The fight to impress Garry Monk in Ireland did not just extend to Leeds United’s new signings. There are others in his squad, longer-serving players, who travelled to Dublin knowing they had ground to make up after last season.
One of them, Souleymane Doukara, scored the first goal of the summer and another, Alex Mowatt, laid on the second. There were lively performances from Luke Murphy and Jordan Botaka, the latter unlucky not to find the net in Leeds’ 2-1 win over Shelbourne.
Monk wants to add to his six signings before the Championship season starts, but United’s squad is not so big that he can afford to disregard those who were already on the books when he took charge. Mowatt above all is a midfielder who Monk can tease more out of, a former player-of-the-year who went missing last season.
There were mitigating circumstances for the 21-year-old’s form: injuries at unhelpful times and too many games where he was fielded out of position as a left winger.
When Monk used him centrally against Shelbourne last week, one of Mowatt’s first acts was to lay on a goal for Hadi Sacko with a weighted pass into the box.
Mowatt said he was pleased when he learned that Monk would be arriving at Elland Road as Steve Evans’ replacement, believing that Monk’s philosophy would suit his own game.
“I was happy when he got the job,” Mowatt said. “It’s a fresh start and I’m happy that the gaffer likes to play the way he does.
“I played in my preferred position (last week) and I enjoyed it. I played out wide a lot last season and if I’m asked to play there then I’ll try and do a job for the team but when I’m in the number 10 role I feel like a different player.
“Last season wasn’t a good season for me personally. I’ll try to put that behind me and get back to the form I was in the year before.
“There’s a new manager and everyone’s got a fresh start. I wanted to come back as fit as possible and have a good season.”
Mowatt’s campaign lit up only briefly last term with a long-range goal against Cardiff City which ended Leeds’ eight-month wait for a home victory and a brilliant strike at Huddersfield Town the following weekend. Those efforts were reminiscent of the 2014-15 term when Mowatt scored nine times and won United’s player-of-the-year award but he started fewer than half of the club’s league games.
The England Under-20 international, however, liked what he saw of Monk’s methods in Ireland. “We’ve had double sessions, it’s been hard, but there are a lot of new players so it’s been good to mix with them,” he said. “There’s been some good players come in, some good signings, different to what we’ve got here already. It’s been a long two weeks but we’ve done everything we needed to do.”
Botaka, the Congo international winger, also left Ireland in a positive frame of mind. If Mowatt’s contribution last season was a disappointment then Botaka’s campaign barely got started. He made 14 appearances, most as a substitute, and was savaged by Evans after an FA Cup tie at Watford in February, accused of lacking the application and the work-rate to deserve a place in the matchday squad.
The 23-year-old was new to England when Leeds signed him from Excelsior last summer as an alternative to Anthony Limbombe, the Belgian who remains on United’s radar. Botaka played twice under Uwe Rosler and was in and out under Evans but it was never a secret that both head coaches preferred to rely on other players.
When Botaka returned to the fold against Hull City a few weeks before the end of the season, he was instrumental in setting up a late equaliser for Stuart Dallas.
“It was tough for me at times, tough for me to understand the situation and I don’t think many people understood what was really happening either,” Botaka said. I haven’t spoken about it much and it’ll probably stay that way. It doesn’t really matter now.
“This summer has been good for me. I played a bit with the national team but I got a rest, I cleared my mind and put everything on zero again. I feel positive about the club, about the new head coach, and I’m ready to show what I can do – to really show what I can do. This gaffer is different to some I’ve worked with before because he really wants to get to know all the players individually. He wants to make that effort and he’s working with all of us, trying to make all of us better, not just working with some. As a player, if you feel like the gaffer is working with you and busy with you it gives you confidence and it motivates you to work hard. I think that’s a reason why the two weeks (in Ireland) have been so good.”
Monk agreed that the time in Dublin had given him the opportunity to assess the nature of his players at very close quarters. “I’ve seen the true them and I’ve seen the real characters,” United’s boss said. “They’ve been excellent in terms of attitude and application and you can see in them that they want to try and improve.
“That’s a big thing for a manager – that they actually want to take on what we’re telling them. We know what we need to improve on but in terms of where we’re at, and if we keep making these small steps forward, it’s all positive.”