After being the forgotten man at Leeds United during the final months of Garry Monk’s tenure, midfielder Eunan O’Kane is relishing life under new head coach Thomas Christiansen.
At every club there are certain players who need the feel of a new manager and Eunan O’Kane fell into that category.
Irishman is starting to look like a fulcrum at Leeds United, a midfielder Thomas Christiansen rates. For most of the second half of last season O’Kane could hardly buy himself a start.
He was, conversely, one of few footballers at Leeds with prior experience of promotion from the Championship, a Republic of Ireland international who won the title with Bournemouth, but when Garry Monk’s year in charge came off the rails, O’Kane was a bystander; unused for a month as United lost an eight-point lead over the clubs chasing the play-off places.
By the time Monk recalled him, for the last home game against Norwich City, Leeds were in a mathematical corner and resigned to another year in a division they have occupied since 2010. Could O’Kane have made a difference in that horrible month of April? “Who knows?” he replied. “I’d like to think I could have helped in some way. But at this point it’s purely speculation.”
Monk had leaned on O’Kane earlier in the season, right up until the night when O’Kane limped out of a League Cup defeat to Liverpool with a pelvic injury. Absent for two months, he was a bit-part player for most of Leeds’ remaining games, despite the lingering feeling that the centre of midfield was the area where Monk’s side were weak.
“It was extremely disappointing,” O’Kane said. “I had an injury problem around Christmas time which kept me out for two months but to then come back and be fit, and for the team to be going through a bad run of form – to not be given the opportunity to turn that around was really difficult.
“But it’s not my decision to pick the team. I can only do what I can when I’m given the opportunity so it’s not something I can hold onto or be bitter about.
“If I get given the opportunity to show what I can do this season then hopefully we won’t have too many of those frustrating runs. I’ve been asked a number of times ‘have people seen the best of me?’ and still to this point I don’t think so. I hope I can go from strength to strength.”
O’Kane was kept fit over the summer by international duty and enjoyed what he said was “the first pre-season I’ve had in a few years where I’ve been able to get through injury-free.” Christiansen, who took over as head coach in June following Monk’s out-of-the-blue resignation, lodged O’Kane in the thick of his pre-season plans, using him with enough regularity to demonstrate his confidence in him. O’Kane is expected to start at Bolton Wanderers tomorrow, the first game of United’s Championship season. His form has been such that he was asked yesterday about the possibility of receiving the captaincy.
His strengths were apparent in flashes under Monk; a useful range of passing and a tendency to break forward out of midfield, something which marked him out amongst Monk’s alternatives. Christiansen has more choice in that area now – six options in all including Vurnon Anita and O’Kane said: “The competition’s very strong. You just have to look at the names in there. There are five or six of us challenging for two free positions. It’s very tough but I always say that competition’s good for everyone. It keeps the people who get in on their toes and makes people work harder.
“I always want to get on the ball, to play and pass forward and to be positive. Hopefully you’ll see a lot more of that this year.”
Christiansen’s faith has doubtless helped O’Kane warm to a coach who was little known after three years as a manager in Cyprus but the 26-year-old said he had noted Christiansen’s versatility and described him as someone who “no-one here would have a bad word to say about.”
Leeds cut a highly-effective image last season but were accused in spells of being one dimensional and lacking a fallback plan, particularly as results went wrong in the final month.
“(Christiansen’s) philosophies are different to the manager last season,” O’Kane said. “He’s adamant about having the ball but he’s not afraid to mix things up if necessary.
“We’ve got more than one style up our sleeve and you’ll see that come out. I don’t think you can be a one-style team. It only takes so long before people work you out. If you have two, three, four or five ways to beat teams then they never know what’s coming.”
Leeds as a club have a clear idea of what they see coming this season.
Owner Andrea Radrizzani, whose takeover in May sparked change and investment at all levels of the club, warmed up for the opening weekend of the season by telling the BBC on Wednesday that a top-six finish was “a natural goal” and a minimum target. Both Christiansen and O’Kane were happy with those comments and largely unsurprised.
“Regardless of whether it’s been made public or not, we all knew that was the expectation before it was said,” O’Kane said, “It’s not shock to us and why shouldn’t it be the case based on how we did last season?
“We were so close and only fell away at the end. He has every right to have that ambition based on the amount of money he’s spent. It’s maybe added pressure that everyone now knows it but at the same time, it was always expected of us. It doesn’t make much of a difference.
“I feel good. We all do. We’re more than capable.”