On a night of four goals and general excellence against Hull City, Adam Clayton’s nomination as man of the match spoke volumes.
Clayton was not alone in tormenting Hull but has come to be seen as the architect of Leeds United’s first league victory.
In the two weeks since the season began, his emergence from the shadows has been a story of success among a limited number of others. He escaped without criticism from a capitulation at Southampton and shone in impossible circumstances against Middlesbrough last weekend. The award earned by his performance in Tuesday’s 4-1 win over Hull was a short time coming.
Compliments for Clayton not withstanding, tomorrow’s meeting with West Ham United is the essence of an acid test for a player who believes his time at Leeds has come. Certainly, the midfield waters he swims in at Upton Park will be as ferocious as any he finds in the Championship. Premier League clubs would embrace the quartet of players used by Sam Allardyce against Watford in midweek.
From right to left, the West Ham midfield fielded at Vicarage Road contained Jack Collison, Scott Parker, Kevin Nolan and Matt Taylor: a collection of reputations and salaries far beyond anything managed by Leeds boss Simon Grayson. It is there that tomorrow’s fixture is likely to be won and lost and there that Clayton’s potential will be fiercely examined.
Grayson did not go so far as deciding that Clayton would be an automatic choice this season when his squad reported back for the start of summer training at the end of June but a fortnight is all it has taken the midfielder to become one of the fixtures on United’s teamsheet.
The 22-year-old was an off-the-wall signing when he came to Leeds last year, brought in from Manchester City on an undisclosed fee for the purposes of development. Much of that development took place away from Elland Road during short-term loans at Peterborough United and MK Dons but his promotion to the senior side at United has given the public the chance to see what Grayson identified in him previously – energy, vision, and as much care on the ball as he has skill. Tomorrow’s match will see him come up against some of the finest midfielders in the division.
“When you come from a club like Manchester City, you automatically know that you’ve got some sort of talent,” Grayson said. “He’s very confident about his talent. His confidence doesn’t border on the edge of arrogance but he’s got a huge amount of belief in himself.
“He’s very comfortable on the ball and he doesn’t like giving it away. He’s very good at making things happen. He knows we’ve been looking for another midfield player but he got an opportunity when the season started and he’s taken the shirt now. His attitude seems to be ‘I’m not going to let go of it.’
“We’d seen him play against us when he was on loan at Carlisle and he always impressed. He wasn’t in our first team last season but he’d worked closely with Ian Miller (United’s first-team coach) at Man City in the past and Ian knows him well.
“There were times when we needed to put an arm around him and tell him that a chance would come but he got his head down and he’s matured over the summer. I hope he keeps growing in stature.”
Only Collison in West Ham’s midfield is in any way comparable, a player of 22 who took his first serious steps into senior football during the 2008-09 season.
Parker’s reputation precedes him and Queens Park Rangers were reported to have failed with bid of £4million for him earlier this week. Other offers are anticipated before the transfer window ends.
Nolan, meanwhile, moved to Upton Park in June despite earning a basic wage of £40,000 a week at Newcastle United, and Allardyce sourced Taylor directly from Bolton Wanderers. West Ham are very much a Premier League team in Championship circles.
Leeds have a former top-flight midfielder of their own in Michael Brown, once of Fulham and Tottenham Hotspur, but it is Clayton who has caught the eye alongside his more recognisable partner.
Former Leeds striker Peter Lorimer said: “Clayton’s attitude tells you that he’s grown up with a Premier League club. There’s a swagger about him, which I like, and he’s got a good range of passing.
“But one of the things I’ve noticed most is that he very rarely wastes possession. You don’t see many passes going astray.
“That’s true of any good midfielder and I think he’s going to be a serious player if he carries on like this.”
Grayson’s midfield will be as busy as his defence at Upton Park, where much will depend on the wisdom of his tactics and the organisation of his players.
Allardyce used England international Carlton Cole in attack at Watford, and John Carew is in line to make his debut at some stage having joined West Ham on a free transfer from Aston Villa.
Grayson is considering a number of possible strategies with Jonathan Howson and Max Gradel returning from suspension tomorrow but he has no clear motivation for dismantling the team who made short work of Hull.
His line-up on Tuesday showed four changes from the team beaten by Southampton on the first day of the season, and Grayson has already told Tom Lees that he will remain in the side after dislodging Paul Connolly from right-back. Aidan White and Ramon Nunez are looking for the same extension of faith after starting against Hull on Tuesday.
Lees, 20, has forced an opening as Clayton did before him but the defender said: “I’m not going to kid myself and think ‘that’s it now, I’m going to play for the whole season.’ The Championship’s very demanding.
“It’s a big step up but the club think I can handle it. I believe I can handle it too but I’ll take it game by game.
“West Ham’s a massive game and you only have to look at their squad to see how much quality they’ve got. A lot of their players are Premiership players.
“But we’ve got a couple coming back from suspension and the manager will have a tough task trying to pick his team. A lot of lads played well against Hull.”