Jordan Botaka took a philosophical view of his first season at Leeds United. “Sometimes you’ll get a game with a gaffer and sometimes you just won’t,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how hard you train or how hard you play. Everyone has his own vision and I respect that.”
What Botaka, a refugee who fled Congo as a child before settling in northern Europe, struggled to accept was the insinuation that a quiet year at Elland Road was the result of his effort or lack of it.
“You can say things about me but you can’t ever say I don’t give 100 per cent of myself to football. Anyone who knows me knows this.”
The reality for Botaka was that his face didn’t fit under either head coach last season. Uwe Rosler was sacked before having much of a chance to assess the winger and Steve Evans put his trust in other players.
The questions about Botaka’s attitude arose after a rare appearance as a substitute in an FA Cup defeat at Watford in February. “He was very fortunate to be on the pitch,” said Evans. “He was in the squad because I didn’t have any other options.”
New to England and new to Leeds last summer, Botaka will hope for better seasons but he is not prepared to think of the 2015-16 term as a write-off. “I could say a lot about it now and there are many things about last season that people don’t know but I want to keep it that way,” he said.
“I know what I did and I don’t like anyone thinking that I don’t give everything because that’s not my attitude.
“I kept as focused as I could and in my opinion I was good with everyone. I did what I had to do, I did what I thought I needed to do to get back into the team and I can be happy with myself. This is a new season now with a new gaffer. And I’m still here.”
Did he worry that he was wasting a year of his career amidst three league starts and a handful of substitute appearances? “Nothing’s ever a waste and I don’t see it like that, whether it’s positive or negative,” Botaka said.
“It was a hard season for me, I can’t pretend it wasn’t, and when I first came here in my mind I was coming to play games, score goals and win games.
“But mentally I became very strong and I’ve adapted to the English lifestyle. My English is improving as well so even though you could say the football wasn’t what I wanted, I’ve taken a lot of things with me.
“I know now how it feels to not be in the team, to be out of it all, and it’s driving me to turn it around this season.”
In rare moments, Botaka’s football shone through – quick, tricky and positive. He came within inches of scoring in Leeds’ rousing derby win at Huddersfield Town in November and made a point on his return to the team in a 2-2 draw against Hull City in April by creating a late equaliser. “It was up to me to prove him (Evans) wrong,” Botaka said afterwards.
Botaka left family and young siblings behind in Holland when he moved from Excelsior to Leeds last August. “They love what I do,” he said. “They’re with me when it’s going good and when it’s going bad but I think it was very hard for them to see me out of the team.
“I don’t know if suffering is the right word but they maybe saw it like that because they know I want to be on the pitch, to make a difference and to enjoy it. That wasn’t the case. But I don’t regret coming here, even after last season. You always know there’s another season and there might be a change.”
With Garry Monk as head coach, change is what Leeds want – a break from years of mid-table finishes and a cycle of difficult years in the Championship, complicated further by issues off the field.
“As a team we need to do better,” Botaka said. “There were times when we had it last season, when it looked like it might happen for us, but there were so many things going on that it was difficult to keep that going.
“It was difficult to stay settled but the strength in this team is that we’re always together.
“Whatever you think on the outside, this team fought together no matter what the circumstances were. And the new gaffer is bringing more drive into the group, a very positive vibe.
“It can be a very surprising season for us. I believe that.
“We can do things that people maybe don’t think we’ve capable of or don’t expect us to do but we’ll have to work hard from it.
“One thing I’ve learned is that you don’t get given things in the Championship. But we have the right stuff.”