After a stellar season when he established himself as a Leeds United first-team regular, midfielder Lewis Cook was never in any doubt he was going to sign a new deal at Elland Road. Phil Hay reports.
Lewis Cook’s contract extension was the start of a flow of good news at Elland Road. Suspicions that the better players in Leeds United’s squad would be scurrying to leave a listless club were contradicted by his acceptance of a two-year deal.
The paperwork sat in a desk draw for several weeks before Cook signed on May 11, held in reserve while Massimo Cellino saw out his Football League ownership ban, but the announcement was the first of several signs of life at Leeds. In Cook’s mind he was always going to get the deal done.
United’s track record in the past decade has been that of a club who either loose a grip of their biggest assets or sell them before they ask to leave and at the end of last season Cook fell into the precious bracket.
Some at Thorp Arch see him as the most naturally talented of all United’s players; the jewel in the crown as the squad stands.
On Thursday he attended the launch of the club’s new kit with three others academy graduates, Sam Byram, Alex Mowatt and Charlie Taylor. Midway through a Q&A session, the four were made to squirm by being asked to say who amongst them was the best footballer.
While three of them dithered, player-of-the-year Mowatt pointed straight at Cook. That told its own story.
Cook’s poise and drive in his debut season for Leeds made a new contract essential. His previous deal ended in 2016. “It was a very easy decision to sign it,” he said. “I’m playing, I’m enjoying my football here and I’ve always been at Leeds so I don’t know why I’d need to leave. I don’t know why anyone would think that.
“The contract topped things off for me and I was really happy to sign it. It was like all the hard work paying off. A lot of good things happened for me last season.”
His campaign was an extension of a significant summer in which Cook and England’s Under-17s won the 2014 European Championship in Malta. The 18-year-old said that tournament was “where it all changed for me” even though his coaches at Leeds thought his domestic breakthrough was inevitable and imminent.
“That’s when this good run started,” Cook said. “I think it put me in the eye of a few people and I got a bit of a name for myself. And a medal. I haven’t really looked back from there.”
Cellino appreciated his ability and David Hockaday, United’s former head coach, involved him in United’s pre-season programme last summer. Cook’s senior debut came on the first day of the season away at Millwall and he can laugh about it now; the tackle on Lee Gregory which conceded an 88th-minute penalty and confirmed United’s 2-0 defeat.
“It wasn’t the best start,” he said, “but at least I can say something about my debut! For me personally last season was amazing. If I’d played a few games I’d have been happy. Playing as many games as I did was good for me and for my progression.
“To say it was my first season, the only thing I didn’t get was a goal. I don’t really know how to explain it. It was on my mind to try and score a few but it never quite happened. I wouldn’t say it was down to confidence. I just wasn’t quite there if that makes sense. But I’m learning from that and this season I want to get a few goals.”
Cook played 38 times last season and he would have cleared 40 appearances had he not injured his knee in the final month.
That problem cleared up during his holiday and he resumed training with the rest of Leeds’ squad earlier this month, returning to work under a new head coach in Uwe Rosler.
Rosler’s reputation is that of a considered disciplinarian with a well-established philosophy.
“He’s a really nice guy who likes working us hard,” Cook said.
“Double sessions, a lot of running and high intensity sessions. It’s the sort of stuff you want to get in before the season starts.
“I get the impression he’s disciplined. You don’t really want to put a foot wrong, especially in pre-season when everyone’s battling for places. You want to make a good impression.
“But I like what he’s doing. It makes sense. He’s got everyone in gear and the mood’s very positive.”
Despite the change of head coach, there is more familiarity about United’s camp than there was 12 months ago.
Youngsters like Cook have a season behind them and others, like Byram, have a few in the bank.
The clutch of foreign imports who came to Elland Road last summer have had a year to acclimatise and time to draw breath after a fractious end to last season.
“Everyone’s gelled now,” Cook said. “It’ll be a bit easier this year to communicate and understand each other. My personal target is probably just to have another good season and score a few goals. The manager says he wants that from me. But If I didn’t score any goals and played as many games, playing the way I did last season, then I’d still be happy. I thought a lot of my performances were good. But goals are something I’m trying to add.”
A common trend among United’s younger players was their ability to grow and thrive last season, regardless of the club’s many problems. Leeds finished 15th and needed a strong run from the turn of the year onwards to outrun and keep their distance from the Championship’s bottom three.
Rosler has said several times that he would settle for a top-10 finish next term.
“For me that is the target,” the German said earlier this week.
“Anything better than last season would be a start,” Cook said. “Finishing higher in the table is the first aim. Obviously the higher we finish the better the season will be but to start with, we have to do better than last year.”