Injury-hit leeds united defender Sam Byram says ‘please sir, can I have some more game time and a full pre-season’. Phil Hay reports.
Sam Byram has played in half of Leeds United’s games this season. It merely feels like he’s been absent for much more of it. The illusion is down to the contrast between his first and second years at Elland Road – one phenomenal, the other lamentable.
In this week 12 months ago, Byram won the Yorkshire Evening Post’s player-of-the-year award. He collected it on the pitch before United’s last home game against Brighton but was injured in the warm-up minutes later, the first of one problem after another.
His fitness has been so restrictive since then that Byram did not receive a single vote in the poll for the 2013-14 award. The full-back has been managing a hamstring strain for the past month and although he is almost fit, Leeds are loathe to risk him against Derby County on Saturday, the final match of their season.
His own season over, Byram is less than enthusiastic about breaking for the summer. He is a lone voice among United’s hard-pressed players when it comes to talking about pre-season.
“The games aren’t finished yet but already I can’t wait to get started again,” he said. “A lot of the other lads will be ready for a break but I haven’t been involved enough so I’m the opposite. I’d rather pre-season started straight away.”
The story of Byram’s predicament is told by so many of his interviews, most of them dominated by questions about fitness. Some at Leeds think Byram was used too often and too intensely last season, amassing 53 appearances as a 19-year-old in his first year as a professional, and he has never quite drawn a line under the hip injury he suffered last April.
United considered sending him for surgery but chose not to, working him back up to speed through careful training which gradually increased his strength and mobility. He returned in September but pulled a thigh muscle at Huddersfield. A more concerted comeback followed but he injured a hamstring away to Wigan last month as Leeds chased a 1-0 deficit and the game began to stretch in injury-time.
“Last summer I missed out on pre-season and because of that it’s been a hard year,” Byram said. “I’ve had injuries at annoying times and they always set you back but it’s true what they say about pre-season – if you get a good one behind you, it stands you in good stead. If you don’t, you’re behind from the start.
“At the end of last season I was really looking forward to this one. I wanted to improve and do better, and I wanted to show that last season wasn’t a one-off. People said I came from nowhere and I suppose I did a bit. But you don’t want one decent season to be the end of it. You want to have lots of them.”
Byram has a contract for the next two seasons and does not turn 21 until September. Had it not been for his problematic hip, he would have gone to the Under-20 World Cup with England last June. It is, as they say, all there for him, provided he can emerge from this episode with a stronger and more reliable physique.
“It’s not been the best of years but I’ve tried to take a step back and be sensible about it,” he said. “I’ve been frustrated and disappointed most of all but I think I’ll appreciate my football all the more because of my injuries.
“I don’t mean I didn’t appreciate football before but when you’re in the team, playing every week and playing well, injury doesn’t cross your mind. It’s not like you’re on the pitch thinking ‘enjoy this because at any moment something bad could happen.’ You just play.
“But as soon as you’re injured, you’d give anything to be back out training and playing. I’ve tried to stay positive and take what I can from this situation because it’s the best mentality to have. At the same time, I wouldn’t want to go through this too many times.”
In his quieter periods, Byram devoted himself to working in the gym. “I’ve tried to fill out a bit,” he said. He also used his time in the stands to analyse United’s games. “It’s tough to be watching but even sat in the stands, you see things you don’t see when you’re playing.
“I take it all in more than I would have done a year ago because I’ve played in the Championship and I know what it’s like. You read situations a bit better and you can learn things positionally by being in a seat high above the pitch.
“The one thing I didn’t want was for this season to be a complete waste and to be honest, it hasn’t been. It just hasn’t been as good as it could have been either. But it’s not like I’m the first player to suffer from injury. It’s part of the game.”
Byram’s form in his first professional term was so good that he might have become last summer’s transfer story had his hip not given way. Steve Clarke, the former West Bromwich Albion manager, watched him repeatedly towards the end of last season and Cardiff City made an enquiry about him after sealing their promotion to the Premier League. The Welsh club were told by Leeds that his valuation stood at £8m and did not pursue their interest.
As one of the outstanding products of United’s academy, the summer ahead should be fairly quiet for him. Elsewhere at Elland Road, the changes are likely to be sweeping and ruthless – imposed by owner Massimo Cellino and affecting every one of the club’s departments. With the last league game looming, there is no clarity yet about the position of manager Brian McDermott, the fate of the many players out of contract or the manner in which Cellino will attack and alter the squad before the start of next term.
“It’s hard to tell what will happen,” Byram said. “We’re unsure on a lot of things.
“But people tell you that in any circumstances, as a player you’ve got to keep yourself in the best possible shape and go with whatever happens. Things do change at football clubs and I’m sure the manager and the new owner will speak to us soon about their plans and what they want to do.
“Whatever happens will happen and rather than worrying about that, you worry about yourself.
“That’s probably as true of me as anyone.
“For all that things might change, the only thought in my head is that I need to get myself fit and get a good pre-season in. The rest of it I’ll take as it comes.”