Leeds United: Centre midfield is the way forward for Cook

Lewis Cook.
Lewis Cook.
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Lewis Cook being named the Football League Young Player of the Year wasn’t a surprise to those ‘in the know’ at Elland Road, but they also recognise that his obvious talent still needs nurturing. Phil Hay reports.

Many of the people who brought up Lewis Cook will wish with hindsight that they had taken a punt on him winning the Football League’s young-player-of-the-year award. Easy money it looks like now, with the trophy residing on Cook’s mantelpiece.

It is convenient to say that the midfielder’s recognition – his receipt of a prestigious prize previously won by Gareth Bale and Fabian Delph – was always on the cards but Leeds United expected big things of him from a formative stage. This is the player who made his Under-18s debut at the age of 13. Leeds unintentionally broke the rules of the competition by fielding someone so young.

Back then the club saw in Cook a high achiever and a driven persona. Former staff members at Thorp Arch speak about Cook being brought to tears by frustration at his own performances and off-days. Even now, United’s head coach, Steve Evans, identifies the same hyper-critical mindset. “The only thing I’d try to change in him is how frustrated he gets when things don’t go well,” Evans said last week. “He sets very high standards for himself.”

So high, in fact, that before and after he received the young-player-of-the-year award on Sunday, Cook reflected honestly on a demanding year and voiced some surprise that his form this season had earned him a place on the Football League’s shortlist of three. “It’s been a hard season but it’s a good end,” he said at the ceremony in Manchester. “I’m really proud of myself and it’s like the next step.” This time last year, he was named as the Championship’s apprentice-of-the-year.

The 19-year-old’s most obvious strengths are two-fold: his skillful touch and his athletic running on the ball. Allied to that is a standard of fitness which has allowed him to make 76 appearances in the Championship already. In terms of inherent ability, United’s other academy graduates tend to agree that Cook is blessed with most.

Where Leeds and Evans have fallen short thus far is in finding the midfielder’s best position and sticking to it; in creating a team which defers to his talent and strengths. For Cook himself, he is not oblivious to the room for improvement in his game. But winners of his award usually address that.

On Saturday, against Reading, he muddled through the first half in isolation on the right wing. In the second half, and moved to a more central role behind Mirco Antenucci and Chris Wood, the tone of the game changed completely. United eked out a deserved 3-2 win.

Eddie Gray, who is renowned at Leeds for his work with previous crops of youngsters, in an era when United’s academy was at its peak, said Cook would only thrive long term in the middle of the pitch.

“He’s a central midfielder and he’s always going to be a central midfielder,” Gray said. “That could be in behind the strikers or a bit deeper, whichever. But he’s not going to give you the impact you want out wide. He’s wasted there.

“Cook’s one of these players you look at and straight away – straight away – think ‘he can play.’ There are lots of footballers who want to play in the Premier League. The difference with him is that he’s got the talent to play in the Premier League. But certain aspects need to improve. He’s a terrific athlete but he needs to get into the opposition box more. He needs to score more goals, create more chances and dictate the play a bit better.

“As a youngster you learn from experience and I don’t think this team at Leeds communicates enough, or not in a way that really helps him. Lewis has to start taking control of games but he’s good enough to do that. I think that’ll come when he’s playing centrally week after week.

“But no matter the talent, some players need plenty of coaching. To some it comes naturally. John Sheridan, he wasn’t the quickest but he had loads of talent and, in terms of reading the game, you didn’t need to tell him anything. Jonathan Woodgate knew how to play centre-back but you still had to take him through positional stuff – of covering for the other centre-back or where to be if you’re up against pace.

“Back in the day (at the academy) we played Harry Kewell a few times at left-back. Not very often but just enough to make him understand the defensive side of the game. It didn’t stop him taking on the opposition left-back, beating four or five players and sticking it in the net. That was Harry. But it got him thinking about filling in which everyone has to.

“When Cook gets the ball, the first thing he should do is look forward – who can I run at or where can I play a forward pass? When he’s not got the ball, his first thought should be to look for the danger towards our defence. But he’s done extremely well. His season’s been a bit inconsistent but that’s true of just about every player at Leeds.”

Neil Redfearn, United’s former academy boss, watched Cook develop at Thorp Arch and gave him his full league debut as caretaker manager in 2014. His abiding memories of Cook, other than the midfielder’s skill, are of his attitude and his commitment. “He’s one of those players who by hook or by crook is going to find a way to get to the top,” Redfearn said.

“He’s such a well-mannered kid and that’s down to his upbringing. He’s got the right values. But he’s a driven kid too. That’s what stands out. There are lot of lads with great ability but there aren’t too many with his intensity. He takes defeat badly and he usually takes it on himself.

“What I really liked about him, though, was how ‘for’ his team-mates he was. He’s a team player. For all his ability, he’d probably say himself that he was helped by being in an Under-21s group with Alex Mowatt, Charlie Taylor, Kalvin Phillips and so on. You sometimes get an attitude in academies that it’s best to just focus on the two or three big prospects but I think they only come on with a good team around them.

“The story I always tell of Lewis is of him, at the time when he broke into the first team, insisting on gathering up the bibs, the cones and the mannequins after training. I’d say to him ‘you’ve been one of our best players, that’s not your job anymore.’ And he’d just smile and gather it all up anyway.”

Cook is not the first academy product at Leeds to win the Football League’s young-player-of-the-year award. In 2009 Delph did the same at the end of his maiden season as a senior professional. United sold Delph to Aston Villa in the summer which followed after failing to win promotion from League One. Bale’s success in 2007 was one of his last achievements before leaving Southampton for Tottenham Hotspur. Cook has 12 months left on his contract and, with a prestigious acknowledgment to show for his potential, he will be prime transfer material when this season ends.

Gray said: “The club’s biggest problem now is going to be holding onto the boy. Other clubs know about him already and the young-player-of-the-year award is going to attract clubs with money. It sets the bar higher for him as well. It’ll make him realise what he can achieve. He won’t achieve what he wants to by being in the Championship for another five years. The club, the owner, have got to show him some ambition by getting a plan together and getting some quality players in.

“They’ve got to make him think he’s part of something successful here. Everyone goes on about loyalty in football but to me, first and foremost, your loyalty’s to your ability.”