Full-back Sam Byram says the Whites will avoid the drop but need to start winning games urgently. Phil Hay reports.
Championship experience is the talk of Leeds United and Sam Byram has it. In a squad which never sits still, he is starting to look like a club veteran; 21 years old with 100 appearances to his name.
Byram reached his century at Derby County last month and game-by-game he is passing every member of the dressing room. Jason Pearce has played 112 times for Leeds and Aidan White, an absentee through injury all season, is two behind Pearce. It goes without saying that United’s line-up is not an established side.
Despite his age, Byram has seen more of the Championship than many of the club’s players and a few weeks ago, days before Christmas, he dismissed the threat of relegation, saying “none of us are worried” about dropping out of the division. Two league defeats since then, against Derby and Wigan Athletic, must have tested his confidence.
“I’ve always got that belief,” the defender insisted. “We’ve got some great players in our squad and it’s just a matter of picking up results now.
“We’ve had sloppy matches where we’ve thrown away points and goals and I’m still confident we’ll be okay. We’re not down about the situation we’re in.”
Byram’s arrival at 100 appearances is a remarkable achievement for a full-back who made an almost unintentional breakthrough in 2012.
A tall and gangly academy player, he was used by Neil Warnock to make up the pre-season numbers but became Warnock’s right-back of choice in the space of four weeks, despite the expensive signing of Lee Peltier from Leicester City.
Last month’s milestone took him by surprise. “I wasn’t even aware of it until after the game when I looked on my phone and saw people congratulating me,” Byram said.
“The team has changed massively since I first came in. There are only one or two lads still around from the group I came through with. It does move fast here and 100 appearances came quick. It’s a proud achievement for me and I hope there are lots more to come.”
The transfer window is a good time for comments like that. Byram toiled with injury after injury last season but his fitness has been fine since the summer and his form is gathering pace too.
Leeds were protected from any outside interest in him during the 2013-14 season by the fact that Byram was rarely fully fit. In the previous year, they fielded numerous enquiries about him. West Bromwich Albion scouted the defender regularly and Cardiff City were quoted a fee of £8m when they approached Leeds in April 2013. Byram damaged a hip soon after.
There is no suggestion yet of concrete offers in the pipeline this month, just the suspicion that he is one of the players at Leeds who a club with money would look at. “I’ve not heard anything,” Byram said. “I’m actually looking to buy a house in the area.
“I live here, I’m from here and all my friends are here. But I’m back in the team and enjoying my football and that’s really the main part of it.”
His enjoyment might be greater were Leeds not under such pressure. The third round of the FA Cup suspended the Championship season for the best part of a fortnight but United return to the league at Bolton Wanderers tomorrow, one point above the bottom three.
The statistics make for worrying reading: two wins in 16 matches and none from the past five. Redfearn’s side haven’t scored a goal in open play since December 6. But a changed line-up produced a better performance during Sunday’s FA Cup defeat at Sunderland, a match in which Byram and two other youngsters, Lewis Cook and Alex Mowatt, were rested.
Redfearn said the three looked like “scolded puppies” when he told them they’d be left out. “I was gutted, absolutely gutted,” Byram said. “He (Redfearn) pulled me into his office to tell me and I understood his reasoning but yeah, I’d have liked to play there.
“I didn’t see the game but from speaking to the lads it seems like they had a really good second half. It was positive and to come away from a Premier League club one goal down isn’t the worst result in the world.
“Others players came into the team and put in a performance, trying to get their foot in the door. They’ve given the manager a decision to make and there are places up for grabs now.” Byram, Cook and Mowatt should regain theirs at the Reebok Stadium, blended into Redfearn’s new 4-2-3-1 formation.
The right-back is insistent that the club’s poor form is not deflating the squad. “Everyone’s okay,” he said. “We’re a point off the bottom three but we’re trying to stay positive and take as much from the games as we can, to make sure our heads don’t go down.
“It’s okay playing well but we do need to be picking up results now. For us it comes down to winning matches and if the wins need to be scrappy then that’s what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to climb the table.”
Redfearn rested Byram last weekend for fear of burning him out. “The young lads are important players,” Redfearn said.
“We’ve got their best interests at heart and we want them to be important players for years to come.” It is still the case that, regardless of what happens in the January transfer window, United’s head coach needs his academy graduates to keep chipping in.
Byram conceded that, even at 21 years of age, he could be seen as one of the more hardened members of United’s team. “I suppose I am in terms of Championship experience,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of lads from abroad and young lads just coming through so if you look at it that way, I’m one of the ones who’s played more in this league. But everyone’s got a feel for what the league’s about and how tough it is to pick wins up, as we’re seeing at the minute. We’ve just got to keep plugging away. I’m sure we’ll pick our form up.”
Sam Byram had such a small profile in 2012 that even Neil Warnock, Leeds United’s manager at the time, had difficulty remembering the defender’s surname.
Byram was used by Warnock for the first time in the opening pre-season friendly of the summer, completing the second half away to Farsley at a time when Leeds lacked a proven right-back. Warnock took him on tour to Devon and Cornwall but Byram made headlines for the first time on the same afternoon that United signed Lee Peltier from Leicester City in an £800,000 deal.
Peltier sat in the stands as Byram shone and scored in a friendly win at Preston North End. Byram, who was 19 at the time, went on to start the Championship season and make his competitive debut in a League Cup win over Shrewsbury Town.
“I’ve matured as a player since then,” said Byram. “I’ve got more experience in this league and more knowledge about what I’m going to be up against. In my first year I didn’t have a loan spell or anything like that. It was just a case of being chucked in at the deep end. I know now what’s expected and what’s needed.”