After being cast adrift by Darko Milanic, defender Scott Wootton was thrown a lifeline by new head coach Neil Redfearn in January, and he and the team hasn’t looked back since. Leon Wobschall reports.
AN OUTSIDER looking in for much of the first half of the campaign at Elland Road, Scott Wootton is currently enjoying the flip side of the coin – with his Leeds United career afforded a new lease of life.
The 23-year-old will reflect on a funny old year when he is lying on a beach in the close season after being cast adrift during the ill-fated tenure of Darko Milanic and farmed out on loan to Rotherham United before being afforded a lifeline back at Leeds in January.
Both Wootton and Leeds’s fortunes are on the up. During the first half of 2014-15, league wins were a precious currency for United, with their arrival too infrequent – just six coming in 24 matches.
Seven have arrived in 13 league games since, with Wootton lining up in every one of them along with two other players brought in from the cold in Luke Murphy and Charlie Taylor, with Steve Morison also a regular.
It has been some transformation both for Wootton and his three team-mates and while the defender may have had to switch from the central defensive position he played in during his previous sorties with United, the move is something he has embraced.
Wootton said: “I think I have played every game since I have come back and the feedback has been good from a personal point of view.
“The team is doing really well and I am enjoying playing in a team full of confidence. We are going into games knowing we can be solid.
“I am really enjoying it at the minute.”
On his move across to right-back, he added: “I feel fine there. I played there a bit earlier in my career, probably similar to the amount as centre-back really and I don’t see it as me being a centre-back who can play right-back.
“I see myself as someone who can play either, to be fair. I am really enjoying it playing in the games, no matter what position.
“I have really grown in confidence. That might be my position; who knows ...”
“I still have things to work on such as my crossing and little bits and bobs in the final third which I want to improve on.
“But I wouldn’t jeopardise that over my defensive work that comes first and foremost.”
United’s run of seven wins from 13 league matches may be headline material, but the fact that just three losses have been accrued in that time should not be destined for small print either.
Being hard to beat and providing a solid defensive platform has been the cornerstone to United’s upturn.
Statistics bear this out. So far this year, the back four have recorded three clean sheets on the road after not even registering one on their travels in the first half of 2014-15.
In total, six shut-outs have been recorded in United’s last 13 matches, another tidy statistic, with their defensive resolution – the loss to Watford apart – having been a noticeable feature of 2015.
Wootton is quick to acknowledge the importance of the signing of a defensive leader in Sol Bamba as being a key factor in that improvement, but equally he feels all of United’s outfield players are worthy of a pat on the back in that respect.
He said: “The biggest thing is staying in games and being resilient. That’s a massive part of any team. We just keep going and have improved a lot.
“We have lost Sam (Byram) and Rudy (Austin), two of our best players and in our past two games, we haven’t conceded a goal.
“That just shows people are ready to come in; (Gaetano) Berardi has gone really well in the two games he has come in and Steve Morison is doing a job on the right-hand side.
“Billy Sharp has also come in and you know he is going to score goals and it is pleasing to see.
“Sol has also been different class since he came into the club. He is a player of experience, probably more than any in the team and has played international football, so that experience can only help the younger players. I thought he played well again on Saturday.”
Despite being frustrated in Saturday’s stalemate with Nottingham Forest, United at least claimed a point against a side that came into proceedings as one of the Championship’s form sides and can approach this week’s away double header at Fulham and Blackpool with confidence, according to Wootton.
Both Craven Cottage and Bloomfield Road have not witnessed United away wins for some considerable time, with United having not won on their last four visits to West London – their last victory came back in March 1985.
You have to go back to March 1967 for United’s last triumph on the Fylde coast, with their last four trips having also not yielded a win.
But despite those dual statistics, Wootton says he and his United team-mates are looking forward to both appointments, with road trips now full of expectation as opposed to just hope.
Wootton said: “As players, we are enjoying that driving us on, going to places and not thinking: ‘Let’s not get beat today’ which would probably have been the case two or three months ago.
“We have turned it around, steadied the ship and we are a lot more solid.
“That’s our base and go there from there.
“We are looking forward to these next two games and the top 10 would be a real positive this season.
“We are going into the game with the same game plan and know exactly what we are doing.
“We are solid, tough and resilient and that is showing in the clean sheets we are getting and how many wins we’ve got.”
The Fulham trip is added piquancy by a reunion with the two strikers who lined up with distinction for United last term in Ross McCormack and Matt Smith.
The pair contributed 42 goals between them in 2013-14, but despite harbouring ambitions of doing their bit to help the Cottagers return to the top-flight in 2014-15, they are now assigned with ensuring the club don’t suffer the ignominy of back-to-back relegations.
Wootton said: “I played a lot with them (McCormack and Smith) last season and they did fantastic.
“It shows we have done well to bounce back to get to where we have this season.
“It’s a relentless league and we look forward to that when we go down there.
“They have been struggling a bit lately and we go down there full of confidence with back-to- back clean sheets, which is no mean feat in this league.”