By the end of this week Leeds United hope to have Liam Bridcutt “out on the grass” which, while falling some way short of a return to contention, is a step forward from being in the medical room.
This has been an odd period for Bridcutt: so much time spent thrashing out a transfer to Leeds but so little time spent in the team. Souleymane Doukara has played more than him and scratched more of the surface this season.
In theory Bridcutt’s absence – 11 games and counting – should have hurt Leeds and, at some stage, it might. Eunan O’Kane’s return from international duty with a groin strain stretched their squad a little further and it remains to be seen if O’Kane makes Sunday’s match against Newcastle United. The midfielder has not trained this week and while Bridcutt is getting there slowly, he told LUTV on Tuesday that he expected to make a few development-squad appearances before rejoining the fray.
It will reassure Garry Monk to have his captain waiting in the wings. But it must please him more that in spite of Bridcutt’s obvious talent he has not been badly missed.
There were spells in certain games – Derby County away in particular – where a bloody-minded attitude would have done Leeds good, but since Bridcutt fractured a metatarsal bone against Blackburn in September, the club’s league record shows six wins, one draw and two defeats. The sooner Bridcutt is fit the better, and likewise Stuart Dallas, but it says something about Leeds that they are not desperate for help. On the contrary, neither Bridcutt nor Dallas should be presumptuous about playing.
There are reasons why, and Kalvin Phillips and Ronaldo Vieira are two of them.
Phillips has come of age in the past few months, a 20-year-old with the physique of an established pro.
Vieira is following the tradition at Leeds of academy players making the transition from development-squad football to first-team football look like a doddle.
They have the benefit of the guidance offered by a seasoned midfielder like O’Kane, but Monk has evidently allowed both players to think that they are up to the Championship. That attitude has spread throughout the whole squad.
Bridcutt said this week that he singled out Phillips as a promising prospect when he first signed on loan from Sunderland last season. That confidence in him was not altogether shared by others.
Phillips played a little under Uwe Rosler and even more sporadically under Steve Evans, peripheral to a team who were extremely up and down.
Those 12 months did not do much for his game and, while Monk would never say so publicly, self-assurance among the players he took on in June was more than just a little bruised.
People close to Monk say he sensed fragility straight away.
It was largely under-estimated until the tension of August underlined it but Leeds have gone over the hill since the win over Blackburn which came at the cost of Bridcutt’s fractured foot.
Players have found form en masse and those lost to injury are being replaced without difficulty. There is no longer any area where Leeds could be described as unduly weak. At any quarter it looks like a venture worth investing in, from on-loan players like Pontus Jansson, Pablo Hernandez and Kyle Bartley through to Monk himself.
Leeds have already arranged a deal to sign Hernandez permanently in January.
For financial reasons it suited Hernandez to join temporarily first.
The club are confident that their agreement with Torino to take Jansson full-time is binding and watertight, and the completion of that transfer is paramount; the one deal which, if Leeds failed to finalise it, could bring the season crashing down.
Where Swansea City stand on Bartley’s future is more difficult to say and they cannot discount the possibility that they will be playing in the Championship next year.
Swansea tied Bartley to a new contract before releasing him on loan but he is as integral to Monk’s team as the charismatic Jansson. Leeds are strong in the centre of defence precisely because there is no marked weakness between the pair of them.
As for Monk, he has served his apprenticeship if apprenticeship is the right word. Managers start out on probation at Elland Road and not many are standing by the end of it, but United’s head coach is safely through that uncertain window. There is no longer any sense in leaving him on a contract to the end of the season.
It would be easy to see his short-term deal in the context of rival clubs trying to poach him with the offer of a job at a higher level but managerial recruitment in the Premier League pays less and less attention to what is happening in the Championship.
For a coach like Monk, and others like Gary Rowett, you wonder if the pathway from one league to another exists anymore unless they take a club to promotion themselves, but Monk has earned the commitment of a longer contract at Elland Road.
This is more about how much Leeds value him rather than how much other clubs might want him.
It is more about nailing colours to the mast.
That opinion stands regardless of whether Leeds take anything from Sunday’s meeting with Newcastle
It stands regardless of whether Leeds make the play-offs in May.
If Monk’s approach isn’t good enough for a top-six finish this season, he and so many of his players look good enough for next season.
It is in the club’s interests to show that foresight.