Leeds United's Luke Ayling on Premier League surprise, a tougher second season and his Manchester United group chat message
Luke Ayling can’t remember a moment when Premier League status dawned on him properly last season because the Leeds United defender was so busy pinching himself.
It is little wonder. This was the right-back’s first taste of top-flight football after a gruelling 10-year climb back to the summit of the English game.
Released by Arsenal in 2010, he never gave up on the dream and clawed his way up despite a couple of slips along the way.
Promotion from League One with Yeovil Town was followed by relegation. Winning League One with Bristol City was followed a year later by a move to Leeds, for just £200k, when it was decided he wasn’t what the Robins needed in the Championship.
Almost 200 appearances, a Championship title and a top-half finish in the Premier League later, Ayling is living the dream.
But while the dawn of a second campaign in the top flight instantly draws his natural enthusiasm for football, specifically playing football, to the surface once again, he’s quick to keep himself and his excitement in check because he knows Leeds have it all to do, all over again.
Heading into that bizarre, thrilling first season, in which Ayling and Leeds raised eyebrows across the world with the football they played and the results they earned behind closed doors amid a global pandemic, he quite freely admitted he was unsure if he could do it at that level.
Yet he was more than up to the task, performing solidly at right-back and in the centre of Marcelo Bielsa’s defence when an injury crisis struck the centre-half contingent.
He caught out numerous Premier League players with his patented ‘Flop’ and played a big part in taking Leeds from their own half deep into enemy territory, reliably looking after the ball time and time again.
There were no goals like the screamer against Huddersfield Town the season before, but there was plenty of the leadership he showed in the title-winning term.
He wore the captain’s armband a dozen times in the league and even when he wasn’t wearing it, his voice was one of those reverberating around empty stadia, whether he was telling wing wizard Raphinha to ‘do it properly’ at West Brom, reminding Illan Meslier of the importance of picking the right pass at Arsenal, engaging in a spirited debate with Pascal Struijk at Brighton or chiding officials in every game.
It was plain to see he was having a ball.
“I’m not really sure when it was [I realised I was a Premier League player],” he told The YEP. “I was just excited for every game. I couldn’t wait to get out there for every single game; hopefully that carries on this season.”
He too was somewhat startled by how well it all went, yet there’s a reticence to dwell too much on what has gone, the leader in him interjecting, almost as if a voice or trigger has gone off inside his head to direct the focus forward on what needs to be done next.
“I suppose [I was surprised] a little bit,” he said.
“The first aim was to stay in the league. We always aimed far higher than that. We finished really well and got into the top half of the table which was good. Our training sessions for the last 10 games or so never changed and, once we knew we were safe, nothing changed around the place, it was always the same every single week.
"I think we showed it in our last six games, with just a great run of form that popped us up in the table really nicely. I think that was key.
“But that counts for nothing this year, we’re coming back and starting again. We’ve seen in previous years it’s quite hard the second season, we know it’s going to be a tough season.
“It’s our second year in it, we know it’s going to be a tougher season, people know about us and, from a personal point of view, players have played against you, they might see some things they can exploit.”
Ayling is one of those players who exudes a passion for the game. On the night Croatia, Spain, France and Switzerland combined for 14 goals he Tweeted: “Tonight is why we love football.”
His love of the game was never more evident than during the summer break when he visited Wembley for the League Two play-off final between Morecambe and Newport, before returning to cheer on his team-mate Kalvin Phillips in England’s Euro 2020 final against Italy.
When the fixture list came out for next season, revealing a trip to Old Trafford on the opening day, he reacted like any fan, reaching for his phone.
“It feels completely different [this time],” he said.
“I think last year, with getting promoted and only having two weeks off it kind of rolled into one but this year we’ve had a bit longer off, a bit of time to sit back and look and what we’ve done over the past couple of years.
“It does feel as if it’s our first year back in the Premier League, with fans, the fixture list coming out and what a buzz it was to find out who we got on the first day.
“I was in Marbella and saw it come through and I was buzzing. Hopefully fans will be back in. It looks like they will be and it’ll be special.
“I actually texted the group chat and said let’s try and start a bit better than we did last time we went there, let’s try not to be 2-0 down after two minutes.
“It’s a brand new season, we’re coming straight from the off-season and there’s always a few [surprise] results. We finished well last season, which I think was key.
“How you finish and coming back into training buzzing is really important. I can’t wait for that first game.”
Win, lose or draw against Manchester United, Ayling knows the opening few weeks will be vital if Leeds are to put together a season that can match their Premier League return. If they can better it, he’ll be pinching himself as an established Premier League player.
“It all goes on how we start,” he told The YEP.
“We’ve come back quite early for pre-season to make sure we’re ready for that first game. If we start well again like we did last year, who knows? We’re still new to the Premier League; it’s only our second season.
“We finished ninth last year which was pretty good. Hopefully, we can finish there or thereabouts this year.”