Leeds United: Competition’s right back on the agenda at Whites

Lewie Coyle.
Lewie Coyle.
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Like the fabled arrival of red London buses, the Whites were, for a time, wondering where their next right-back would come from, then three came along at once. Phil Hay reports.

In the space of a week the right-back role at Leeds United has shed its stigma and grown competitive. Steve Evans was fixed on one option in that position before Tuesday’s 1-1 draw with Fulham. At Brighton on Monday the club’s head coach will pick from a choice of three.

Evans’ faith in Scott Wootton was largely unequivocal until the defender’s own goal at Watford last weekend brought his selection into question, but Lewie Coyle’s full league debut against Fulham and Gaetano Berardi’s recovery from injury has pulled Wootton back from the firing line. Evans plans to give Coyle a second consecutive start at Brighton, provided he trains well over the next 72 hours.

Coyle, at the age of 20, is seen as a long-term regular at right-back, described by Evans as a “stunning player”, and his two starts this season – against Rotherham in the FA Cup and in the Championship on Tuesday – made him look suitable in the short-term too. Evans was under pressure to address that position with an out-of-position Wootton drawing pointed criticism and Coyle’s displays alongside Berardi’s return from ankle ligament damage have offered two solutions.

Evans defended Wootton in his programme notes before the draw with Fulham, calling on the club to “rally around him” and backing the defender to “make amends tonight”, but Wootton was then dropped from United’s line-up. Evans said his column had been written on Saturday evening, at a time when he was prepared to stand by Wootton, but claimed Wootton’s demeanour in training had made him think that he would be throwing the defender “to the lions.”

“When I did the programme notes, which get prepared for me on Saturday night, I had every intention of playing Scott,” Evans said. “One mistake doesn’t make his performance at Watford not good enough. He gave some good players not a lot of joy down there.

“Scott’s performances have been steady and decent. It was a bit unfair what happened to the kid at Watford. But supporting a player doesn’t mean you throw him to the lions. One bad touch, one bad ball, in the first five minutes (against Fulham) and it might have got a little bit rough.

“I saw him hurting badly on Sunday and Monday at Thorp Arch, really hurting, so I made the decision on Monday that Lewie would play. For a couple of weeks Lewie been one of our best players in training. There was a temptation to put Berardi in but I couldn’t let my eyes deceive me and not play young Lewie.”

It begged the question of why Coyle had been overlooked in the weeks between his senior debut against Rotherham on January 9 and his opportunity against Fulham. Evans said the youngster – part of a sporting family from Hull in which one brother is a professional boxer and another a professional golfer – had “dipped” in training after the Rotherham tie and convinced Evans to hold him back.

Academy players at Leeds in recent years have made a habit of breaking into United’s team and staying there. Sam Byram, Alex Mowatt, Lewis Cook and Charlie Taylor – at the second time of asking – set a trend of taking a place and keeping it long term; of keeping it on merit.

“With the kids here, previous managers before me have managed them magnificently,” Evans said. “They’ve picked the times to put them in, picked the times to let them run and picked the times to take them out. It’s my job to do that with Lewie.

“I put him in for his debut in the cup but Lewie’s performance in training after Rotherham actually dipped so it’ll be really interesting to see if he maintains the standards. Because the one thing I know is that Lewis Cook (after his spectacular goal against Fulham) will be magnificent in training. It won’t be about the goal he scored. These kids don’t rest on their laurels.

“The benchmark is you have to be outstanding every day, not one or two days and not for half a minute in Under-21s games.

“Lewie had one or two little spells (against Fulham) where he was naive but he didn’t let it faze him. He should be immensely proud. Now he needs to have the same discipline as the Cooks, the Mowatts, the Taylors where he can go out and produce performances on a regular basis.”

Evans’ opinion of Berardi – the Swiss defender who Leeds signed from Sampdoria in 2014 – was also raised by Berardi’s performances in the weeks after his appointment as head coach. Evans said after a 1-1 draw at Bolton in October that he “didn’t think much” of Berardi before he took charge but the right-back was an automatic pick by the time he damaged his ankle in a 0-0 draw at Charlton Athletic in December.

Berardi has been missing since then but he played in an Under-21 game against Huddersfield on Monday and was an unused substitute during Tuesday’s 1-1 draw with Fulham. The full-back said he was targeting Monday’s trip to Brighton for his first-team return.

Coyle is more likely to get the nod at The Amex after his display against Fulham. “I was really keen to put Berardi on at some stage on Tuesday because the kid has worked so hard,” Evans said. “When you get an injury and you get told you’ll be out for as long as Gaetano’s been out, you really hurt mentally.

“But no-one should be guaranteed a run in the team because you have to produce performances. I’ll be assessing Lewie every day between now and Brighton and what I’d say is that if he trains as well as he has done then he’ll keep his shirt because he deserves to. If he drops then it would fall upon me to take the difficult decision to take him out. That’s true of any player.”