“The battle of Krusevac,” nobody has said, “Was won on the playing fields of Wetherby.” Of course, that it was a battle at all was ridiculous. I’m not sure when Under-21 internationals started to be played in hate-filled ampitheatres where up-and-coming young footballers could be subjected to torrents of abuse, racist or otherwise, but I’m not sure it’s a vision of youth football I’m keen to endorse.
What I am keen to endorse, though, is the sight of Tom Lees, the unassuming 21 year old centre half from Leeds United’s Academy, tearing across the pitch to defend his former Leeds youth team-mate Danny Rose as Serbian players, staff and fans bore down on him. It’s not that fighting is particularly big or clever, but then again, anyone who expected Rose to turn the other cheek to monkey chants was probably asking too much; no, it’s that the transformation of Lees from a mild-mannered youngster making his tentative way in the game, to a snarling, tooth-baring machine of total war bodes well for the direction his career is taking, and for his future at the heart of Leeds’ defence.
Perhaps painting Lees as a dreadnought of retribution is overstating things after one dust-up in a youth match, but it was so surprising. Lees has taken up residence in the Leeds back four thanks to his quality, not his fierceness. He has improved this season to the point where his presence in defence – despite it still being leakier than we’d like – goes almost unquestioned. While Jason Pearce gets stuck in where the stitches are given out, Lees plays a more subtle game of blocks and interceptions. The fear comes when he’s running back towards his own goal and has to make a tackle, but as long as Lees is facing up the pitch, he can read a pass and step away from a defender to mop it up like few defenders I’ve seen at Leeds since Jonathon Woodgate.
It’s a thoughtful style of defending, and it suits his face. Tom Lees seems to have had something worrying him since he was fourteen years old – you can instantly pick him out of old youth team photos, because his is the furrowed brow of the tired divorcee among the fresh faced, smiling youngsters. He’s quiet on the pitch, too, contributing to the image of a more elegant style of player, especially now he has Pearce and Kenny yelling at each other and banging into things around him. It’s like if the Marx Brothers replaced Harpo with Noel Coward; Tom Lees standing between the two clowns in a smoking jacket, with a pipe, thinking about something else entirely that has been eating at him for days and to which he really must devote all his attention. Ah, and here’s the ball come nearby, I shall clear that and return to my thoughts.
So to see the quilted dressing gown torn off and the street-fighter beneath unleashed in Serbia was as surprising as it was welcome. For one thing, Tom was angry for all the right reasons. Danny Rose wasn’t only a team mate on the night, but a former colleague from their days together in Leeds United’s youth sides. It might be five years since Rose left for Tottenham, but the football world is a surprisingly small one, with an enduring, inbuilt system of loyalty – just ask any ex-team mate of John Terry. When Tom Lees ran halfway across the pitch to confront Rose’s assailant, the spinach pumping through his biceps, it was Leeds backing Leeds, and it was a clue to the other side of Lees that we have not much seen.
It’s part of the legacy of Simon Grayson’s management that Tom Lees made his mark in Leeds’ first team only after he had played more than eighty games for Accrington Stanley and Bury. I have no idea how many rucks Tom got into in Lancashire, but I do know that he wasn’t as green as he looked when he stepped into our defence. Centre-backs need to be a bit grizzly, but not many of them are born that way; they need to learn it, and earn it, and the Fourth Division is as good a training ground as any. Lees came back from Bury with their Players’ Player of the Year award in one pocket, and most of League Two’s strikers in the other; but if he’d thrown a punch in anger, he hid it well behind his fixed frown. Maybe he had learned to intercept a lower league playmaker’s through ball with ease, but had he learned to handle the knocks that come as you climb the league ladder?
In Serbia, the answer was a resounding yes. After dragging the first Serbian lad away from Rose, Lees turned to find five more bearing down on him – and charged straight at them. It’s not possible to only watch the YouTube footage once – you inevitably find yourself rewinding it, whispering to the screen, “Get in there, Tom lad.” Even after being led away for his own protection by suited staff, Lees wasn’t done – you see him later, standing by the tunnel as the heat turns back up, waiting for a particular opponent to come near and then chasing him to the dressing rooms. In the film of the 1973 Cup Winners Cup Final, when Norman Hunter is kicked by one Milanese too many and cracks, you can see an outraged sense of justice propelling Big Norm’s anger, and Lees had that same expression in Serbia. Abuse his friends and he’ll fuck you up. That’s not who we thought Tom Lees was.
Then again, we’re only just getting to know him. It’s only been a season and a half, and his status remains up for debate – despite his regular appearances for Leeds, despite working his way into the England set up, despite his quality performances, you suspect Warnock is one experienced centre-half signing away from putting Lees on the bench. Would Lees come back from that? I might have wavered before, but I’ve no doubt now. If Serbia brought anyone any benefit, it was Leeds United, because it made a case for Tom Lees having the toughness to play in our defence for the next ten years.
From The Square Ball magazine 2012/13 issue three.