Caleb Ekuban’s first Leeds United goal will be a footnote in the story of Samuel Saiz’s debut but Wednesday was a night they should both remember. Saiz broke cover with a dreamy hat-trick and Ekuban got up and running by rounding off a League Cup win against Port Vale.
Saiz wrote the headlines, the first Leeds player since Carl Shutt in 1989 to score three times on his maiden appearance, but Thomas Christiansen was quietly pleased to see Ekuban finish off a late counter-attack, set up by Gianni Alioski and a clever step-over from Saiz.
“I was a striker when I played,” United’s head coach said. “For a striker, the thing you’ll always be measured on is goals and when you score you get confidence. This is good.”
Of all Leeds’ many signings this summer, Ekuban is arguably the one with most acclimatising to do. Brought in from Chievo for £500,000, he was playing in Albania’s top division last season after being sent on loan from Italy. His prior experience came in Italy’s lower leagues. The weather in Leeds, unusually wet and not particularly warm, has been a shock – “I’m the kind of person who if it’s raining I’m down but if the sun is up I’m high!” – and life for Ekuban at Elland Road might prove to be a slow burn.
He understood when he arrived last month that Chris Wood, United’s player-of-the-year and goalscoring machine, was at the top of the food chain at Leeds. Wood started the first game of the new season at Bolton Wanderers last weekend, scoring in a 3-2 win, and will nudge Ekuban back to the bench for today’s meeting with Preston North End.
Ekuban plans to challenge Wood long term but the Ghanaian is happy in the meantime to take an education from him. “When I signed here the first thing they told me was that last year he scored 30 goals,” Ekuban said. “I said ‘wow.’ I’m trying to learn as much as possible in training from him because he knows how to play, he knows how to move.
“From him I can achieve more and become a better player. He’s a smart striker who can hide from a defence but then, in a second, get out.
“(On Wednesday) I came up with a goal and this must be just the start. It’s a long season, I signed a long contract so this is just the beginning. I hope to achieve a lot.”
Ekuban admitted to feeling nervous in the first half against Port Vale, his competitive debut for Leeds, but by full-time there was more to his performance than his low, 84th-minute finish. The striker’s interplay and back-heel set up the third of Saiz’s goals, allowing the Spaniard to complete his hat-trick with a top corner strike in front of the Kop.
“Samuel was amazing,” Ekuban said. “He was all over the pitch and really deserved his hat-trick. It wasn’t just the goals. He can see any of us when we’re moving and he gives you the pass that no-one expects.
“In the first half I was quite nervous and I don’t know even why but in the second half I started to feel loose and I started playing. Then the goal came. I was happy.”
Ekuban took nine appearances to find the net for Partizani Tirana in Albania but when the goals began to come, they came in a flood. He finished last season as the division’s second-highest scorer with 17, behind Kukesi’s Croatian forward Pero Pejic, and played in the qualifying stages of the Champions League and the Europa League. Tirana, who finished second behind Kukesi, saw off Ferencvaros in the Champions League but were eliminated before the group stages by Red Bull Salzburg.
“This is a good step up for me but I want to settle down slowly,” Ekuban said. “Let’s see if I can make that step.
“Last year we (Tirana) played against top teams in the Champions League. We competed well but they were too good.
“I learned something from those games. When you have the ball, you have to secure it in every way and do the same in every position on the pitch. A lost ball can become a goal very quickly. That’s what I learned. I need to do the same here because the defenders in the Championship are top defenders. They don’t give you opportunities. I’m trying to learn this.”
Christiansen’s background is that of a striker, one who top-scored for Vfl Bochum in Germany’s Bundesliga in 2003. Ekuban is something of a project for him: a striker with pace, strength and raw potential who requires some moulding for the English game.
“He’s trying to let me understand when to move on the pitch, when to go long and when to come to receive the ball,” Ekuban said. “I’m starting to achieve the kind of movement he wants, to help the team to have more space and more width.”
Rivalling Wood for a starting place is nonetheless a big ask. United’s New Zealand international picked up where he left off last season at Bolton, scoring one goal and assisting another in a 3-2 win. Christiansen rested Wood against Port Vale on Wednesday, holding him back ahead of a meeting with Preston tomorrow which might produce a sell-out crowd at Elland Road.
Christiansen’s first competitive week as head coach has been a healthy one, fuelling already high levels of optimism at Leeds. Ekuban sees today’s fixture as another step up. “It’s more important than what we just did (against Port Vale) and what we did last Sunday,” he said.
“We’ve got to impress our own fans here at Elland Road and if we can then it will be another step to show that this can be ‘the’ year.”