Sheffield United: This is why Ryan Leonard could have a key role to play as Chris Wilder's side chase Premier League football
Ryan Leonard is a player in a hurry.
Which is why, although he is too polite and professional to admit it, his protracted move from Southend to Sheffield United must have been pure torture at the time.
“There were a few things in the headlines but the game is always more important,” he admits. “Listen, it wasn’t ideal and you’d rather things weren’t out there in the public domain. I’m very grateful to the gaffer and for the faith he’s shown in me. And what’s most important is that it all got sorted out in the end.”
Leonard learnt more about the machinations of football than he probably cares to remember as his transfer, which had first been mooted during the close season, was discussed, deliberated and debated before eventually being pushed through. Nine months, numerous failed bids and umpteen newspaper stories after Chris Wilder’s interest first became public, the midfielder was finally unveiled at Bramall Lane during the January window.
Given the noise surrounding his arrival, combined with the amount of time United invested in the whole process, it was inevitable expectation levels surrounding the midfielder would shoot through the roof. Although Leonard has been used sparingly since leaving Roots Hall, which in turn has reduced some of the excitement surrounding his arrival, Wilder remains convinced the 25-year-old will eventually become a key member of a first team squad which travels to Birmingham City this weekend only three points outside the Championship play-offs.
“I think I can add to the group and bring something to it,” Leonard continues. “It was a big help that he (Wilder) kept plugging away because that was a big vote of confidence in me. I owe Southend a lot because they were brilliant to me. I’ll always wish them nothing but the very best. However, it would be daft pretending otherwise, coming here was a massive opportunity for me. I’m ambitious, I want to do well and it was a chance, obviously in terms of the division and also the stature of the club, for me to make that step up.
“The gaffer obviously thinks I’m ready and I want to show that I am.”
Despite enjoying limited opportunities to do so - six of his eleven appearances have come from the bench - Leonard still has a crucial role to perform as United chase a top six finish. Tactically astute and willing, much to the delight of Wilder and his staff, to put the interests of the team before his own ego, Leonard has emerged as their go-to man whenever a match needs shutting-down or closing-out. It is a job which, given the result’s importance at both ends of the table, could be vital at St Andrews if United seize the advantage. City will enter the fixture only two points above the relegation zone and having played a game more than Barnsley in 22nd. United, with meetings against Preston North End and Bristol City to follow, know they can not afford any more slip-ups or relinquished leads.
“The aim, clearly, is promotion,” Leonard says. “The lads here have put themselves in a brilliant position and I don’t see why we don’t have a chance. It’s a big challenge but, if I didn’t think I was good enough, then I wouldn’t have come. There’s a lot of big clubs in this division but this one is right up there with the biggest.”
Leonard owes his presence in South Yorkshire to a variety of factors including ability, athleticism and also the attitude he demonstrated when, having initially rebutted United’s approaches, it seemed as if Southend owner Ron Martin was intent on keeping him at the League One club. But, just as John Lundstram has demonstrated of late, Wilder also has an eye for individuals he believes can flourish in the right environment. After prising him away from Oxford during the close season, journalists were briefed the former England youth international possessed the skills to contribute immediately but that his worth would truly become apparent in the medium to long-term. Leonard, who progressed through the ranks at Plymouth Argyle before heading to Essex six seasons ago, falls into exactly the same category. This time next season, assuming all goes well, Wilder suspects United will be mighty glad they acquired him.
“The gaffer wants people who will knuckle down, work hard and show some quality,” Leonard says. “I’m always going to keep my head down and work hard, no matter what the situation. I didn’t know he was having me watched after the initial bid didn’t go through if I’m honest. I wasn’t sure at all.
“But he obviously liked what he saw and it’s good to know that, it’s great to know he’s got that belief in me. That’s a big starting block for me.”
“I know a few bids had gone in,” Leonard adds. “Obviously I was aware of what was going on. I wanted to come, that much is obvious, but I just stayed focused on my football and tried to do the professional thing.”
Despite recently stressing the importance of a recruitment strategy which, given his well-documented financial constraints demands players are bought before their value soars, Wilder has put his summer plans on hold to focus on the meeting with Garry Monk’s side. Millwall, who held on to sixth when they drew with United last weekend, host Fulham tomorrow while fifth-placed Middlesbrough travel to Derby County in seventh. On paper, Wilder’s team should be confident of beating opponents who have won only three of their last 13 league games. Yet, on closer inspection, Monk has an array of talent at his disposal. All of which, Jota and Lukas Jutkiewicz included, will be desperate to avoid a relegation on their otherwise impressive CV’s.
“We know where we want to be,” Leonard says. “We know where we want to get to. What everyone here is doing is trying to make sure that dream becomes a reality.”