International breaks are a godsend or a nuisance, depending on a footballer’s point of view. Sam Byram was as unhappy as anyone at Leeds United when the Championship season halted a fortnight ago.
Back in favour and back in form, the defender did not feel the need for a rest. “It came at a bad time for me,” he said. “I’d played my second game in a row and I was eager to play again. I didn’t want the international break to come.”
It’s the attitude of a player whose enthusiasm has returned, if indeed it ever went away. United’s former player of the year, still only 21, has a spring in his step again; positivity he credits to the appointment of Neil Redfearn as the club’s head coach.
Byram was a fast achiever and player of the year in his first season as a professional – an improbable achievement – but he has drifted on and off the radar at Elland Road for the past 18 months.
Redfearn, who helped push Byram though the academy at Thorp Arch and became head coach three weeks ago, directed veiled criticism at the management of Byram before the international break, accusing “previous regimes” of failing to handle his development “as well as it could have been handled.”
Byram played almost every game in his first full season but suffered a hip injury towards the end of it. Leeds chose not to send him for surgery and he was plagued by related problems, slipping in and out of the first team last term.
“In my first year I played nearly every game and I felt fine, apart from right at the end when I got that injury,” Byram said. “I did get tired around Christmas and I was only 18 but you’re playing every week and that’s what you’ve worked all your life to achieve.
“After the first year when everything seem to go right, people obviously expect you to produce again.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself because it wasn’t quite happening and you do get frustrated being in and out, maybe not having the backing of other managers. But I’m not one to complain. I get my head down and work hard.”
Byram was the unheralded success of Neil Warnock’s year as manager, a largely unknown academy teenager who swept the board at their annual awards ceremony.
With Brian McDermott in charge, he lacked fitness and received fewer opportunities. McDermott knew about Byram’s reputation but never felt that his talent shone through. Byram started fewer than half of United’s league games.
He was peripheral under David Hockaday and Darko Milanic this season but Redfearn recalled him to the starting line-up for games against Charlton Athletic and Blackpool earlier this month. Byram’s performance against Blackpool was reminiscent of his breakthrough year; more like the player who Redfearn called “one of the best young full-backs in the country.”
“The previous managers have maybe been, not negative, but Redders sees the way I like to attack and get forward and he really encourages that,” Byram said.
“In the past, others managers have said ‘look Sam, you need to be more reserved and more compact.’ With Redders he just tells me to play like I used to play for the Under-18s.
“In the last two games I’ve felt a lot more confident. He’s taken a bit of pressure off. I’m starting to have fun again and really enjoy the game. When you know the manager’s behind you, it gives you the freedom to play.”
Leeds played with more against Blackpool, routing Lee Clark’s side with three goals in the first half.
Byram, who will start again away to Blackburn Rovers tomorrow, claimed Redfearn’s squad were coming into form en masse, saying: “We’re starting to build an understanding.
“(Stephen) Warnock’s been very consistent and he’s good with me. I learn a lot from him.
“(Alex) Mowatt – after his start and not getting picked by Dave Hockaday – he’s been very good in the past few weeks. He’s been a big influence. (Lewis) Cook’s played a lot of games and done well and so have the front three
“It’s hard to pick one player out and the new lads who came in are all improving. I think we’re coming good at the same time.”