'Same qualities' - Leeds United 23s boss Mark Jackson on nurturing ex Celtic teen Leo Hjelde after academy twice answered Marcelo Bielsa call

Leeds United’s Under-23s have answered the call from Marcelo Bielsa in two separate defensive injury crises by supplying a pair of impressive young centre-backs and Mark Jackson is hard at work nurturing yet another.

By Graham Smyth
Wednesday, 29th September 2021, 6:50 pm
NEW LEADER - Leo Hjelde took the captain's armband for Mark Jackson's Leeds United Under 21s in the EFL Trophy. Jackson has helped develop Pascal Struijk and Charlie Cresswell, both called upon by Marcelo Bielsa.

Last season, when injury problems removed senior defenders Liam Cooper, Diego Llorente and Robin Koch from Bielsa’s plans, it was Pascal Struijk who stepped up from the 23s to seize an opportunity and carve out a name for himself as the future of the Leeds backline.

So good in the top flight was Struijk, a player Ajax didn’t appear to know what to do with and were happy to release, that he can consider himself unfortunate if ever he has to sit on the bench.

As it happens, both Llorente and Koch have been struck by injuries again this season, presenting further opportunities to the 22-year-old before a heavily disputed red card against Liverpool saw him suspended for three games.

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Yet another injury, this time for Luke Ayling, sent Bielsa back to Jackson for a centre-half and 23s captain Charlie Cresswell was ready and waiting.

His Carabao Cup performance against Fulham satisfied the club’s head coach that he should not fear starting the teenager in the Premier League and with Ayling still out for the visit of West Ham, Cresswell duly started.

It was a proud moment for Jackson, not least because Cresswell handled it so well. Michail Antonio caused him problems, as he does routinely for defenders of far greater experience, and some of his distribution was wayward but in general it was a debut that spoke to the size of the 18-year-old’s personality.

“Another debut in the Premier League – I always say I’m proud whenever a player makes their debut, said Jackson.

“I thought he coped with the occasion really, really well. I spoke to him afterwards and he was obviously really disappointed with the result, as we all were. I thought he was really assured and showed a maturity in how he dealt with the situation. That’s pleasing from our point of view.”

His suspension over, Struijk is expected come back into Bielsa’s defence to face Watford on Saturday, with Cresswell on standby as ever.

For him, the task now is to ensure the next time he is called upon by the head coach, he reports to the Premier League an even better version of the player who took on West Ham.

“It’s just the next step, like we always say to the players, you’ve got that debut now it’s the next one, what are you going to do next?” said Jackson.

“You can’t rest on that, you have to push forward, keep working hard. There’s still loads of development in these young players, even if they do get on the first team pitch, there’s loads of development in them. We as a group of staff have to keep their feet on the ground.

“I think we’re dealing with a group of young men who are really grounded but we have to keep pushing them and trying to get them better all the time so they can get further performances and further appearances in the first team.”

Unless at least two of Struijk, Ayling and Llorente are restored to Bielsa’s options for Watford – Koch’s pelvic problem appears more complex – Cresswell is likely to remain involved in the matchday squad at least.

That may well take Jackson’s captain out of the 23s squad when they travel to Leicester City in Premier League 2 action on Friday night, but he handed the armband to another centre-back this week in the EFL Trophy at Oldham.

Leo Hjelde arrived from Celtic in the summer and has already exhibited some of the traits Jackson has witnessed in Cresswell over their years together at Thorp Arch.

“I see good leadership qualities in Leo, I have done for a while, watching him throughout the summer before he signed for the club,” said Jackson.

“He demonstrates good leadership qualities. It was a test for him to come in and take the armband and lead the team. I challenged him to lead the team and organise. It’s a new system of play for him to get used to so that challenge as well will be difficult for him but I’ve got full confidence in him, and I see qualities I can help nurture in him.

“I did that with Charlie Cresswell throughout the time I worked with him, from Under 16s, through the 18s and 23s. I see the same qualities in Leo.”

The Norwegian will already know that the pecking order does not simply come down to a natural fit for a position in Bielsa’s team – Kalvin Phillips and Ayling playing centre-half is proof that he will use the best player available with a profile close enough to that required by the vacancy – but you never know when the phone will ring. He just has to show he’s ready to answer it.