There is something about Sam Byram which skews Leeds United’s judgement. His talent, mostly.
It was Byram’s talent which led the club to play him until his body gave way in his first season as a professional. It was Byram’s talent which convinced Gulf Finance House to ratchet up his wage after six months in the team.
GFH reflected public opinion by improving Byram’s contract quickly. West Brom and Cardiff were sniffing around him and the teenager was halfway towards United’s player-of-the-year award. The bank simply went over the top by smacking his salary into the ballpark of £12,000 a week. Too much too soon for a player who might later merit another extension or ask the the club for a pay rise.
It is not clear if Byram wanted a pay rise last Christmas. All that is known is that the defender was asked to take a pay cut. That trick might work with Luke Murphy, who at 26 won’t see another deal like the one GFH gave him, but not with someone of Byram’s stock. Massimo Cellino misplayed his hand. He gave a poor impression of how highly he valued the full-back. And in the end he ordered Byram’s agent out of a meeting at Elland Road.
Were Leeds a balanced, joined-up club then the matter of Byram’s contract could be seen in a sober context. He has not played well this season. And at no stage has he played as well – or been as fit – as he was in his stellar first year. If United are wary of inflating his wage further then it is their prerogative to say that £12,000 is a respectable Championship wage and arguably a very good one on the basis of Byram’s form. They might take the view that GFH left little in the way of wriggle room. Every player has a going rate, regardless of academy roots.
As with so many things, the frustration is with the process: the clumsy way in which the club have managed to drive a wedge between themselves and a promising right-back; a likeable youngster who could not pick a fight if he tried. Byram won’t have asked for this – the attention, the public criticism from Cellino, the debate over his place in the team – and he won’t be naive enough to think that it is doing him any good. Byram could leave next summer and pick up a chunky wage elsewhere. Or, like Aidan White, he could find that the cost of compensation owed to Leeds reduces his options and limits his opportunities on the back of a mediocre season. Players at the age of 22 don’t like to see time go by.
The gulf and enmity between Byram’s camp and Cellino makes an agreement over a new contract highly unlikely. It is to Steve Evans’ credit that he found a way of persuading the two sides to speak again but depressing still that it took a new head coach, six weeks in the job, to manufacture a bridge that Leeds had failed to build. It is possible that by now Byram has resolved to leave; resolved to follow Tom Lees in looking for a fresh start and a clean slate. Maybe money is part of it. But from the starting point of a short, sharp and bitter meeting last year – followed by brief efforts by Adam Pearson to relight the fire in August – Cellino’s attempts to find a solution look deeply inadequate.
And in that spirit, so too is the right side of United’s defence. Scott Wootton bears the brunt of his performances but Wootton is a centre-back. Pushed out wide into the most political and contentious position in the side, he’s another unwitting victim in a long line at Elland Road. When Gaetano Berardi is fit or eligible, Byram’s absence avoids focus and is justified by Berardi’s form. But on days like Saturday, when Wootton’s distribution and attacking limitations were exposed by QPR, the subject becomes very live.
Evans says he is free to play Byram if he wishes; that Byram’s involvement or lack of it is as much about football as it is about his contract. But Uwe Rosler was very clear that speculation about Byram was bothering the 22-year-old in the first month of the season. Evans evidently feels that the contractual dispute is a big enough issue for him to get involved. So even if Byram’s deal is not directly responsible for his absence in the team, it is having that impact in its own way. His personal environment is rotten and counter-productive and Leeds are suffering because of it. They are not so blessed with good players that they can afford to let one fester. But they are almost beyond the point of allowing Byram to play himself into form.
This is not, as Steve Evans put it, about Byram being “the saviour of Leeds United.” It has never been said that Byram is a player who Leeds can build their team around; only that in better form, he is a player who Leeds should want to build with. Byram is not so good that he gets to name his price but he is good enough, professional enough and popular enough to deserve the courtesy of contract talks which give peace a chance.
Cellino’s approach last December was akin to admitting defeat before a ball was kicked. Those heavy-handed tactics seem ever more peculiar.