Leeds United: Pearce impressed by defender Lees INTERVIEW

Newly-capped England Under-21 and Leeds defender Tom Lees.
Newly-capped England Under-21 and Leeds defender Tom Lees.
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England Under-21 coach Stuart Pearce has given Tom Lees a glowing appraisal and hinted that the Leeds United defender will be in contention for a place in his squad if England qualify for next year’s European Championship.

Pearce described Lees as “beyond his years” after the 21-year-old made his international debut in Monday night’s Euro 2013 qualifying game against Norway.

Lees appeared in a holding midfield role for the final 13 minutes at Chesterfield’s stadium, helping England’s Under-21s close out a 1-0 win over Norway and top their qualifying group after eight matches.

Pearce praised a “sterling job” from Lees, admitting his team were under pressure when the centre-back was asked to replace striker and goalscorer Connor Wickham late in the game.

England are one of 14 sides who have now reached the play-offs, the draw for which will be made in Nyon tomorrow afternoon. Seven nations will advance from a series of two-legged ties to join hosts Israel in the finals next summer.

Lees’ short outing against Norway could ensure his involvement in England’s play-off games – due to be staged between October 12 and October 16, in the middle of the next international break – and Pearce admitted to being impressed by the youngster’s versatility and “leadership qualities”.

The England coach also revealed that Lees’ regular place in United’s starting line-up under both current manager Neil Warnock and former Leeds boss Simon Grayson had strengthened his claim to a maiden Under-21 cap.

Pearce told the YEP: “The one thing Tom’s got compared to others in my squad is that he’s playing regularly for his club. Leeds have changed managers and he’s kept his position and he can also play right-back as well. When you’re looking at squads and tournaments, a player who can play in a couple of positions is a great benefit. The fact that we have options is great for us.

“We’ve been looking at Tom since the tail-end of last season when he was close to being in our squads. This season he’s started well again and we’ve had people watching the games when he’s played well.

“He’s come into the group and fitted in fantastically well. As a man he seems beyond his years. We have the impression he has leadership qualities and he seems a no-nonsense lad and no-nonsense player.”

Lees’ outing in Monday’s game was his first international involvement at any level aside from a brief spell with England’s Under-16s in 2005 but his career has been on an upward trajectory since he turned professional three-and-a-half years ago.

Two full-season loans at Accrington Stanley and Bury – the latter of which brought promotion from League Two – earned him his debut for Leeds at the start of last term, and he has signed two contract extensions at Elland Road in the past 12 months alone. The most recent deal agreed in June tied him to Elland Road until 2016.

His call-up to Pearce’s squad came out of the blue last week, announced less than 48 hours before England’s Under-21s were due to play Azerbaijan in Baku. The fact that he was summoned on his own merit, rather than to cover for injured players, suggested that Pearce was keen to take a last chance to look at the defender before Euro 2013 reached the sharp end of competition.

Lees’ performances for United in the first month of the Championship season were deserving of a chance, with Warnock saying he had “earned this call-up through his own hard work”, and although he will turn 22 in November, the rules allow him to travel with England to Israel.

Warnock has long spoken of the value of Lees’ versatility and Pearce discovered the same when he threw him into a midfield role he had never before occupied in the closing stages of the clash with Norway.

“On the night we needed him to play an unfamiliar role for us,” Pearce said. “We were under a bit of pressure in the game.

“We asked him if he’d go on and play the holding role and he said ‘yes, no problem, put me in there’.

“He handles the ball very well so we had no qualms in putting him in the centre of the pitch. He did a sterling job for us and helped us get a result.”

Lees returned to Thorp Arch in good health and Ross McCormack was due to report for training this morning having sat as an unused substitute throughout both of Scotland’s World Cup qualifiers against Serbia and Macedonia. Aidan White also appears to have emerged unscathed from two appearances with the Republic of Ireland’s Under-21s while Rodolph Austin should arrive in England tomorrow having playing in both of Jamaica’s qualifiers against the USA.

United resume their Championship season away to Cardiff City on Saturday.