Liam Bridcutt wanted to progress his career and that’s why he signed for Leeds United last August. Current form and league position suggests he had an inkling of what was coming. Phil Hay reports.
Of all the people who anticipated a season so impressive at Leeds United, Liam Bridcutt might be the least surprised.
He joined the club in August on the promise of a year like this and the promise that Leeds would dig their way out of the monotony of mid-table finishes.
When he looks around the dressing room the club’s captain sees a collection of players who “want to better themselves” and it reminds him of the last time he felt the pull of the play-offs. Bridcutt was part of the Brighton team that reached the Championship’s top six in 2013 before losing to Crystal Palace in the semi-finals. “I feel the same atmosphere here,” he said.
If he studies statistics then Bridcutt will know that Brighton had more to do after 26 games than Leeds do now and the midfielder suspects that the squad at Elland Road has slightly more about it.
“In terms of quality, we might have a little bit extra here,” Bridcutt said, “but when I was Brighton it was a similar in terms of the attitude of the players. We all got along, we all wanted to get the best out of each other, we all worked hard and we did everything for each other. It served us well and that season was a bit unlucky in the end.”
Last season, when Bridcutt was on loan at Leeds from Sunderland, there was very little cohesion or drive at Elland Road. He wanted to make his transfer permanent but warned Leeds that he would not commit without some evidence of ambition.
Garry Monk’s appointment as head coach in June ticked a box and Bridcutt liked the players recruited. By the time he accepted a two-year deal in August, after weeks of wrangling over money and severance pay from Sunderland, he was desperate to sign.
Five months on, Leeds are third in the Championship and starting to force the pace of the league. Bridcutt could say he saw this coming.
“When I first came in, I said I was only going to come back if the club were willing to push on and go,” Bridcutt said. “They proved that and the president (Massimo Cellino) proved that with the signing of Garry and the players they brought in. They strengthened the squad.
“We all want to be at the top of our game and we want to be in the Premier League but for now it’s too soon to talk about promotion. Anything can happen before the end of the season. But that was one of the key factors in me signing for the club. I wanted to progress my career and I thought Leeds United could give me that.”
Bridcutt observed most of the first half of the terms from the stands, ruled out by a fractured foot after a handful of appearances in August and September.
What appeared initially to be nothing more than heavy bruising soon developed into the longest injury absence of his career.
“It probably helped seeing the team doing so well,” Bridcutt said. “It keeps you in good spirits. But it was a learning curve for me because I’ve never suffered an injury where I had to be out for as long as that.”
He returned a week-and-a-half before Christmas and last Friday’s blitzing of Derby County – as complete a performance as a Leeds team have produced for years – saw Bridcutt at his best, destroying Derby’s attacks and laying the ground for United to attack at will.
“I’ve had a good run of games now and the most important thing for me was getting my base work done and then trying to pick up my sharpness,” he said. “Friday was probably my best performance for a long while. I feel really fit and strong.
“From start to finish we dominated. Physically it was one of our best performances but technically it was up there as well. It’s one of the best games we’ve had this season and one of the most important.”
Attention on Friday strayed to the performance of 18-year-old Ronaldo Vieira, a midfielder who Bridcutt said was “probably one of the players who’ve grown the most” this season. Bridcutt is equally effusive about Monk’s work at Thorp Arch, giving credit to a head coach who tries hard not to take any.
“I’ve said in previous interviews that he’s one of the best I’ve worked with,” Bridcutt said. “Tactically he’s very good. He had a great career as a player and he’s going to have an even better one as a manager.
“We talk often. He asks how the boys are feeling and about the mood, and about things that need to improve. He takes things on board and he’s going to be such a top manager because he listens to players and he gives them what they want. But he has a massive input too.”
At Barnsley tomorrow, the first of 20 remaining fixtures, Leeds will meet a side with less inner confidence.
Paul Heckingbottom, their manager, has promotion from League One and the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy on his record after less than a year in charge and Barnsley are 10th in the Championship, but they sold top scorer Sam Winnall to Sheffield Wednesday last week and chief executive Linton Brown resigned over the weekend, piling the pressure of January recruitment on Heckingbottom. Monk attended Oakwell on Tuesday as Barnsley lost to Blackpool in an FA Cup replay.
Monk believes Heckingbottom has “done brilliantly”, saying: “He’s taken to that job extremely well. Like all managers you face situations which make it more difficult so in this period it’ll be about how he comes through it. But they’re a very good side.”
He added: “If they’re allowed to play the way they want to play they’ll hurt you.
“It’s a local derby and when derbies comes around form can go out the window. We have to make sure that doesn’t happen for us. Derby games are normally one-offs so we have to turn up ready.”
Bridcutt echoed Monk’s thoughts and warned against excessive “talk of promotion”.
“Every time I’ve been there (to Barnsley) it’s always been tough,” he said. “There’s a lot going on behind the scenes there which probably isn’t right but that happens in football. They’re doing really well in this league but we go into every game with confidence that we’re going to win it.
“But at this stage, in my experience, we need to be calm. I don’t think there’s one player getting excited now. We know we’re not even halfway there. We’ve got a foot in the door at the minute.”