Lewie Coyle has a few years on Jay-Roy Grot and, to judge by his family tree, some naturally competitive genes but he is by definition a young footballer. He is learning about the jungle on loan at Fleetwood Town and any impatience about the rate of his development is Coyle’s alone. Leeds United are happy to let him move through the gears in his own time. A new contract on the morning of his transfer to Fleetwood told him that.
But Coyle at 22 is the same as the next man: aware of how quickly his industry leaves players behind and motivated by a healthy anxiety to progress.
People tell Coyle he has years on his side but as he said in an interview with the YEP in October, there are fresher faces than his in the Championship and younger footballers already playing at Leeds. He was wary of losing ground to complacency over his age. “I don’t see myself as young anymore,” Coyle said. “You can’t say that forever.”
Age as an excuse provides limited protection for a player who isn’t getting there fast. It is doing very little to protect Grot, whose treatment by the Elland Road crowd on Saturday made comparable incidents look like gentle ribbing. Others experienced these waters before him – Luke Varney, Andy O’Brien and more recently Chris Wood – but none of them felt the heat of having every touch ridiculed, or not so quickly as Grot. Elland Road is downing tools on the 19-year-old without the benefit of a single Championship start.
That Grot is 19 and abroad for the first time makes the abuse of him more than a little inconsiderate but the problem for him is that impediments like those are not universal. Ronaldo Vieira is 19 and every bit as far from home in Guinea Bissau where he was born and Portugal where he grew up. Vieira’s route into a sport which likes to farm kids at primary-school age was wholly unconventional and in no small way down to his coaching at Yorkshire’s i2i Academy. Grot, in comparison, was 10 when NEC Nijmegen first took him on. It can be done at 19 in the Championship and, as Ryan Sessegnon showed at Fulham, it can be done significantly sooner than that.
There is always the risk, no matter the diligence of scouting or the money spent, that a player doesn’t have it and Grot has looked a distance short in almost every respect this season but at an average of 11 minutes an appearance, there is no knowing if this is him in his entirety.
Leeds do not have to think hard to remember players who came good after keeping their ability hidden at first. When the club were pressing Davide Somma to sign a long-term contract in 2010, it was odd to think back to a conversation with him 18 months earlier; downbeat in the car park after a reserve game at Elland Road, nearing the end of the deal he was on and in the dark about what Leeds planned to do. Somma was no-one’s priority until his finishing made a low-level contract everyone’s problem.
Grot has the promise of four years at Leeds, at least on paper, and given the negative perception of his game there is cause for the club to rethink their management of him. At £750,000 up front, Leeds expected more of him and more threat off the bench but they did not think the forward was completely honed. Much as Thomas Christiansen has exposed Grot by persisting with in spite of the evidence in front of him, he was on the bench out of necessity against Norwich. Caleb Ekuban is injured and Pierre-Michel Lasogga has been missing for weeks. Pablo Hernandez was the only other replacement who passed as an attacking change. Given greater numbers, Christiansen will quietly pull Grot out of the firing line. That almost goes without saying now.
So what solution is there for a Dutch teenager with dissent around him? A run with the development squad and the chance of full, regular games might help, even though the divide between the first team and the Under-23s at Leeds is the equivalent of one-way glass. Some move up, as pictures of Kun Temenuzhkov training with Christiansen’s squad last week showed, but no-one drops down.
The modern version of reserve-team football is no longer used for the benefit out-of-form senior players or those returning from injury. The squads feel increasingly like separate entities but if Under-23 level is right for a 20-year-old in Madger Gomes then it could be right for Grot. And it cannot be any worse than the effect of short cameos which the crowd around him are waiting to jump on. Loans have solved similar crises of confidence in the past, for Somma not least, but Grot has already played for two clubs this season, the maximum permitted by FIFA rules. It would be a brave move in any case to wave him into the lower leagues at a time when his head is down.
Christiansen’s anger over the reaction to him on Saturday was understandable. Money pays for opinions but if Christiansen believes Grot is pulling a leg, he is not obliged to tolerate the targeting of a player whose short time here and fleeting outings make him something of an afterthought. That was the difference with Chris Wood. He was the Leeds’ top earner and he was here to lead the line. Grot is making up the numbers and has seen fewer minutes in four months than Wood saw in a fortnight in August. He could have done with the tap-in which Leandro Bacuna pinched off his toes against Reading and there are ample examples of turning points as small as that. Grot needs something and in more ways than one, he needs a break.