Oliver Casey move and Leeds United transfer market plans pose question for Jamie Shackleton

Jack Harrison swapping keepy uppies with a dog in Costa Rica for performance improvement sessions in Los Angeles is a sure sign that pre-season is almost upon us.

Thursday, 24th June 2021, 4:45 am
YOUNG HOPEFUL - Jamie Shackleton is considered an important part of Marcelo Bielsa's Leeds United first team squad but struggled to get minutes in the second half of the season. Pic: Getty
YOUNG HOPEFUL - Jamie Shackleton is considered an important part of Marcelo Bielsa's Leeds United first team squad but struggled to get minutes in the second half of the season. Pic: Getty

The Leeds United winger is known for working hard in the off-season on both the physical and mental side of his game in an attempt to return to training in prime condition ahead of a new season.

In 2019 it was strength and conditioning work at New York’s Exceed Physical Culture facility and outdoor endurance sessions with E3Sports in Manhattan’s Riverside Park.

This summer he’s working with Sports Performance Improvement, a football training company with bases in London and LA founded by Nicky Holdender, who boast Christian Benteke, Danny Ings, Leroy Sane and Lianne Sanderson among their clients.

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Head trainer David Park described the work Harrison has been doing as ‘big game aspects’ that were identified as crucial keys to Harrison’s 2021-22 Premier League season.

“Off season program based on what we identified as his “big game aspects” through thorough match evaluation, which Jack agreed would be crucial to his upcoming season, especially in Bielsa’s philosophy and tactics,” he said.

Harrison is far from alone in engaging in extracurricular work and submitting himself to a pre-pre-season before Leeds United’s fitness guru Benoit Delaval welcomes him back to the Thorp Arch running track.

Ian Poveda has been lifting weights in Jamaica and Joe Gelhardt has been firing rockets into the top corner during sessions alongside his former Wigan Athletic academy team-mates in Liverpool.

Ryan Edmondson, who will spend the season on loan at Fleetwood Town, joined former Leeds team-mate Jack Clarke to train at the i2i Football Academy in York this week.

Others will be getting their runs in, as Pablo Hernandez used to do around Roundhay before returning to training in what his fellow professionals would call exemplary condition, in preparation for next Thursday’s testing when Bielsa’s staff will assess the fitness levels.

Other Leeds players are keeping fit by playing in a major tournament. They’re improving themselves, too.

Marcelo Bielsa says there are three key elements for the development of a player - their natural abilities, the first 10 years of their footballing education and the level of competition.

“Nothing improves a player more than playing against a better player,” said the Leeds United head coach.

So while Kalvin Phillips, Mateusz Klich et al will need a little time off following their Euro 2020 exploits before making themselves available to Bielsa once again, when they do return they might come back as better versions of themselves.

Phillips specifically will bring with him the experience of working daily with the country’s best players and playing international football as a No 8.

For all the benefits of training and coaching, playing football matches is what Phillips and all of his fellow Leeds players want to do.

Everything they do in the week is geared towards playing as well as they can in matches, doing the very thing that allows them to call themselves a professional footballer.

Without the games, they would just be very athletic, very well paid but ultimately unfulfilled young men.

That’s why Oliver Casey has taken an admirable decision to walk away from Leeds, where there was no realistic pathway to competitive football for him.

It’s admirable because he didn’t have to do it, he could have remained at Thorp Arch for the final two years of his contract, playing Under-23s football and enjoying the facilities, coaching and glory associated with Bielsa’s Leeds.

The Leeds payroll has even recently featured names of players quite happy to pick up their wages without playing any form of football or having any involvement in Thorp Arch life.

Casey wants to be a footballer, however.

“You get to a point where you’ve got to make the move if you want to make a career for yourself,” he said. “Sometimes you’ve got to make that step.”

Jamie Shackleton is almost exactly a year older than Casey and also penned a new deal at Elland Road last summer.

The pathway to the first team was a lot clearer for Shackleton than the departed defender at that time, thanks to 22 Championship appearances in the title-winning season.

But as the Whites plot the capture of another central midfielder, with Stuart Dallas and Klich already ahead of Shackleton in that position and with Cody Drameh the obvious long-term successor to Luke Ayling at right-back, the paucity of the local lad’s match minutes in the second half of last season has left the pathway looking a little less clear.

Bielsa played Shackleton for a single minute of the final 14 Premier League fixtures, keeping him on the bench even when Klich was given early leave for the final week.

On one hand, being considered part of Bielsa’s squad and soaking up all the wisdom that has improved countless players, puts Shackleton in a privileged position. Playing the long game and hoping to ease into a career of regular football at the highest domestic level is certainly a good option.

On the other hand, if he can’t put that wisdom to good use in competitive football, at what stage does a privileged position become a redundant one?

Pascal Struijk is living proof that fate can intervene. Even when summer 2020 recruitment appeared to push Struijk backwards, circumstance and then his own ability allowed him to take giant strides forward.

The case of Struijk might be all the encouragement Shackleton needs to stick it out, gritting his teeth through Premier League 2 games, biding his time for the real stuff.

Besides, by the time pre-season starts it’s unlikely a new midfielder will be in place and Klich may not have returned.

Shackleton will be eyeing an opportunity to forcefully state his case and fight for his football.