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 three short years 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, and our last sight of him was as he wheeled away after scoring a winner against us. Byram could so easliy have followed the well-trodden path out of Elland Road a year ago; Southampton, awash with Liverpudlian money from their fire sale of last summer, were rebuffed after an offer of £4.5 million or so for Byram – but there are now rumours that more serious suitors might be willing almost to double that sum.
Sam is quite possibly the jewel in the crown of the Leeds Academy production line. Despite an injury-affected and form-blighted last year or so, he really is that good. It’s natural then that worries over his short-term future should be particularly unwelcome at a time when a maverick owner and the latest in a long and dismal line of “head coaches” are supposed to be building for the club’s eventual 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 (Chris Wood?) and are proficient at sticking the ball therein; midfielders and wingers – all very much according to the prescription of our former gaffer Dr. McDermott, who had seen this treatment work wonders at Reading. We also need tough, all-action ball winners who are preferably not in the superannuated class (Tom Adeyemi??), 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 OK, 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 how Fabian Delph initially struggled at Villa. He’s only now beginning to look the player that seemed likely to be evolving under the guidance of Gary McAllister – and he may be about to disappear into the black hole that is the fringes of City’s 1st team squad. Byram might well benefit from another season at least of learning his trade at Leeds, or so the conventional wisdom goes.
Looking at things realistically though – if there WAS an offer of £8 million for the youthful and richly promising Sam, and if that £8 million were to be made (don’t laugh, now) available for the construction of a team that would challenge strongly this season – might not that be a good option for Leeds? It’s the kind of money that, as was said about the fortune we mugged Fulham out of for McCormack, could easily fund the four or five quality additions that we realistically need to propel us into the very top echelons of the Championship. Whether such investment would actually be made is, of course, another matter entirely – but that still doesn’t make the case for hanging onto a valuable, possibly wantaway player. 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 largely of uninspiring plodders doesn’t look like being 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 does want out – especially as his current deal is fast running down – we’re better off gritting our teeth, securing the very best deal for Leeds United – don’t forget that sell-on clause, Massimo! – 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 becomes a live issue, rather than the distant prospect it is right 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 in the shorter term, and speculate to accumulate. And at least these days we seem of a mind to drive a very hard bargain, unlike previous years when the attitude has been disgustingly meek and humble as we accepted pittances for valued assets. If the departure of Sam were to provide the funds to finish the job, then that sad loss will turn out to have been a worthy sacrifice.
The ugly truth of the matter is that a 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.