Friday was a bittersweet day for Izzy Brown. His comeback from injury – a bad rupture of a knee ligament which required two operations and 10 months of patience – went as planned.
Then, in the second half of the same development-squad game against Birmingham City, Jamal Blackman was stretchered from the pitch with a badly broken leg.
Brown and Blackman are friends after several years together at Chelsea and, as one of Leeds United’s loanees from Stamford Bridge reflected on an important hurdle cleared, another was being blue-lighted in an ambulance to the city’s general infirmary. Blackman, Leeds’ second-choice goalkeeper, travelled home in London the following morning, aware that his season was over.
“I spoke to him and he’s gutted,” Brown said. “But I know what he’s like. He’s a fighter.
“Any injury is hard but when you’re out for a long time, some days you think ‘am I ever going to play again?’ It’s so tough. But if he needs to speak to someone I’ll be there because I’ve been through it myself and I know what it takes to get over the line. I’ll be a good friend and I’ll help him out.”
Brown’s own experience is very raw and very recent. In January, during a loan from Chelsea to Brighton, he injured an ACL in a 50-50 collision which he freely describes as “unintentional”.
An immediate bout of surgery followed but the midfielder underwent a second later, to clear out tissue in the same knee.
Before last Friday, when he completed 45 minutes in a 3-0 defeat to Birmingham at Thorp Arch, he had not worn a pair of shin pads or kicked a ball with any semblance of anger for almost a year.
He is grateful that in the circumstances Leeds had any interest in signing him in August, at a time when his rehab programme was incomplete. Brown, now 21, is one of Chelsea’s more talented fringe players, amongst those who are not yet impinging on the first team, and his impact in the second half of Huddersfield Town’s promotion campaign two seasons ago made him attractive to Championship clubs but Leeds were agreeing a season-long loan for a footballer who could not have been classed as even half-fit.
“In June, July, Chelsea said they didn’t think I’d be able to go on loan because I wouldn’t be ready for the start of the season,” Brown said. “There were teams who had wanted me but Leeds were the ones who showed most interest and they said ‘it’s fine, we can wait. You can do your rehab up here’. It was great that they showed so much belief in me when I was injured.”
Did it help his recovery, which appears to be ahead of schedule, to be in an environment where he had something to aim for, rather than watching a season waste away at Chelsea?
“For sure,” he said. “When I’m here I feel like I’m important to the team and the fans around the city. When I go out in Leeds I’ve got people asking me ‘when are you back?’. It seems like people are a bit excited about me. I feel like I’m wanted here.”
Leeds accepted the likelihood of Brown being absent until January, gambling on the idea that his ability would show itself in the second half of their season and that he would not be needed until then. Brown is optimistic that if he completes another Under-23s game at Sheffield United on Monday – all 90 minutes of it – he will be in the frame for first-team appearances before the start of December.
Marcelo Bielsa, United’s head coach, has integrated him into full training and given Brown a glimpse of what the club’s other players all describe as a unique approach to coaching.
“It’s different to what I’ve ever experienced,” Brown said. “You see how much he notices in the game and how much attention he pays to details.
“The other day I played in the 23s and he told me ‘don’t receive the ball standing still’. I thought ‘why would you not receive it standing still?’. He said ‘you always have to receive it when you’re running’. The way he thinks about the game is so different to other people. I think he’s going to better me.”
There are players at Elland Road who might do that too. Pablo Hernandez has caught Brown’s eye already.
“In training he’ll do things, so simple which you don’t see. He’ll play one touch round the corner which cuts you out of the game and you’ll think ‘how did he do that?’”
Samuel Saiz, a player who Brown might ultimately fight for a place at number 10, is doing likewise. “Technically he’s unbelievable. Some days in training you can’t tackle him.
“They (Leeds) play football how football should be played: high intensity and winning the ball back in the opposing half. It’s a treat for an attacking player to play in a team like this.”
At the back of Brown’s mind when he signed for Leeds was his Huddersfield link. He scored in Town’s 2-1 win over Leeds at the John Smith’s Stadium in February 2017, a derby which ended with a last-gasp winner and a huge touchline brawl. Brown was famously photographed facing up to a marauding Pontus Jansson as both teams piled into the melee.
“At first I was a bit scared (walking around the city) because of my time at Huddersfield before,” Brown joked. “Me, my girlfriend and my mum were walking to the stadium and there were Leeds fans on the bus shouting abuse about Huddersfield. But they’ve all been welcoming.”
And Jansson? “We spoke about it in the changing room,” Brown said with a smile. “On the pitch you fight for what you believe in. It happens in football but we’re cool, there’s no problem any more. And I’d forgotten how big he was.”