'No other club will suit him more than Leeds United' - Leo Hjelde's loan spell and 'non-stop' grief over Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk

Leeds United have agreed a deal worth in excess of £1m to take centre-half Leo Hjelde from Celtic, an 18-year-old with some Scottish Premiership experience.

Friday, 27th August 2021, 2:42 pm
GAME EXPERIENCE - Leeds United new boy Leo Hjelde played in a Scottish Premiership relegation battle with Ross County, making a lasting impression on team-mates and boss John Hughes. Pic: Getty

"I know exactly what you're going to say," laughed Callum Morris, before the question was even asked.

Morris played alongside Leeds United new boy Leo Hjelde last season at Ross County, where the on-loan teenager from Celtic left a lasting impression on his team-mates and manager John Hughes.

Hughes was so impressed, in fact, that he said this: "I 100 per cent believe he will reach the Premier League. Leo is going to be the next Virgil van Dijk, trust me on that, trust me."

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It was as perfect a line for newspaper headlines as it was relentless training ground ribbing.

Dressing rooms around the country would kill for such ammunition - enough to fuel the grief for weeks.

"Non-stop," Morris told the YEP.

"Non-stop. A lot of the boys were like 'surely not gaffer, you can't be saying that' and in training Leo got it all the time - any time he gave the ball away he got the van Dijk shout. It probably helped him out, when there's something like that in the changing room for a young boy, it means he gets a bit of banter with everyone. Some might shy away but he thrived on it, enjoyed it. It shows the character of the lad."

Carrying the weightiest of comparisons around his neck had about as much impact on Hjelde's demeanour as anything else he faced as a 17-year-old tossed into the deep end of a Scottish Premiership relegation battle.

"He's old beyond his years," said Morris.

"He came into a really experienced, older changing room. Normally, when we've had a few loans from the Old Firm, they're quiet and timid when they first come in the door, until they start playing. Leo was just straight in. It was like he'd played about 400 games. He fitted in straight away, quite lively and bubbly, spoke to everyone - it was actually refreshing.

"When he played, he did really well. When he made a mistake it didn't faze him, he just got on with it. It was great to have him around the place in a really tough season, a relegation battle. He stood up to it quite well."

Morris saw enough to convince him there was a very good player in the teenager.

"He's a cultured defender, very good on the ball, his positioning was very good, his left foot is also pretty refined, he'll find a pass," said Morris.

"As he gets older he's only going to get better, with the mentality he has, with games he'll get better and better. He has little things you probably couldn't teach players: the composure, the want to play football all the time. He's not scared of getting the ball anywhere, he'll keep playing. Little things he's got can take him that extra bit to the top."

Veteran Morris, who was also a highly rated teenage defender once as a Newcastle United academy team-mate of Andy Carroll and Sammy Ameobi, sees Leeds as a place where Hjelde can try and reach the top.

"Am I surprised Celtic are letting him go? Because of his ability probably a little bit, but they're in a transition, whereas going into Leeds, where they're well structured, with a very obvious way of playing and a manager who will tell him exactly what he needs to do, will benefit him. He'll thrive. For him it's a perfect move."

It's a move that took its time. Leeds have tracked the Norwegian youth international for a while and finally reached an agreement with Celtic last week on a deal in excess of £1m.

Hjelde celebrated his 18th birthday yesterday being poked, prodded and scanned at Living Care in Leeds city centre, the Thorp Arch gym and a cardiovascular screening clinic in Manchester, before arriving at Elland Road to sign a four-year deal that was announced this afternoon.

It was former Ross County manager Hughes who first revealed Leeds' interest and he's glad to see it followed through to a conclusion.

"They've got themselves a star, an absolute cracker," he told the YEP.

"He needed to go and play in men's football and it was a real challenge at Ross County but he came out on top. Technically very, very good, really quick, great left foot, great range of passes - Leeds will suit him. There's no other club that will suit him more than Leeds.

"I'm just hoping he goes right onto the first team training pitch, stretches himself and lets the first team players like big Cooper the captain bring the best out of him. Working with Bielsa is what he needs. He's in the right club."

What Leeds have in Hjelde is high potential, but not a Premier League ready operator.

While Hughes was delighted to see the youngster integrating well with the senior players at Victoria Park, he sensed respect was getting in the way.

"I felt, and I had to speak to Leo, that he was holding back a wee bit in terms of being respectful to the senior pros in training, not wanting to be leading the way," he said.

"I said be who you are, you lead. He plays well beyond his years - some of the passes, the long diagonals he can produce, he's a footballing centre-half but very, very humble. I just felt at times, because of the respect, he was holding back. I'm hoping they bring that out of him at Leeds and say give it everything you've got."

For all the ability on display and an attitude that undoubtedly ticked a box for Leeds, Hjelde did not coast through his time in the Highlands.

"It wasn't always easy, sometimes in Scotland it's a physical battle and he handled it," said Hughes.

"If he didn't, he came back for more. The physical stuff will come. He's never out of the gym, he's 6ft 2ins and it'll come as he matures. He's nowhere near the finished article, but he's humble enough to listen and hungry enough to implement what's required."

So, about that van Dijk shout, then.

"I've seen a lot of him and a lot of van Dijk," said the former Celtic and Hibs player.

"He's not got the physical presence, that'll come later but he's got the stature. He's got the pace, the passing range and has a desire to defend. We tested him every day one-on-one in training and when I'm getting all the stats, Leo was well up there for running and effort. He never shied away from it once."

Morris is still not completely sold on the comparison, but his hopes for Hjelde align entirely with Hughes'.

"Virgil van Dijk is a bold statement, like," he said.

"Having played against van Dijk and played with Leo, I think van Dijk is a bit ahead of him but then again Leo is a lot younger. I'd like to think he could go right to the top to be honest with you.

"I wouldn't question that he'll make it, not at all. How high he goes is up to him."