Leeds United's Illan Meslier on learning from Champions League winner Kiko Casilla and how football is religion in Leeds

Illan Meslier is not the first choice goalkeeper at Leeds United and he’s not even always the back-up, but he’s happy because he’s growing.

By Graham Smyth
Saturday, 16th November 2019, 6:00 am
Illan Meslier came in on loan in the summer from FC Lorient
Illan Meslier came in on loan in the summer from FC Lorient

The French goalkeeper, brought in on a season-long loan from FC Lorient on the day the summer transfer window closed, is yet to make his Whites debut.

When United sold Bailey Peacock-Farrell to Premier League side Burnley on August 2, the writing was on the wall at Elland Road that Kiko Casilla would take full control of the number one position for Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds.

And so it has proved. The Spaniard has played every single minute of every single game since the season began, EFL Cup ties and all, leaving Meslier to get his match minutes with Carlos Corberan’s Under 23s.

Meslier has assumed the role of understudy, although he is not alone in providing cover for Casilla – for half of this season’s games Meslier has been the goalkeeper on the bench, Kamil Miazek has filled that role for the other half.

The picture, when it comes to Bielsa’s number two choice stopper, is muddied somewhat by Meslier’s status as one of six loanees at the club.

Only five can be named in a matchday squad, so for example when Bielsa has needed Jack Clarke on the bench due to injury problems in wide areas, Meslier has had to drop out.

There is a pecking order for the loanees, with Ben White’s importance in the heart of the defence, Eddie Nketiah’s ability to pop up with a vital goal, Jack Harrison’s contribution to both attacking play wide on the left and Helder Costa’s blistering pace on the right all-but guaranteeing them squad places.

Meslier sees the positives in his current situation, one he looks upon as more preferable to what could have been, had he remained at FC Lorient.

“For me, precisely, we have more time to work, we can develop, refine details,” he said in an interview with Goal France.

“It’s a little bit of post-training and I feel I’m progressing from week to week.

“I even think that if I had stayed in Lorient, I would not have progressed. I was at the end of something.

“But number one is Kiko, I respect him.”

That respect had already been earned before Meslier joined the Spaniard at Leeds, thanks to Casilla’s previous exploits.

A La Liga title, a Supercopa de España, the UEFA Super Cup, three Champions Leagues and a hat-trick of FIFA Club World Cups decorate the CV of the once-capped Spain international.

But the 33-year-old’s reputation has only been enhanced since they began working together at Thorp Arch.

“I’m learning a lot with Kiko, 33, who has been to Real [Madrid], three Champions Leagues, he’s an experienced keeper,” said Meslier.

“Mentally, he is superior.

“He knows what to do on a lot of situations and I really take everything he gives me.”

With the input of a vastly experienced number one, Meslier’s can confidently state that he’s getting better, so much so that he feels ready to step in, should Casilla become unavailable to Marcelo Bielsa.

“I am gaining strength in this new club, with a new staff, and I am ready to play at any time if there is a suspension or an injury,” said the teen.

“It will be up to me to seize the opportunities and afterwards, the coach will decide.”

Working under Bielsa was one of the contributory factors in Meslier’s late-window decision to leave his comfort zone in his native land and fly to England, playing a ‘very important role’ in recruiting the keeper.

Elland Road, last season’s play-off finish and the fans were also key.

It was an ‘attractive project’ that, along with the experience of being trained by Bielsa himself, has thus far not disappointed.

“We all have a lot of respect for him, we know what he did in his career.

“And when we see that it works, the players [buy in] right away.

“We are really here to work and we have one goal, it is to go to the Premier League.

“Football is a religion in Leeds.

“The fans, there is nothing to say, the atmosphere in the stadium is amazing.

“For my first game, I stayed for 10 minutes watching the fans.

“When you’re an opponent, you have to feel very small, it’s a crazy thing.

“I am very happy now to be in Leeds.”