Shack up

The lovely lads of Leeds

Written by: Rob Conlon
Artwork by: Eamonn Dalton
A composite image of two photos, one of Sam Byram taking a throw-in, the other of Jamie Shackleton on the ball. People are already calling them Sammie Shackleram

After Daniel Farke professed his love for Jamie Shackleton, Phil Hay wrote for The Athletic that it might not be long before Farke makes sure his new teacher’s pet is contracted to Leeds United beyond the end of the season, when his current deal runs out. There was a caveat, however.

Shackleton has been here before. He is established in Leeds’ first-team squad, but when his name appears on the team sheet it always feels like it has been written in pencil. When Leeds signed Djed Spence, Shackleton must have been wondering how smitten Farke will be with him when he’s not being picked out of necessity.

Saturday was a good test, which both Farke and Shackleton passed. Marcelo Bielsa loved Shackleton too, but as a rule he usually gave his senior players the responsibility for going onto the pitch and doing what he was asking them to. With Sam Byram fit enough to start against Watford, the obvious move would have been to bring him in at Shackleton’s expense at right-back. Perhaps because he had the returning leadership of Liam Cooper, Farke kept Shackleton in the team and gave Luke Ayling a rest from chasing after his lost youth.

Moving over to the right, Shacks, like always, did everything his manager wanted him to. It was noticeable that he didn’t seem to be playing as high up the pitch as Ayling does. A couple of Leeds’ crosses from the left went over the heads of attackers and dropped to an empty space at the back post where Ayling is often found ready to shoot, which makes me suspect Bill is going all-out for the good times this season. But when Shackleton did get forward, his puppyish energy found a kindred spirit in Georginio Rutter, who was excitedly trying to help his mate win tackles or spark another chance.

It’s a good time to be Jamie Shackleton, not least because he’s getting to play with one of his boyhood heroes, as he told the Official Leeds United podcast:

“It helps that there’s always been people that you’ve seen do it. When I was in the academy it was Sam Byram actually. When he came back I was buzzing. I was like, ‘I used to watch you every week. I used to ballboy and chuck you the ball. You won’t remember me.’

“Honestly, I’m just buzzing we’re teammates now. It’s nuts to me. When I was like eleven, twelve, I was at the side absolutely idolising him. He came through the academy and had done everything that at that age I wanted to do. I’ve told him all this anyway.”

Which might have been awkward for Sam Byram, if only because it reminded him of his age. Not that you can tell. Byram has returned to Leeds playing like the teenager who won every Player of the Year award going a decade ago. He might be even better, with the experience and know-how to seamlessly switch to left-back, and the quiet swagger of someone lucky enough to be living their childhood dream for a second time. Now he’s pulling out backheels and dribbling inside off the wing and past defenders like a prime Arjen Robben. I wasn’t at the game, but when my phone notified me Byram had just headed in Leeds’ second against Watford, I grinned at the mere thought of just how fucking good celebrating that goal must have felt if you were Sam Byram.

Like Shackleton, Byram has also been given The Athletic treatment from Phil:

It was far from certain that Leeds would give him a deal when Daniel Farke, his former manager at Norwich City, invited him to come and work at Thorp Arch in pre-season. Byram had been released by Norwich, his injury problems a factor in his exit, but he got through United’s schedule without missing a session and the players around him were impressed with his poise and ability.

By the time the start of the Championship season drew near, Farke was recommending to Leeds’ board that they table a contract offer. A fit Byram, in Farke’s estimation, would be as good as any left-back in the Championship. A small sample of evidence is yet to contradict him.

There’s something just downright lovely about Shackleton and Byram playing full-back in the same Leeds team. Shacks may have felt privileged to chuck a ball to his new teammate when he was a kid, but despite the age gap there are plenty of parallels between the two players. They both promised bright futures, but as this summer began their careers were at crossroads after unfulfilling tastes of the Premier League. Now they’re both relishing unexpected second chances at Leeds. They even share the eerie trait of permanently existing in our imaginations as twenty-year-olds, no matter what their birth certificates say.

Just as I was starting to get myself in an existential panic over whether they might actually be the same person, Byram confused things further by revealing on Instagram that he’s going to become a dad, posting a gender reveal video a few weeks after Shackleton had done the same. If Shacks still finds it surreal he’s in the same Leeds team as Byram, just wait until they’re pram shopping together. ⬢

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