Phil Hay: Leeds United need to rise up to standards Cook sets

Lewis Cook
Lewis Cook
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Leeds United’s contract talks with Lewis Cook should run their course. The club expect to find common ground without difficulty and hope the 17-year-old will agree new terms by the summer.

He’s unlikely to commit until Massimo Cellino completes his sabbatical from Elland Road – a sensible stance when the man who “signs the cheques” has just surrendered his pen – but Leeds do not see a problem. In the meantime, there are moves afoot to extend Alex Mowatt’s deal and pin him down beyond 2017. Discussions before Christmas between Cellino and Sam Byram’s agent were decidedly fractious and ended abruptly but Byram himself is said to be happy.

Neil Redfearn remarked after Tuesday’s win over Bournemouth that football was the “saving grace” for a club with severe emotional stress. In United’s case and in the context of this season, their saving grace is actually the academy. Again. At a recent gathering of English development heads, from the Premier League down, the academy at Thorp Arch was rated as the 10th most productive in the country in terms of the first-team players it provides. The devil’s advocate would argue that many English clubs pay lip service to theirs; that Leeds depend on junior footballers because form, finance and incontinuity steers them down that route. But still.

Where Cook is concerned, he has not broken through by default. The teenager is blessed with that rare impetus which compels coaching staff to give into him irrespective of his age. He was 13 when he played in an Under-18s fixture. The club discovered later that they had breached the rules by fielding someone so young.

Cook falls easily into the bracket of talent occupied by Fabian Delph. It’s tempting to compare him to James Milner but easy to forget how good Milner was and how good he has been. Cook possesses the swagger, the touch and the knack of making league games look like street football. Where Delph had tricks – marvellous pieces of ball-control – Cook has poise; the ability to run a game, dictate it and drive it. Modern football appreciates players like Cook. Modern formations are made for him.

People joke about keeping the secret close, of playing Cook’s reputation down, but Premier League recruitment networks have eyes and ears everywhere. He’ll have attracted attention as far back as the European Under-17 Championship last summer and a scout worth his wage would argue that anyone who isn’t aware of Cook hasn’t been doing their job properly. A couple of years ago, a member of that fraternity who attended a Championship game with a view to analysing Byram was asked how widely word about the right-back had spread. “A lot of us were already following him in the academy,” he replied.

A comment like that gives a player’s contract perspective. Cook is presently tied to Leeds until 2016. He might be perfectly willing to sign an extension but the deal itself is only paper. Long contracts equate to bigger transfer fees these days and for Cook, the attraction of staying at Elland Road won’t be money or security. It’s a matter of perception; the midfielder’s perception of what is happening here and what he stands to gain by immersing himself in it.

Over the years Leeds have never had a specific problem with contract negotiations. Jonathan Howson was one of the few footballers who held off while new terms were on the table. The issue for the club is the fact that improved deals are rarely seen out. When Delph left for Aston Villa in 2009 he was 12 months into four-year contract. It might as well have run for half a century. The approach, the fee and the outcome would have been exactly the same, on the basis that Delph wanted the move.

Redfearn’s comments this week were right. The club need to retain Cook and others like him. It goes without saying. But a teenager so gifted and aware of his talent won’t stay at Elland Road out of obligation or because his contract forces him to. He’ll settle here if Leeds get their act together and for as long as the club live up to his standards. That benchmark is already high. In years to come, new contract or not, it won’t stoop to 20th in the Championship.