This time last year no-one had heard of Sam Byram. Now he is The YEP’s Player of the Year and speaks to Phil Hay about his amazing season.
A windy afternoon at Clapgate Primary School in Leeds. Brian McDermott interrupts Sam Byram’s interview to tease him about a week of transfer rumours. Another week of transfer rumours.
“Manchester City? Why would you want to go there? Come on, we’ve only just met.” What is they say? If you don’t laugh you’ll cry. McDermott might cry if a club so rich as City force Leeds United’s hand this summer. It took him a few days to work Byram out – classy, assured, talented, low maintenance. To be concise, a manager’s dream.
Journalists weren’t writing about Byram a year ago. Most of us didn’t really know who he was. But we’re writing about him now, at the end of a season which has showcased his ability spectacularly. If City are genuinely set on signing him then they are not the only club with an interest. West Bromwich Albion, Cardiff City and Everton have all had a look and like what they’ve seen.
“I don’t read the papers but friends on Facebook and Twitter are always saying have you seen this or have you seen that,” Byram says.
He’s an affable lad with a level head and he gives you the impression that he’s perfectly happy with the status quo. Will money talk in the summer? Money usually does. It has before at Elland Road.
But that conversation is for another day and another weekend. This afternoon, Byram will collect the YEP’s player of the year award before the club’s last home game against Brighton. More prizes will follow at United’s official ceremony tonight. He has a shout for almost every prize, including goal of the season. The tradition of youth-team development resonates in Leeds but it is hard to recall a time when a first-year professional stole the show like Byram has.
The YEP’s poll for 2012-13 drew more than 700 votes. Byram drew more than 700 votes. The cynical view is that the squad at Elland Road is devoid of other candidates but Byram’s form would have put him forward in the best of years. “I’m dead pleased,” he says. “Really proud. If no-one my age has ever won it before then that’s even better. And to win it at Leeds, my club, is better again.”
Byram has been United’s only ever-present player this season. You forget now that he was taken on tour last summer for pre-season friendlies in Devon and Cornwall primarily because Leeds had no right-back and Neil Warnock – then his manager – was waiting to sign Lee Peltier from Leicester City. The deal for Peltier came off before long and Warnock warned Byram not to expect a great deal of exposure. Byram, 19, had no argument with that.
“It’s hard to sum up the season,” he says. “It’s been a whirlwind year. From going to Cornwall and taking part in pre-season to being where I am now and to have been lucky enough to play in all the games – what can I say except that I’m delighted?
“I didn’t expect to play so much. When I was down in Cornwall for pre-season I said to my room-mate (striker Dominic Poleon) ‘it can’t get better for me than this.’ I’d have been happy going back and playing in the Under-21s. For everything to happen so fast has been brilliant.”
There’s an irony in all this for Byram. He is the youngster who was released by Leeds at nine years of age but taken on again after performing well in a trial match. He’s a defender who, having accepting up a scholarship at Thorp Arch, was demoted to the Under-16s after Leeds decided that his slight frame leant itself better to that category of football.
“At the time I was quite annoyed because I wasn’t sure why it was happening,” he says. “But Redders (academy coach Neil Redfearn) pulled me to one side and said ‘listen, it’s for your development.’ There were bigger, stronger second years playing so for me to get game time with the 18s was difficult. I had to do it. At first, yeah I wasn’t happy. But I got to grips with it and actually had a good season.”
It helped to be told that Jonathan Howson, United’s former captain, had received and benefited from the same treatment.
“It didn’t do him any harm,” Byram says. “Hearing about him was good for my confidence – knowing that he could do it and get into the first team, why couldn’t I?”
Physicality is so often an obstacle to young professionals. Aidan White – an academy graduate in 2008 – suffered for a while from cramp related to nervous tension. Chris Dawson’s senior debut against Derby County on April 1 showed his touch and finesse but suggested that he would benefit from greater strength.
For the short duration of his senior career, Byram has made a mockery of his inexperienced body, competing comfortably with the best of the Championship and better again. He took the shirt from Gareth Bale’s back when Leeds played Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup in January. A brow-beaten Bale did not take his. The teenager has all the attributes of a bona fide wing-back – a strong tackler with useful pace and a fearless attitude beyond the halfway line.
“I did think about how I’d cope physically because I’m young and I’m not the biggest build,” Byram says. “But I don’t think it’s been a massive issue. There aren’t many wingers who are bigger than me. It’s been okay.
“The majority of my performance have been fine. I think I’ve done a good job.
“But there are a few mistakes which people know I’ve made and I’ve tried to learn from them. I hope they won’t happen again.”
A few mistakes is indeed a few. A mis-hit clearance condemning Leeds to a 1-0 defeat against Cardiff City in February is one that stands out. His concession of a penalty at Barnsley was no less flattering. “There’ve been other things too,” he says. “I’m a bit over-critical of myself but I think that’s the best way to be. If I walk around with a big head, pushing it all to one side, it’ll only happen again. I try and make sure I learn from mistakes.”
Byram is in the habit of devoting his days off to additional and lonely training sessions at Thorp Arch. “I practice my touch, my crossing, that sort of thing,” he says. “Even when I’m 30 I’ll be doing that, trying to get better. It’s the way I’ve been brought up.”
He was recently excluded from the Football League’s shortlist for its young player of the year award but made its annual rundown of the top 50 players across the three divisions. It remains to be seen if the Professional Footballers’ Association includes him in its Championship team of the year tomorrow night. The league is not awash with right-backs of Byram’s calibre.
He was a secret for a while but it no longer. Leeds gave him a weighty contract in August and extended it again in January. It runs to 2016 which, if nothing else, means his value is at a premium. But you are hard-pressed to find signs of itchy feet or disillusionment in him. In his own modest way, he looks like a kid in a mountain of confectionary.
This season has changed him, surely? “No, not at all,” Byram says. “Things are different but even now only a few people recognise my face. I can walk through the city without being bothered. Honestly.”
You’ll have to take his word for that.
2002 – Rio Ferdinand. Honoured at the end of his last season at Leeds United. Joined Manchester United later that year.
2003 – Mark Viduka. Remembered above all else for the goal against Arsenal which ended the threat of relegation.
2004 – Alan Smith. Crowd hero in a dismal year. Like Ferdinand, joined the Red Devils.
2005 – Neil Sullivan. A goalkeeper who Kevin Blackwell described as “possibly my best signing as manager.”
2006 – Gary Kelly. Part of the squad which reached the play-off final; sidelined for financial reasons soon after.
2007 – Eddie Lewis. The likeable American and one of the few consistent performers in a year when Leeds were relegated.
2008 – David Prutton. Jesus to his friends at Elland Road. An integral part of the fightback from a 15-point deduction.
2009 – Robert Snodgrass. Won the acclaim of the fans quickly after joining from Livingston in 2008.
2010 – Patrick Kisnorbo. The defensive colossus as Leeds won promotion from League One. Injured in late March.
2011 – Max Gradel. The star of the show in United’s first season back in the Championship. Duly sold.
2012 – Ross McCormack. The club’s leading scorer with 19 goals, pipping Snodgrass to a second trophy.