I’m pleased to see Lewis Cook shortlisted for the Football League’s young-player-of-the-year award.
I’m pleased for him because, even though you couldn’t say he’s been sensational this season, he’s played his part and he’s shown the attitude I always want to see in a kid.
I’ll come on to Cook’s talent in a moment and it’s obvious he’s got plenty. But for a 19-year-old, his approach to the game is an example to others, young and old. He’s got a good engine on him, he shows bundles of commitment and I get the feeling there’s a terrific will to win inside him.
Not every footballer has that. Some are driven more by the trappings of the game than the game itself, but when I look at him he acts like someone with incredibly high standards. You can imagine him going home at the end of a game and being very self-critical of the things he could have done better. I like that. It’s a good way to be.
At the same time it’s true that Cook could have been better this season. He admitted that earlier this week when he said that it’s been a “hard year” for him. That’s basically the same as saying that while his form has been okay, and very good in spells, he’s not really satisfied overall. But at this point it’s only right to point out that Cook is a teenager. And teenage footballers need help.
There are very few, if any, top players who got as far as they did by learning it all themselves. I made my debut when I was 15 and played hundreds of times for Leeds United, but don’t make the mistake of thinking it all came naturally or easily. There were points where I needed to be coached or needed guidance from players around me. I got better because, for one thing, more experienced team-mates schooled me in what to do and when to do it. Yes, I had talent. But that talent was nurtured by the club.
With Cook I feel too often that he’s being forced to try and learn his lessons as the games go by. It’s almost like we’re expecting him to either be flawless from the start or to pick everything up himself. We desperately need a midfielder or two who can properly show him the ropes and teach him about the game. I reckon he’ll have benefited from having Liam Bridcutt around him but, in general, I see Cook as quite isolated in the middle. He gets the ball, he has a go and then the game moves on.
Fabian Delph won the young-player-of-the-year award in 2009, when he was at Leeds, and he’s gone on to very big things since then. If I think back I can see a lot of similarities between the two of them. There are differences, of course, and Delph carried more threat in front of goal than Cook but you’ll remember one of Delph’s big weaknesses – rash or late tackles which got him into trouble and didn’t really help the team. That was just Delph’s style. At times it was probably down to frustration but he also came across as someone who loved the blood and thunder of the midfield.
That’s fine but only to a point. What he needed was an arm around his shoulder and a word in his ear, telling him to find the right balance between being competitive and going over the top. He was young, he required that bit of help. With a prospect like that, it’s the duty of people around him to point out where he’s going wrong.
Young players don’t take exception to that sort of criticism. Most of them appreciate it because the more you get coached, the better you get. I’m not exactly sure how the structure works at Leeds under Steve Evans but I do think Cook needs more coaching.
The club need to iron out the little flaws in his game because, get rid of those and he’ll be quite some player. It’s about getting him to make the right decisions, to give the ball at the right time and to do more damage in the final third.
I bet if you spoke to Lewis himself, those are the areas he’d like to improve.
It goes without saying that the club need to keep him this summer. And assuming they do, they need to tailor their recruitment with Cook in mind.
We’re short of quality in quite a few areas and that all needs addressing but in amongst everything else, I want us to try and build a midfield which works to Cook’s strengths, has him at the heart of the plans and really lets his ability shine through.
In my view, he’s done enough to deserve a place on the shortlist for the Football League award. Hopefully it kick-starts another big step forward.