United head coach Neil Redfearn is looking forward to meeting up with former skipper and role model Jonny Howson who returns to Elland Road with Norwich City tonight. Leon Wobschall reports.
THE sight of Jonny Howson striding out at Elland Road in a Norwich City jersey and not a Leeds United one will be the cue to a fair few rueful expressions among home supporters this evening.
Morley lad Howson, the player and ultimately the captain, led United with quiet determination on the pitch and class off it, with his peerless rise through the ranks an exemplary one.
No-one had a bad word to say about him and still don’t. Never will. A fair portion of his heart will always be Leeds, as the Kop will no doubt shout out tonight: ‘You’re Leeds and you know you are.”
Equally, they will know that the 26-year-old, a ultra-dedicated individual, has a job to do for Norwich, regardless of his emotional attachment. However much it hurts.
The sight of Howson enjoying his peak years elsewhere away from Leeds will still provide many with a hollow feeling.
This being a player who had been at Leeds since the age of six and was desperate to fulfil his ambitions with the club, only to have to ultimately pursue his ambitions elsewhere.
Howson’s exit in January 2012 was a tipping point for many fans, following the earlier departures of Jermaine Beckford, Neil Kilkenny and Bradley Johnson, who left after their contracts ran down.
United also cashed in by selling Max Gradel and Kasper Schmeichel a year before their deals expired, with Leeds then ‘reluctantly’ sanctioning the sale of Howson, with his deal up in the summer of June 2012.
It’s been a familiar story, with many other players, either nurtured through the ranks or brought in and developed before being moved on.
Just as the clock was ticking in terms of Howson’s deal then, so there is a similar scenario regarding the current family silver at Elland Road, with star assets Lewis Cook and Sam Byram only contracted until 2016 with top-flight vultures circling.
Howson represented the perfect role model for the likes of Cook and Byram to follow, with those with Leeds United in their blood desperate for the stars of today not to be sold off elsewhere, as was the case with the Norwich midfielder.
Among that number is Neil Redfearn.
He said: “I respected Jonny unbelievably. He was a real ambassador for the club and came through the academy and stood for everything that is good about the academy and club.
“It will be good to see Jonny, he has turned into a real top, top performer and good luck to him.
“We were sat at the dinner table the other day and talking about all the players who have left and the side we would have had if we’d kept half of them. It’s not a bad side..
“This academy is doing something right and it turns these players out regularly.
“This is before me as well and the club should be proud of that fact and it’s pretty obvious the supporters are well aware of it. It is something we have to make sure always stays in place.
“I know it’s difficult and sometimes you have to sell players to balance the books and the football club is a business and a big club.
“But you want to keep your better players and particularly your young players and develop them and that understanding of what your club is about.
“When Leeds were at the real height of their powers under Don Revie, that is how they did it and what happened.
“I not am saying this is anywhere near that, don’t get me wrong.
“But the facts are there. It works.”
Redfearn may have made it his business to make sure that the conveyor belt of talent between academy and first-team is operating smoothly, but equally he has shorter-term objectives.
For United in the here and now, that means arresting a three-match losing sequence, with the season showing signs of petering out, if Saturday’s defeat to Cardiff was anything to go by.
Redfearn made no bones about the fact that if Leeds don’t improve against a thoroughbred form horse in Norwich tonight, they could be on the wrong end of a cricket score.
The United head coach let rip at his players at half-time and was critical of his senior players’ performances and he is urging his side to go back to the future to the start of new year when Leeds drew adversity from strength to turn around their season with eight wins in 12 matches.
And if Leeds need inspiration, Redfearn would be minded to say three words. Bournemouth, Middlesbrough, Ipswich.
He said: “It’s a great game for the lads to play in and a high-profile game. They are up there for a reason and fighting to get promotion.
“We have got a good record against sides in the top six. We have beaten Middlesbrough twice, Bournemouth twice and Ipswich. We have proved on our day, we can. So Norwich will know if we turn up like we can do, they are in a game.
“In more or less every game under me, we have been difficult to play against. We’ve got to get back to that.
“What you don’t want is for us to start going away from all the things I put in place over the run and the good spell.
“All of a sudden when we are on a good run, we all know the answers now. Let’s do the stuff that got us there.
“My words on Saturday weren’t aimed at everyone specifically.
“But it was saying to the group that we have got to get back to the team agenda, which is sticking to the game plan, playing the opposition, doing the ugly stuff and then adding our bits when we need to.”
One player who suffered on Saturday was Sol Bamba, a player who proved a totemic force during United’s renaissance in early 2015.
He added: “Sol has been a major plus, I have to say. On Saturday, for whatever reason, we looked all at sea at the back. But everyone has a bad day, every now and again. The difference is when you do it in front of 25,000 at Elland Road, a lot of people see it.
“Sol has been a major facet to this club in its revival and for me, he would be someone that hopefully the club would keep.
“It is just one of those things. The players knew how I felt. I am very passionate about them wanting to play well, so they know what is coming sometimes at half-time and things needed saying.
“But there were no hard feelings and animosity, once it’s said we move on and its forgotten and we get on with it. They are big enough and tough enough to take it.”