Lewis Cook’s guilt at Doncaster Rovers was never in dispute. The midfielder took his red card without protest and his head coach offered no defence. For the duration of a three-match ban, Cook digested an uncomfortable lesson.
His dismissal in Leeds United’s League Cup defeat was the first of his career and a misdemeanour which Cook genuinely plans to avoid repeating. Yellow and red cards might come his way in future but the 18-year-old knows the consequences of inviting them. “I’ve learned not to dive in,” he said. “I shouldn’t have done it.”
Cook’s suspension ended after Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Sheffield Wednesday, allowing him to play in a development squad game at Elland Road on Monday night. Uwe Rosler, United’s boss, was careful not to chide Cook too fiercely after his sending off at Doncaster and the England youth international will return to Rosler’s squad for Saturday’s trip to Derby County. He looked sharp enough on Monday to merit a start.
His infringement at the Keepmoat Stadium on August 13 was a split-second error of judgement, ending in a two-footed tackle on Rovers’ left-back Aaron Taylor-Sinclair late in the first half. With 10 men, Leeds went on to lose the first round tie on penalties but Rosler protected Cook afterwards, saying it would be wrong to be “too harsh” on the youngster.
Behind close doors the message was similar. “The way he approached it, I thought it was right,” Cook said. “I got a b******ing from him, just a little one, but after that he was great. He just said ‘it’s a learning curve and you’ll learn from this. Make sure you do.’ It felt like the right way to go about things.
“It’s not like me but it all happened so quickly. I remember getting nudged off the ball and I was a bit off balance but I did dive in. I knew straight away. I won’t do that again.”
Twenty minutes earlier, Cook had scored his first Leeds goal, tucking home the rebound after Mirco Antenucci tore through the defence and drew a save from Thorsten Stuckmann.
That finish came after 40 first-team appearances for the club. “Eventually,” Cook joked. “It’s been in my head for a while that I need to score. It’s been on my mind. I was glad to get it out the way but it was a great moment.
“The gaffer wants me a bit further forward, to try and score more goals and get up with the strikers in attacking phases. I didn’t really know what to do. It was unreal, my best moment.
“I’ll remember the feeling of scoring but I’ll always remember the red card as well. There was good and bad.”
His ban deprived Rosler of a key player at a time when the German needed him. Leeds were beset by a packed fixture list and slightly short of midfielders with Luke Murphy and Tommaso Bianchi recovering from injury.
Cook, however, returns to contention with players in front of him. Kalvin Phillips – one of his peers in the academy – has started the last three matches. Tom Adeyemi is settled in a defensive role and Murphy’s recovery is almost complete. The 25-year-old waltzed through Monday’s Under-21s fixture against Sheffield United, pinging passes around the field and winning the game with a casual but brilliant 30-yard finish. Rosler will be seriously tempted to start Murphy at Derby.
Cook said: “Murph scored a great goal and he’s back to his best I think. He could walk straight in. Anyone can if they put their mind to it but the depth in the squad with midfielders is really big so it’s going to be hard to get in. There’s a fight on my hands to claim a spot.
“In the time I’ve been out I’ve just tried to focus on the games and think about how I can improve if I get back in the team. It’s been a big learning curve. It’s been a frustrating time.”
He is, nonetheless, rejoining a side who are unbeaten in the Championship with four draws from four games. Rosler spoke recently about his players “living like monks – no alcohol, no sex” and Cook said: “You’ve got to make sacrifices, physically and mentally. You can’t just do what you want. You’ve got to prepare right. We’ve had a lot of games in a short period but everyone’s dug deep and stayed together. It’s really positive.”