THERE was relief in Thomas Christiansen’s voice when he talked about Caleb Ekuban’s comeback last week; another option materialising at a time when the Leeds United head coach was looking for answers.
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Only Ekuban himself felt happier, the victim of bad timing in his four months at Elland Road. A broken foot bone suffered an hour into his league debut has dictated Ekuban’s short career with Leeds, a classic case of one door opening and another slamming in his face.
Again on Sunday, when he returned as a substitute in a 2-1 win over Middlesbrough, he was waiting to come on at the very moment when a controversial penalty dragged Boro back into a game they otherwise looked certain to lose.
Christiansen was faced with the dilemma of whether to send Ekuban on or abandon the substitution and tighten his team up instead. “I thought about that for just a second,” Ekuban admitted, “but the gaffer said ‘we’ll change it anyway’ so I relaxed. I thought ‘it’s my time now. Let me help the team’.”
The striker – a £500,000 signing from Chievo in July – had been feeling the urge to get himself involved for several weeks, ever since he resumed light training.
It was a late call for help from Christiansen which brought about his Championship debut in a 2-0 victory at Sunderland on August 19, the day on which it became clear that player-of-the-year Chris Wood was about to leave Leeds for Burnley.
Ekuban, who had scored on his only other appearance in a League Cup win over Port Vale, started at the Stadium of Light and helped Leeds establish a 1-0 advantage before pulling up in obvious pain at the end of a second-half counter-attack. An X-ray revealed a fractured foot and he was sent for surgery before the end of the month.
“I was quite happy and figuring out my new situation when the injury came,” he said.
“It bothered me for two or three days but that was it. You know it’s part of football. You have to set your mind and be focused on coming back as soon as you can. Now I feel like I always do.
I heard about Leeds and Tony Yeboah because I’m also a Ghanaian. My dad would speak about him saying ‘you have to watch how he plays’. I’d say ‘it’s not so easy dad! But I will try’.Leeds United’s Caleb Ekuban
“I’ve only had really small injuries until now. I’m, let’s say, very lucky. Compared to the others it was tough because it was the first time I’d been out for almost two months. It was my first game in the Championship and then you get that injury so I went from one emotion to the other in a split second. At the end of the day, it’s football. What comes comes.”
Ekuban revealed that he was unaware of Wood’s impending departure until Christiansen announced his team and named him as Wood’s replacement.
“All my team-mates were saying ‘you are ready for this’,” he said but what was, at face value, a chance to fill a big void ended with Ekuban limping from the pitch on 62 minutes. On transfer deadline day, another centre-forward arrived in the form of Pierre-Michel Lasogga from Hamburg.
Lasogga is United’s leading scorer this season but illness kept him out of Sunday’s meeting with Middlesbrough and Kemar Roofe’s influence up front was strong enough to keep him there at Wolverhampton Wanderers tonight, certainly in the eyes of Ekuban. “Every player in the team wants to start,” he said. “Me too. But in Italy they say ‘a team that wins never changes’. We were very good up front (on Sunday). If the gaffer calls me I’m ready but if he doesn’t, I’m also ready.
“We all have the ability to be the first striker for the team. It’s just that we have to reach our top form. In top form, yes I can be (first choice) but it’s the same with Kemar Roofe, Lasogga and Jay-Roy (Grot). That’s good. If you don’t have competition in a team who want to get promoted, it’s difficult to stay at a high level.”
Was there any underlying rivalry in the fight for selection, Ekuban was asked. “Rivals? We’re never rivals because we play for the same team,” he said. “We just try to take the maximum out of everyone. The higher the competition, the higher the quality of the team.”
Ekuban scored goals last season; 17 in all and enough during a loan at Albanian club Partizani Tirana to tempt Leeds to activate the release clause in his contract at Chievo.
Born in Italy, Ekuban is Ghanaian at heart, a player whose grandfather once jokingly told him not to come back to his house if he tried to represent the Italian national team. As a source of inspiration, his father would point time and again to the class of Tony Yeboah, an icon in Ghana and a cult hero at Leeds.
“I heard about Leeds and Tony Yeboah because I’m also a Ghanaian,” Ekuban said. “My dad would speak about him saying ‘you have to watch how he plays’. I’d say ‘it’s not so easy dad! But I will try’.”
Ekuban laughed as he told that story, making the point that emulating Yeboah was a nice but out-of-context dream. Leeds badly needed Sunday’s win over Middlesbrough to ease the strain on their head coach and address a sequence of seven defeats from nine games. That run gave rise to all sorts of questions: about Christiansen’s management, the standard of United’s squad and their ability to keep pace with the top six.
Tonight’s game at Molineux is as big an examination as the Championship will throw up, against the odds-on favourites for the title. “They’re a great team but we’re only focused on our own journey,” Ekuban said. “It started with Middlesbrough, we have Wolves now and we don’t care who’s in front of us.
“Against Middlesbrough we wanted to show everyone that we’re not the Leeds who have lost almost all the matches. We know we are far better than that kind of team and we proved it. We showed we’re something more than everybody thinks right now. If we play as we did in the last match we can beat everybody.”