved, Alex Mowatt’s long-term future at Leeds is in question, but there’s no doubting the on-field impact he is capable of making, as Monday proved. Phil Hay reports.

Alex Mowatt is not in the habit of scoring from point-blank range but after 14 months without a goal from any distance, the manner of his finish at Cambridge United hardly mattered.

It was one way of reminding people that he is still here and still in the building.

Leeds United’s former player of the year, an award earned by him just 18 months ago, has been largely forgotten in the intensity of the club’s season but his performance in Monday’s FA Cup win was more like that of a footballer who used to be a regular pick.

Played centrally and in an advanced role, the position he sees as his most effective, Mowatt created the first goal and scored the second in a 2-1 third-round victory.

His 63rd-minute winner was a break from the regular 20-yard finishes which defined his best season at Elland Road to date: a flicked header from a few yards out after Stuart Dallas curled a corner into Cambridge’s box and Pontus Jansson reached it first.

“I’m not normally in the box on corners but Pontus headed it and it was just a reaction by me to lift it on,” Mowatt said. “I think that’ll be the closest-range goal ever in my career.”

On his first start for more than two months, there was more to his contribution at Cambridge than his goal alone. Even in a difficult first half, in which Cambridge’s energy and pressing left Leeds 1-0 down and struggling to establish any rhythm, Mowatt’s use of the ball was a cut above the rest of the players around him.

Now 21, he is due a spell of convincing form having made only four starts in the Championship this season.

His contract ends in June and he and Leeds have not yet hammered out an extension to it.

“He epitomised everything we did well,” said head coach Garry Monk after United’s win at the Abbey Stadium. “He was involved throughout the whole game and it’s never easy when you haven’t had so many minutes. We showed a good mentality and he epitomised that.”

Mowatt was equally satisfied with his display against a League Two side whose impressive form and confidence shone through for 45 minutes. He has been squeezed out this season both by incoming signings like Liam Bridcutt and Eunan O’Kane and the rapid development of two other academy products, Ronaldo Vieira and Kalvin Phillips.

The number 10 role is switching between Pablo Hernandez and Kemar Roofe, neither of whom are giving Monk much reason to drop them.

“I’ve not been playing at all really so it was good to get 90 minutes,” Mowatt said. “I thought I played well. All I can do is my best when I get a chance and I’ve done that but the team have been doing well in the league and it’s about whatever’s best for the team.

“That’s why it’s been staying as it is but it’s nice to finally get a goal and play 90 minutes.”

Leeds have spoken to Mowatt and his agent about a new contract without reaching an agreement. Mowatt’s peripheral role under Monk has weakened his bargaining position and United’s dilemma is whether to match the deal given to Mowatt by Gulf Finance House in 2013, to offer him reduced terms or to release him on a free transfer when this season ends.

Mowatt insisted he had no desire to move on from Elland Road. “I’m enjoying it at Leeds,” he said. “It’s the only place I know where to play.”

Monday’s performance might serve to elevate Mowatt to a higher level in Monk’s immediate plans. The midfielder did not make the 18 for last week’s 3-0 win over Rotherham United or Leeds’ 4-1 win at Preston North End on Boxing Day. Roofe acquired the number 10 role after Hernandez pulled a hamstring in November and Mowatt last made a league start in the middle of October, during a 1-0 defeat to Derby County. He was instrumental, nonetheless, in averting an upset which was on the cards at Cambridge after 45 minutes. Leeds fell behind to a 25th-minute goal from Uche Ikpeazu, Cambridge’s meaty centre-forward, and were largely outplayed until the early stages of the second half.

Mowatt’s cross to Stuart Dallas, which the Northern Ireland international dispatched with a neat header, changed the tone completely and opened the door to a fourth-round tie against either AFC Wimbledon or Sutton United.

“I didn’t think we started the best in the first half,” Mowatt said. “They played well and they played to their game plan but in the second half we started playing a bit more football. We had a few more chances.

“They were tough conditions and the pitch wasn’t the best but in the second half we dealt with it a lot better. I always thought they would tire and we’d get chances and I always felt we were going to win the game.”

Leeds will travel to either AFC Wimbledon or Sutton on the weekend of January 28, meaning a rearrangement of their league game against Nottingham Forest, but the club have two major Championship fixtures before then, against Derby and Barnsley.

Derby come to Elland Road Friday lying seventh in the table, five points behind Leeds. The fixture is an opportunity for United to establish an eight-point cushion over the sides chasing the play-offs with 20 games left to play.

“The team needs to keep the form going,” Mowatt said. “It’s a big game for us.”