Former Leeds favourite Ian Harte believes United fans will understand just why Garry Monk signed Eunan O’Kane – sooner rather than later. Phil Hay reports.
Jack Wilshere’s loan to Bournemouth was a break in tradition for the club who signed him. Bournemouth’s celebrated rise through the Football League did not rely on big names, much as it relied on money. Ian Harte was as big a name as any when he moved to Dean Court at the age of 35.
In that environment, the headlines created by a progressive club rarely shone on Eunan O’Kane but Harte saw Leeds United’s new recruit as a valuable cog in the machine built by Eddie Howe; a classic example of an unsung footballer. Harte thinks O’Kane will be a “top signing” for Leeds, regardless of the number of central midfielders already on the books at Elland Road.
Leeds are overloaded in that position, though not intentionally. As O’Kane arrived on a two-year deal from Bournemouth on transfer deadline day, Leeds hoped to address an imbalance in their squad by finding new clubs for Luke Murphy and Toumani Diagouraga. The deadline passed without either player moving on.
O’Kane will train with them and United’s other players for the first time this week after a spell of international duty with the Republic of Ireland, in line for a possible debut in Saturday’s derby against Huddersfield Town. Harte, the former Leeds left-back, believes O’Kane’s success at Elland Road is dependant on Leeds’ style of play and a commitment to the fluid football which Howe promoted at Bournemouth and Garry Monk stuck to in his previous role as Swansea City manager.
“Eunan’s a very clever player,” Harte said. “We weren’t a team of big names at Bournemouth and a lot of the attention was on Callum Wilson, Harry Arter, guys like that, but Eunan was very consistent – seven out of 10, eight out of 10, that sort of level every time. People appreciated the work he did.
“He’s great with the ball at his feet and if you play to his strengths he’ll break from midfield and look to slide balls into the strikers. That’s what he’s good at. To get the best out of him you’ve got to have possession and you’ve got to get the ball on the ground. If you go long ball or rely on too many diagonals it won’t do much for him.
“It was always pure football at Bournemouth, with the centre-halves playing the ball out. I know that Garry (Monk) had Swansea playing a similar way when he was there so this should be a really good move for Eunan. I think it’s a great signing.”
A central midfielder was one of two priorities for Monk on deadline day, alongside the acquisition of another striker. Leeds failed to land a forward, despite tracking West Ham United’s Ashley Fletcher and trying to sign Arsenal’s Yaya Sanogo on loan, but O’Kane ticked a box which Monk was anxious to deal with. Wilshere’s sudden arrival at Dean Court from Arsenal opened the way to a deal which Leeds originally expected to be priced out of.
Monk has no fewer than eight players who could be classed as central midfielders, among them Liam Bridcutt, who signed from Sunderland last month. Harte, who has worked as an agent since his retirement last year and represents Leeds’ defender Tyler Denton, said the bid for O’Kane made sense regardless.
“When you sign players, what you’re trying to do is sign better players than you’ve already got,” Harte said. “To me, Eunan improves that team. Okay, he didn’t play as many times as he wanted last season but he’s still played in the Premier League and he’s proven in the Championship.
“I was a young player at Leeds once and I’m all for bringing the kids through but you’ve got to have experience and you’ve got to have balance. We had that at Bournemouth and also at Reading when we won the Championship title (in 2012). Technically, that Reading team probably wasn’t the best team in the Championship but we kept Southampton and West Ham behind us by going on an incredible run. Experience in the dressing room counts at the right time.
“You know how it feels to be under pressure and you know that winning anything comes down to the whole squad. You need players to understand that and to be supportive, whether they’re starting games or not.
“Leeds have got some great kids and of course they’ll want to play week in, week out but at the end of the day, football’s about results and winning games. Garry needs that bit of experience to help get them on a run. Eunan and Bridcutt together looks like a really strong partnership. Eunan will get forward as much as he can and I’d expect to see Bridcutt sit and give him the freedom to push on. It should tighten things up in there.”
O’Kane made more than 100 league appearances for Bournemouth and, despite his peripheral role last season, played 16 times in the Premier League.
Howe said he had agreed to sell O’Kane to Leeds to ensure that his “career doesn’t stagnate”. Howe added: “Eunan’s been a massive part of our recent success. He’s always shown a great attitude. He’s never moaned or been a disruptive influence when he has been out of the team. The decision has been made for the benefit of Eunan’s career.”
Harte described O’Kane as a “quiet lad” who let his football speak for him at Bournemouth. “In every dressing room you get characters and quiet lads and he’s a quieter one,” Harte said. “But he’s a really good footballer and you’ll see that from him soon enough. It’s easy to understand why Garry wanted him.”