Talented teenager Lewis Walters is tantalisingly close to making his Leeds United first-team debut after recovering from injury on the back of a six-month rehabilitation programme. Phil Hay reports.
Lewis Walters knows that in this climate and with this head coach he’d have made his Leeds United debut by now.
He would have made it, were it not for the injury in July that set his development back six months.
The 19-year-old was as involved in the club’s pre-season friendlies as his contemporary, Lewis Cook, but the difference between them was that Cook made it through the summer unscathed.
Walters had one leg in a cast as the Championship term got underway.
He remembers the incident leading to his injury as wholly innocuous.
Walters was 25 minutes into a 2-0 defeat at Mansfield Town when he tweaked his knee and called for treatment.
In the absence of any severe pain he played on for a few minutes before collapsing in Mansfield’s box after jumping to head a corner kick.
The damage to cartilage required surgery and Walters has hardly kicked a ball since.
His outing in Tuesday’s development-squad game against Sheffield Wednesday was his first 90-minute appearance for, well, longer than he can remember.
And so it begins again: the patient wait for his chance to come.
Walters is optimistic that it will.
He has several reasons to think so. The striker made the bench for Leeds’ 4-1 defeat at Bournemouth last March and has been on the cusp of the first team for the best part of a year.
Neil Redfearn, United’s head coach, worked with him in the academy and is fast-tracking prospect after prospect from the development side.
Walters is not presumptuous but Redfearn would say that the teenager’s debut is an inevitability.
“I think I’d definitely have had my opportunity already if I’d stayed fit,” Walters said.
“I was doing really well in the summer and when I started against Mansfield I thought ‘I’ve got a really good chance here.’
“It’s strange because at first I didn’t think anything of the injury.
“I was running, I twisted and my knee clicked twice.
“I thought ‘that’s not right’ but it stopped hurting so I carried on. I went up for a header and as soon as I landed, the knee gave way. It stuck. I couldn’t move it.
“To begin with I didn’t think it was going to be so bad. I thought it was a little bit of cartilage, no more than that. Then we got the final analysis and I was gutted. I couldn’t believe it.”
Walters was told to prepare for several months of rehabilitation.
“Before we got the analysis the physios didn’t want to put negative ideas in my head,” he said.
“That would have made me feel crap. There was no timescale so I was gutted when I found out. I didn’t really expect it.”
As Walters inched towards full fitness, Redfearn made the effort to push him as much as possible. Last weekend the forward took part in the warm-up before Leeds’ 1-0 win over Millwall, despite being left out of the matchday squad.
He was put through 90 minutes against Sheffield Wednesday’s Under-21s on Tuesday – used as a winger – and looked visibly relieved to have a full game behind him.
Walters’ talent is not much of a secret. He was a reliable goalscorer in the Under-18s side that won their league title two years ago and he has an ounce of pace which Redfearn wants to try on the left wing.
United’s head coach has tried and failed to sign players in that position and Alex Mowatt, another of Walters’ ex-academy team-mates, has been asked to adapt to that role.
“I just need to work on my fitness,” Walters said.
“When I’m fit, that position will be a lot easier for me.
“At the moment I’m finding it a bit hard but I do like it out there.
“As long as I’m on the pitch, I’d play anywhere – up front hopefully – and it would be a dream to play at Elland Road in front of 25,000. I can’t picture that at the minute because the opportunity hasn’t come.”
They say that United’s self-produced players are a tight, sociable and supportive bunch. That much is evident in Walters’ comments.
This season he sat with a leg up while Cook and Charlie Taylor forced their way into Redfearn’s senior side.
Mowatt progressed ahead of him last year and Sam Byram’s emergence in 2012 was spectacularly quick.
On the bad days – “to be honest I didn’t have to many of those” – Walters must have felt like the train was leaving him behind.
Even so, he sounds anything but bitter.
“It doesn’t make it frustrating because I like to see my friends doing well,” he said.
“I’m really pleased for them and for what they’ve done. I hope when I get my chance I do exactly the same.
“(Redfearn) has told me to keep going, keep doing what I’m doing and my chance should come.
“He knows me better than anyone at the club because he’s been my coach all the way up.
“I think that’s why I think he’s making me feel better and giving me self-belief.
“He’s been a massive influence and he’s got the other young lads to where they are now.
“He’s pushing them on and look how well they’re doing.
“It’s an incentive for all of us.”