Leeds United midfielder Lewis Cook could follow in the footsteps of Fabian Delph, Gareth Bale and Dele Alli by landing the Football League’s prestigious young-player-of-the-year award.
Cook, 19, admitted to a feeling of surprise and said this season had been a “hard year for me” after being named in a three-man shortlist announced by the Football League today.
The England Under-19 international, whose debut season as a senior player at United won him the Championship apprentice-of-the-year prize last April, has been nominated alongside Fulham’s Moussa Dembele and Walsall’s Rico Henry.
Frenchman Dembele, also 19, has scored 16 times for Fulham this term.
Left-back Henry, who turned 18 last July, is shining in a Walsall team headed for the League One play-offs.
Cook, however, has amassed 41 appearances for Leeds and established himself as a fixture in the club’s midfield.
His campaign peaked with a brilliant 30-yard strike in a 1-1 draw with Dembele's Fulham in February, the midfielder’s only league goal of the term.
Leeds head coach Steve Evans, who is likely to start Cook again during tomorrow's Championship game at Birmingham City, said: “For me there can only be two contenders - Lewis and the boy Dembele at Fulham.
“I’m biased, of course, but in terms of all-round performances and the pressure he’s under, I think it has to be Lewis. He’s a wonderful talent and the only thing I’d try to change in him is how frustrated he gets with himself when things don’t go well. He sets very high standards for himself.
“But he’s young, he’s got all the ability you’d ask for and he’s going to get much, much better. I’d have been amazed if he wasn’t at least on the shortlist.”
Cook was candid about his reaction, telling LUTV: “It’s a great achievement but I didn’t really expect it this year. It’s been a hard year for me but it’s a positive and I’m happy.
“I’ve tried to push on and I think I have in certain areas but there’s a lot of good young talent playing now.
“In the first year there’s less pressure because you’ve just come onto the scene and there’s a bit more leeway. In the second year everyone knows you and there’s a more pressure to perform. The second season’s always a hard one.”
The Football League will announce the winner of the young-player-of-the-year award at its annual ceremony in London this Sunday.
Delph won the prize while at Leeds in 2008-09, shortly before leaving Elland Road for Aston Villa.
Real Madrid’s Bale was selected in 2007 during his time at Southampton while Alli - a key figure in Tottenham Hotspur’s Premier League title challenge this term - took the award as an MK Dons player in 2015.
Cook was repeatedly linked with a move away from Leeds in the January transfer window but the club repelled persistent approaches from Premier League side Bournemouth.
The teenager is likely to attract fresh interest this summer, however, with the two-year contract he agreed with United last May set to enter its final 12 months.
Evans, who is still waiting to be told by owner Massimo Cellino if he will remain as head coach next term, said: “If we’re building a team going forward and going into next season, we have to keep our better players.
“Whether I’m head coach or not, we can all see that there are some players here who won’t be involved going forward. But there are plenty of others, including the youngsters, who are quality footballers and need to be kept. On top of that we need to add more quality. I don’t think that’s a secret.”
Former winners of the Football League’s young player of the year award:
2015: Dele Alli (Milton Keynes Dons)
2014: Will Hughes (Derby County)
2013: Thomas Ince (Blackpool)
2012: Wilfried Zaha (Crystal Palace)
2011: Connor Wickham (Ipswich Town)
2010: Nathaniel Clyne (Crystal Palace)
2009: Fabian Delph (Leeds United)
2008: Michael Kightly (Wolverhampton Wanderers)
2007: Gareth Bale (Southampton)
2006: David Nugent (Preston North End