By Rob Atkinson
Everywhere you look within the Leeds United blogosphere at the moment, people are gnashing their teeth, tearing their hair, rending their clothes and exhibiting other biblical signs of anguish and angst – and all over one slip of a lad. Sam Byram was an unknown to 99% of the support twelve short months ago. Then he had a dream pre-season, started off the Championship campaign in the first team and stayed there, producing displays of a maturity and confidence far in excess of his tender years.
Naturally, being Leeds, this seeming success story is a double-edged sword. The presence of a boy wonder in the first team (otherwise known in LS11 as “the shop window”) more usually produces feelings of rampant insecurity among the Leeds faithful, rather than the warm glow that should accompany the sight of a youthful prodigy in the famous white shirt. We know our place in today’s scheme of things, and it is very much that of “feeder club”. Each successive hero has played his way into our hearts, prospered briefly in front of our adoring eyes and then departed for pastures greener, or more likely Canary yellow, with no sign of any adequate replacement. It’s happened with Beckford, Howson, Snoddy, Becchio and Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all. Local hero status is no protection from the Lure of Elsewhere. Howson supposedly had Leeds tattooed on his heart, but it seems to have been erased easily enough.
Sam Byram is quite possibly the jewel in the crown of the Leeds Academy production line. He’s that good. It’s natural then that worries over his short-term future should be particularly unwelcome at a time when a new manager is supposed to be building for the club’s re-admission to the Promised Land of the Premier League. But really – should we be worrying at all?
We need to take a long, hard look at what is necessary to get us out of this division in the desired, upwards, direction. That list will include strikers who know where the goal is and are proficient at sticking the ball therein; midfielders and wingers according to the prescription of Dr. McDermott, who has seen this treatment work wonders at Reading; tough ball winners who are preferably not in the superannuated class, and a solid defence who will be mean enough at the back to make sure that increased productivity up front results in a net force taking us a lot higher up the league. What we probably don’t actually need, and won’t until it’s time to start plotting our approach to the top flight, is a potentially world-class performer on the right flank. It’s superfluous to our current requirements; we’re casting pearls before swine.
It would be nice, of course, if Sam did stick around. It might even be better for the lad himself – too many fledgling superstars have gone up a level and struggled to stay afloat, look at Fabian Delph. He’s only now beginning to show glimmers of the player that looked likely to be evolving under the guidance of Gary McAllister. Byram might well benefit from another season at least learning his trade at a good club, under the tuition of Brian and Gibbo. The possibility of a sale with loan-back has been mooted, but the most likely club to offer such a deal, Man City, have just had a change at the top, so that dog may not bark.
Looking at things realistically though – if there WAS an offer of £10 million for the youthful and richly promising Sam, and if that £10 million were to be made available to the Gaffer for the construction of a team that would challenge strongly next season – might not that be a good option for Leeds? It’s the kind of money that would go a fair way towards the three, possibly four quality additions we need to propel us into the very top echelons of the Championship. Once promoted, it’s a different ball game, but in the here and now the priority is actually getting there, and a lavishly-gifted Byram in a team consisting otherwise mainly of uninspiring plodders may not be enough to realise the dream.
A lot will depend on the attitude of the lad himself, and historically no sentimental feelings of attachment to the club that has nurtured their talent have persuaded previous uncut diamonds to hang around and be polished at Elland Road. So if Sam wanted to go to a Premier League club, would we, could we, SHOULD we, stand in his way? My view is that you don’t sacrifice a lad’s ambition and desire to mix it with the best, on the altar of narrow club interests – such a policy is liable to blow up in your face, leaving you with a disaffected and depreciating asset on your hands. No, if Byram wanted out, we’d be better off gritting our teeth, securing the very best deal for Leeds United – and don’t forget that sell-on clause, GFHC! – and getting on with reinvesting the loot in a team that will do the job at this level. We can leave worries about how we cope in the Premier League for such time as it’s a live issue, rather than the distant prospect it is now.
We need to cast off that “Feeder club” image as the mortally humiliating insult it is. We Are Leeds, after all. But in order for that to happen, we may need to embrace the unwelcome label one last time, and speculate to accumulate. If the departure of Sam provides the funds to finish the job, then that sad loss will turn out to have been a worthy sacrifice. The stubborn desire to keep a luxury we can’t afford, and frankly don’t really need in our current situation, could turn out to be the ultimate example of short-termism, to the detriment of our longer-term prospects of life at the top.