Leeds United are in the middle of a baby boom and the standing joke is that the ongoing renovation of the club’s training ground at Thorp Arch should be adapted to include a creche.
Mateusz Klich was lined up to speak at yesterday’s pre-match press conference but his partner gave birth in Leeds earlier this week and he spent the morning in hospital instead. Pablo Hernandez stepped in and fielded questions, six months on from the arrival of the his own second child.
Pontus Jansson, Adam Forshaw, Barry Douglas, Kemar Roofe and - thousands of miles away, beginning rehab on a knee injury in Japan - Yosuke Ideguchi: all are juggling the night-feed with newborns to tend to. Paternity leave barely applies to footballers and Hernandez has seen how responsibility for childcare falls to others around them in a world of midweek away games, overnight stays and an unyielding training schedule,
“It's a good thing in life when you have kids,” Hernandez said, “and in my opinion footballers are lucky. Normally we have wives and families who help us. They know that one day or two days before a game we need rest.
“When you travel and play away, of course you miss the family. This is football. But the night before the game, if the baby cries, in my case my wife knows I need rest. So she takes responsibility.”
It is one thing amongst many which players at Leeds could look to Hernandez for advice about if and when they need it. The midfielder talks regularly about “knowing my age” - he is 33, two months younger than Cristiano Ronaldo - and he has much in his scrapbook which others don’t: experience of football on the continent, knowledge of the Premier League and time spent in the Champions League. There is something to be learned from him reaching his 33rd birthday and being able to say that he has rarely played better.
It is to Marcelo Bielsa’s credit that his team at Elland Road does not hinge on a single, particular player but in terms of the stardust, Hernandez is the one; the “little magician” as Forshaw called him recently. He has banked a goal or an assist in all but two of the games he has started this season and his eight-week absence with a hamstring strain was felt by Bielsa, even though Leeds lost to Blackburn Rovers on the afternoon of his comeback.
“I don't know if it's the best time for me (in his career) but it’s one of the best, sure,” Hernandez said. “I have confidence, I score, I assist and I want to help the team. To score and do assists and to help the team be at the top of the league, it’s a good moment for me.
“I know my age but I try to push every day in the training, and not only at the training ground but in my life: good food and good rest because it’s not the same for me as it was when I was 23, 24. But I feel good, I feel young and I try to keep this moment.”
Hernandez, in two-and-a-half years at Leeds, has been susceptible to hamstring injuries, as players who grow up as wingers can be. He was laid low by one again in August’s 3-0 win at Norwich City, a day on which he felt his “confidence was 100 per cent”. Hernandez created the first goal, scored the third and had Bielsa purring that the Spaniard could “make me a better coach.”
A minor tear led to a more major one and Bielsa was unable to call on him again under October 20, when Leeds were beaten 2-1 by Blackburn. Hernandez is the oldest player at the club and one of only two over the age of 30. That, combined with his uniquely skillful influence, might point to the need for a tailored training programme but Hernandez has not asked for one or been given one.
“Each manager has his methods and his style,” Hernandez said. “It’s different training this year for all the players. But it’s true the team pays more attention to food and rest and all of these things help us to improve. I know I need to be more like this, to do more things that help me play well.
“Injuries are the worst part of the game. It's something I can't control. Sometimes in your best moment an injury comes and the only thing you can do is work hard to recover.
“It arrived at a bad moment for me because after the Norwich game my confidence was 100 per cent. It was a small injury to the hamstring so I tried to do my recovery fast but I injured it again.”
Are hamstring strains a specific concern? “My experience tells me that each player has different feelings,” Hernandez said. “It depends on circumstances, on the muscle, and most important is the feeling when you come back. I’m realistic and I know that if I’m 23, not 33, I can push more and take more risks. Now I need to control these things.”
Wigan attempted to control Hernandez last Sunday, without success, by targeting him and hitting him with numerous heavy challenges. Hernandez scored Leeds’ equaliser in a 2-1 victory, produced the pass which led to the error for their second goal and hit a post in injury-time.
Hernandez took issue with some of the fiercer tackles at the time but was reflective about his treatment with hindsight. “I live always with this in football, especially as an attacking player,” he said. “When you have 70 per cent of possession in a game, the other team need to defend more so It leads to this. But I’d prefer to stay in this part of the game - receiving tackles because it means we have the ball.”
Bielsa questioned after the Wigan game whether Leeds had yet shown the consistent quality needed to hold onto first place in the Championship. Hernandez said he would try to help by passing on any lessons he could. “We have good players, we have young players,” he said. “Maybe I try to help them because in this situation, when you're top of the league, you need to win games and points to keep this position.
“I can help because I have experience in the Spanish league, the Premier League and the Champions League. I try to keep calm in the games, and in this situation.”
There is a trend at Leeds of Bielsa and his players trying as best they can to avoid individual credit. Hernandez said a few months back that Bielsa’s appointment could improve his game, despite his age, but Bielsa responded by claiming Hernandez would make him a better coach. Forshaw and Samuel Saiz have painted Hernandez as borderline indispensable and with a lively game at West Bromwich Albion looming tomorrow, Hernandez reciprocated. “I don't think 'Pablo plays good',” he said. “I think the team plays good. This helps me.”