From the wilderness

The ideal picture, with Sam Byram

Written by: Rob Conlon
Photograph by: Lee Brown
Sam Byram celebrating with Summerville, Gnonto, Piroe and Kamara against Huddersfield, looking all happy and smiling

The olés started ringing around Elland Road two minutes into first-half stoppage time. In the East Upper, an old bloke on the row in front of me had already been cheering each Leeds pass on his own since the fourth official signalled Huddersfield’s torment was going to last another five minutes.

Leeds were 3-0 up, but the old fella sensed United weren’t done yet. The olés stopped when Sam Byram backheeled the ball to send Georginio Rutter past Tom Edwards once more. Byram had tried the same trick when the game was still goalless, only to be harshly penalised for a foul. This time, the game continued, allowing Georginio to find Crysencio Summerville in the penalty area, who completed Leeds’ scoring with a half to spare.

“The fourth goal felt like 500 passes,” Daniel Farke said afterwards. “We were so calm to exhaust them with our possession and then to find the right moment to speed up the game, with a perfect give and go with Rutter and Byram. There were spells when it came pretty close to our ideal picture.”

The plaudits were never going to go to the left-back after a game in which Leeds’ attackers were peacocking, but yet again Byram was excellent against Huddersfield. There was a question whether he would even be able to play, Farke admitting in his pre-match press conference they would have to make a late decision whether Byram could start for the third time in a week. There’s a tendency to talk about Byram as if he’s as old as the fan oléing in the East Upper. He has the injury record of a man who spends the week at Thorp Arch hobbling to and from the physio room on a zimmer frame. But when he gets onto the pitch, he doesn’t play like an old Sam Byram. He attacks like a young Max Gradel and defends like a… well, I’m not used to a Leeds left-back defending well, so I don’t really know.

The build-up to Dan James’ opening goal began with Byram winning an important tackle by the touchline, then clearing Edwards’ long throw to Rutter to launch a counter-attack. In between goals, Byram wasn’t going to let the forwards have all the fun. He was taking the ball off the toes of Summerville to show off his own stepovers, beating defenders and creating a chance for Joel Piroe from the byline. By the time Summerville put Leeds 2-0 up, Byram had drifted off the left touchline and was hovering in the box as a centre-forward, leaving space for Summerville to dance past the Town defence and keep dancing all the way back to a celebrating Wilf Gnonto.

In between goals Leeds went full murderball. It was attack, attack, attack. On the rare occasions Huddersfield touched the ball, United won it straight back off them and started attacking again. Byram was at the heart of it all, imperious in the air whenever the Terriers pawed the ball forward, and lurking dangerously in the Devil’s Triangle by the North-West corner where Edwards had disappeared. No wonder Tony Dorigo responded to Leeds’ third in LUTV commentary by yelping, “Woohoo!”

The only worry was when Town’s right winger Sorba Thomas tried to rake his studs down Byram’s achilles after he had passed the ball. Thomas couldn’t even do that properly, meaning Byram was quickly back on his feet and giving him a shove, letting him know he couldn’t take any liberties.

Of course, it always helps when you’re facing a team as laughable as Huddersfield, who played like a side that had prepared for the campaign with a pre-season BBQ round Colin’s and friendlies against Cornwall’s finest Bodmin Town, Tavistock, and Liskeard Athletic. They beat Bodmin 9-0 and Liskeard 13-1, but could only draw 0-0 with Tavistock.

At Elland Road, the biggest cheer from their fans was when Delano Burgzorg charged down a Meslier clearance and gave Leeds a goal-kick. One of their midfielders didn’t even realise he was playing with a bootlace untied. “Let’s be honest, Huddersfield have been rubbish,” Dorigo said at the end of the first half, “but we’ve been very good.”

Byram doesn’t need telling how bad Huddersfield are. It wasn’t even his biggest win against them. In a few months it will be ten years since Byram was part of a Leeds side that thrashed Town 5-1, Ross McCormack scoring a hat-trick even though he could barely see due to a migraine. Tom Lees was there that day too, playing alongside Jason Pearce in defence, while Byram had Jimmy Kebe and Cameron Stewart ahead of him on the wings.

But that’s part of the reason why it feels so great having Byram part of this side built by Farke. If Leeds get promoted, it will feel like vindication for the talents United never built around in the wilderness years, proof that they were good enough to do it back then like we all thought, if only they didn’t have to play with the likes of Jimmy Kebe and Cameron Stewart. It might only take one decent player to give Huddersfield a hiding, but Saturday’s win was further evidence that this is a good team. A team that is even better when Sam Byram is in it. ⬢


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