I more than anybody want Tom Lees to be happy, more than anybody. He deserves to be happy, and he deserves better than he’s had out of his football career. I’m still as protective of Tom as I was when Neil Warnock was blaming him for everything, and worse, Ken Bates’ wife was phoning him up to sympathise. Captaining Sheffield Wednesday, scoring an own goal in the play-offs, doing his ankle ligaments at the end of his contract and signing for Huddersfield are not just rewards for a fine and talented Thorp Arch graduate. At least he’s not in League One with the rest of what’s left of Sheffield Wednesday, but he could and should be in the Premier League.
There’s an alternate universe where Tom Lees and Liam Cooper swap places. They basically did that at Leeds, jerked around as part of the half-dimensional chess game Massimo Cellino was playing with salt and pepper pots and Dave Hockaday. Tom’s only crime, like so much of what Cellino objected to around Elland Road, was pre-dating him. As part of the furniture at Leeds, Massimo saw him fit for dragging out into the garden and trashing with an axe. Or being flogged to Wednesday for a pittance, much the same thing. Meanwhile Cellino refused to pay what Chesterfield wanted for Liam Cooper, or Giuseppe Bellusci wanted for himself, putting huffy statements on the club website that said so, until watching Scott Wootton and Jason Pearce together on opening day forced a characteristic volte-face.
Could Tom Lees have done what Liam Cooper then did? It’s not saying much, but he was consistently among Wednesday’s best performers in the Championship, much of a muchness with Cooper while the latter was losing his place to Pontus Jansson and Kyle Bartley. Remembering Lees playing for Warnock, dawdling on the ball until he was forced to give in and hoof it to Diouf, it’s hard to imagine him adapting to Marcelo Bielsa’s style and pinging to Premier League wings as comfortably as Cooper. But it was hard to imagine Liam Cooper doing it until he was doing it.
We might find something out about it this season, now Lees is joining up with Carlos Corberan at Huddersfield. Obviously I don’t know how Corberan makes his defenders play because I haven’t watched them, why would anybody. But I decided to spend a maximum of two minutes looking at the stats from last season, and before the clock ran down I discovered that Town centre-back Naby Sarr did almost as many accurate short passes per game on average as Liam Cooper, 47 to 52.6, and I think that tells us everything we need to know. At Wednesday Lees averaged 22.1 of those per game, so playing for Town, Tom will have to work on making his old Leesenbauer nickname come true.
I’d love to see it. I maintain Tom Lees would have been a good player for Leeds had he stayed, and thinking about Gary Cahill being twisted around by Raphinha last season, and about what Raphinha might do to Grant Hanley this season, I don’t think the Premier League has ever been beyond our Tom’s abilities. A one-two combo of Cellino and Wednesday wronged him. But what I don’t love to see is Tom Lees smiling, and if this is the way Huddersfield are going to treat their new lynchpin, an intervention should be made. In his first interview video he’s as dour and cheerless as any new Huddersfield player, and in the clips of his first photoshoot, he’s staring glumly down the camera with the old puppy dog anxiety we remember well at Elland Road. That’s our Tom, happy enough in himself, just a bit worried looking. Then they make him smile and it’s all, all wrong. “A lot of this move was about really testing myself, and trying new challenges and new things,” he says, “And part of that is taking away my comfort.” But surely he doesn’t mean smiling. Leeds never made him smile in photoshoots and I don’t think anybody should. It’s like having Almscliffe Crag grinning at you. Tom Lees is a serious defender with a frown to match and Huddersfield will only get the best from him if they let him sigh, deeply, daily. ◉(Every magazine online, every podcast ad-free. Click here to find out how to support us with TSB+)