In picking my Leeds United player of the year, I should first say that there’s been no overwhelming candidate this season. It’s not been a campaign where someone like Ross McCormack has blown the rest away and won at a canter.
But some players have had a good season and, given our form over the past couple of months, as a group they probably feel more positive about things than they did when results were slipping away from them in January/February time. That’s the value of a late flurry, even if there’s nothing at stake for the club it sends you into the summer with a bit of extra confidence.
Charlie Taylor, for me, had a very good start to the term and he’s come back into form in the last couple of games. He ought to be satisfied. He’s had a little dips but, to be perfectly honest, when you’re asking someone of his age to play in the Championship without any rest or without much cover, it’s a big ask for him to be hitting the heights week after week.
Gaetano Berardi’s been an example to others and but for his injuries he might well have taken the player-of-the-year award. I feel he’s been that good. And no matter all the stuff that goes on around him, it has to be said that Giuseppe Bellusci has had some decent spells. He’s thrown in one or two bad mistakes but he’s also come up with some big performances at key times.
Those are some of the nearly-men in my eyes, along with others like Stuart Dallas. But my pick for this season would have to be Lewis Cook. Overall I’d say he’s been the most effective constant in our team and, even on the days where the quality wasn’t there for him, the commitment always was.
I doubt I’m alone in that view. In fact, given that Cook won the Football League’s young player of the month earlier this month, I’m clearly not. That prize is voted for by people in the game and it’s hard to watch Cook play without seeing the natural talent he has.
I said in a recent column that he’s got huge amounts of room for improvement and this season has probably demonstrated that. Next year, his third as a first-team player, he’ll want to up his assists, up his goals and up his all-round contribution in the final third. Work on that area of his game and he’s going to be a top player. Even so, he can take credit for the fact that he’s come through the ‘difficult second season’, as people call it, with very solid pass marks. He was an unknown quantity last term, he was fresh, and in that scenario you play with a bit of freedom. Now that he’s established, the focus of attention, it’s much more difficult to avoid a feeling of pressure or expectation.
In short, I don’t think he’s improved massively since the end of last season – but he’ll benefit from having another very solid campaign under his belt. He hasn’t faded and he hasn’t gone backwards. I just don’t think his true potential is coming to the fore as quickly as it could.
But the fact that I’m setting such high standards for him kind of underlines the ability he’s got. Some players you expect to be steady, no better than that. With Cook, I think he can go all the way.
I go back to something I’ve said before though. Laying all of the pressure to improve on him is wrong. He’s got to play a part in that clearly but he needs help from others round about him. Did any of us under Don Revie become the players we were without Don helping us, or without guidance from Johnny Giles, Bobby Collins or Big Jack? Of course we didn’t. It’s the same with Cook.
Put top-class midfielders around him and he’ll go through the gears rapidly. In fairness, that’s probably why so many Premier League managers seem to be interested in him.
So Cook gets my vote for player of the year but I’d like to finish this column with a word on Berardi.
He’s been in the wars again, poor lad, but if I think back to the really tough parts of the season, the spells where other players seemed a bit lost or disillusioned, he was piling into tackles, fighting for everything and showing others the way to get out of it. He’s been everything you look for in a competitor.
And among the players who Leeds need to keep next season, he is certainly one.