One-time rookie Luke Ayling is a master of his craft at Leeds United

WHEN it comes to winning free-kicks, Luke Ayling is an artist.

By Graham Smyth
Wednesday, 8th April 2020, 4:35 pm

He has made the act of turning his back on wingers and attackers, receiving contact and going to ground, into an artform.

The Ayling Flop, as it has affectionately become known among Whites, has eased pressure on Marcelo Bielsa’s side on many an occasion this season, frustrating opponents no end and earning 57 free-kicks.

The defender, who has even begun passing the art on to his three-year-old daughter Maisie, as evidenced by a recent Instagram video, has committed only 19 fouls himself in the Championship, showing what a wily operator he has become.

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WILY CAMPAIGNER: Luke Ayling holds off Brentford's Ollie Watkins. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.

But 10 years ago, as Ayling was finding his feet in the professional game as a fresh-faced 18-year-old on loan at Yeovil Town from Arsenal, he was painting by numbers, predominantly in yellow and red.

His first four games for the Glovers brought two cautions.

It was a mere taste of what was to come in his first full season at Huish Park, following a permanent move from the Emirates.

At first, he was a paragon of virtue, seeing the yellow card flash just twice in his first 15 appearances of the 2010/11 League One campaign.

Luke Ayling in his Yeovil Town days challenges Sheffield Wednesday's Jacques Maghoma. Picture: Steve Ellis.

But 11 yellows and two reds in his next 25 games suggest there was a problem.

It wasn’t an explosive temper at the heart of disciplinary struggles that continued the following season, which brought another nine yellows and a third career sending off.

It was a combination of an alien position and the tricky individual opponents he found himself facing.

“I played centre-half at Arsenal and then, when I went to Yeovil, I started off in centre-mid’ and then, about 10 games in, I got moved to right-back,” he said.

Luke Ayling challenges Huddersfield's Danny Ward while playing for Yeovil Town. Picture: Tony Johnson.

“It was all new to me, completely new playing right-back, I had never played there before and I’ve gone into the leagues, playing against men.

“It was me over-committing, trying to get too tight to my man, trying to be rough with a skilful winger I’d be coming up against.

“Playing then, against teams like Southampton, they had Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain, Adam Lallana, Huddersfield had Anthony Pilkington and I was a young lad who had never played right-back, so I just tried getting tight and getting physical.

“The first year I picked up like 13 yellows and two reds, the second year maybe 10 yellows and two reds.”

Mercifully for Ayling, none of his three dismissals resulted in defeats for Yeovil, but they did draw all three of those games.

His first two red cards both came in the 64th minute, they were the result of a pair of bookings and both dished out by Trevor Kettle.

At Sheffield Wednesday, Kettle ignored the Hillsborough side’s vehement calls for a straight red when Ayling lunged into a tackle near the touchline in the opponents’ half and produced only a yellow.

But Kettle brought the card out again when Ayling eased Gary Teale to the turf in a fairly innocuous by-line coming together and the youngster had his marching orders.

Five minutes later, team-mate Adam Virgo walked for denying a goalscoring opportunity and, down to nine men, the Glovers conceded a late Reda Johnson equaliser.

On April 16, 2011 Ayling was coming up against old Arsenal pal Cedric Evina, then of Oldham Athletic, and tweeted before the game: “Cannot wait to see my close mate @ceddy_16. But I will be going out there to kick you!”

Ayling did indeed kick Evina and, for that, picked up a second yellow card of the game. Presumably, much to the right-back’s relief, Andy Welsh scored late on to grab a point for Yeovil and Evina missed with an attempted shot in stoppage time.

The Cameroonian didn’t miss on social media, though. “Good game plan,” he tweeted. “Kick Ceddy out of the game, worked well!”

The following season, at Stevenage, Ayling stopped a shot with his hand to see red. John Mousinho spared his blushes however, by missing the resulting spot-kick.

The indiscipline might not have had particularly severe consequences for Yeovil, but there was a cost for Ayling himself.

“I came to the end of my contract at Yeovil, sat down with my agent and he said there are teams looking at you but you’ve had too many yellows, too many reds, you’ve got to calm down,” he said.

“I signed two more years at Yeovil and then I think I only had four, five a season maybe.”

In his third season as a Glover he took just four cautions in 47 games en route to promotion to the Championship, via the play-offs.

His fourth season saw eight in 46 games in the second tier of English football.

As a brand-new Bristol City signing, he picked up four yellows in 58 appearances and one fewer the season after, albeit with reduced playing time.

But since his sophomore season, he’s hit double figures for cards just once – he took 10 yellows in his debut season at Elland Road.

And he’s had only one more sending off – last season at home to Brentford, late on, for two yellows, in a draw.

With age and games – Ayling now has over 400 career appearances under his belt – comes wisdom and nous.

A decade as a professional has taught him when, where and how to challenge for the ball.

“As you get older you know when you can go and when you can’t, what tackles you can do, what minute of the game it is, what part of the pitch you can make a foul and where you can’t,” he said.

“It all comes with experience.”

And such experience has allowed the fouler to become the fouled.


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