Conor Shaughnessy’s physique is that of a central defender but it was only at Leeds United, and only under Thomas Christiansen, that anyone thought to examine the possibility.
Shaughnessy was a midfielder in Reading’s academy and a midfielder in United’s eyes when the club signed him on a free transfer after his release from the Madejski Stadium last year. Brought in to add depth to a development squad short on bodies and nous, the Irishman has fashioned an unlikely opportunity.
Leeds handed him a four-year contract yesterday, replacing a 12-month deal which was due to end next June. Shaughnessy admitted that, as a 20-year-old who had been let go by another Championship side, he did not see this scenario when he began a trial with United in 2016.
“It was something I hoped for but back then it looked less likely,” Shaughnessy said. “Putting in the hard work and the belief the management have shown in me, giving me the chance this season, I think I’ve shown I’m ready to play at this level. He’s given me the chance and I haven’t looked back.”
If Christiansen saw the bones of a centre-back in Shaughnessy, the youngster’s switch to that position was also a matter of convenience.
Leeds were lacking alternatives in pre-season until Matthew Pennington signed on loan from Everton and Christiansen has juggled injuries and suspensions since the start of the Championship term. Shaughnessy made both of his league starts, against Fulham and Millwall, in the absence of an injured Liam Cooper and has played in all three rounds of the Carabao Cup.
Millwall found chinks in his game last weekend, inflicting United’s first defeat of the season, but Shaughnessy redressed that performance in Tuesday’s League Cup win at Burnley, being one of the most impressive players on the pitch.
Luke Ayling partnered him at Turf Moor and Pontus Jansson was alongside him against Millwall and Fulham. Shaughnessy has Cooper, the club’s captain and a player who is three games away from his 100th Leeds appearance, to lean on, too.
“The last couple of months have been really good for me and the club,” Shaughnessy said. “We’re doing well as a team and a squad and I’m just happy to be signed up for the next four years.
“All of the back four – Coops, Pontus, Bill (Ayling) – have been really good with me, helping me to improve. They’ve been a massive help with the way I’ve played.
“Everything is so positive at the moment, and not just with the players. We’re all focused on the same goal and everyone’s putting in the hard work. I think it’s showing in the results. That’s what it comes down to.
“There’s a long season ahead and we’re taking it one game at a time but we’re all focused on the end goal as well.”
Cooper, Jansson and Pennington could all be available for tomorrow’s league game against Ipswich, a spate of injury comebacks which will knock Shaughnessy out of Christiansen’s line-up.
His display in a dramatic penalty shoot-out win over Premier League club Burnley, however, kept him in the thoughts of United’s head coach.
“It was a great game and I’m a bit tired still,” he said. “It was great to come away with a win and I thought we deserved what we got in the end.”