Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Clayton Shines as Opportunity Finally Arrives

Twelve months ago, Adam Clayton's move to Leeds United had reserved judgement from the Elland Road faithful. Today, he stands amongst the crowd as a fans favourite after impressing early on in the season. The 22-year old midfielder had originally struggled to break into the Leeds United side, despite pleas from the Leeds fans to give the youngster a chance. After having waited patiently though, Clayton is quickly being touted as a future talisman for the long-term future at Elland Road.

Clayton on his Leeds United debut vs. Derby County

A transfer that came seemingly out of nowhere, Clayton joined Leeds after an initial short-term loan spell on an undisclosed fee from Manchester City. The midfielder had left City following a successful loan spell at League One outfit Carlisle United, where Leeds boss Simon Grayson first caught sight of the young midfielder. Clayton impressed in the Northern Section final of the Johnstone's Paint Trophy against Leeds, scoring in the Cumbrian's home leg as Carlisle knocked out Leeds United on penalties. It was from then on that Grayson kept tabs on the young midfielder, then twenty, as a possible piece of Leeds' long-term jigsaw.

After 29 games and two goals at Brunton Park, Clayton returned to Manchester hopeful of a chance to prove his worth at the free-spending club. World Class stars flooded in, though, leaving the youngsters at Manchester City exiled. Grayson pounced on the opportunity and quickly loaned the Manchester-born star to join up with his squad for the first season back in the Championship at Elland Road. He featured for Leeds from the bench twice on his loan spell before completing his permanent move to Leeds on the last day of the 2010 summer transfer window, though failed to break into Leeds' short-term plans. On arrival, Grayson had stated his intent to use Clayton as part of a long term plan at Elland Road, and subsequently Clayton had to bide his time yet again.

Not many raised an eyebrow at Grayson's decision; The youngster, despite having almost a full season under his belt professionally, was still of a slim build. Many questioned whether he was yet ready to face the physical challenge presented by the Championship, and over the first few months, little was pondered on the transfer. After having shone in the league below, Clayton was having to prove his worth in reserve matches alongside Ross McCormack and Ramon Nunez, all of whom now reside in the first team at Elland Road.

Whilst Clayton continued to perform at reserve level, it wasn't enough to convince Grayson to offer him a chance at first-team level. He was subsequently loaned out to Peterborough United, where Adam started to turn his Leeds United career around. Having joined initially for a one month period in November, Clayton had little time to show off his abilities, but managed to become an instant hit at London Road, with the Posh fans admiring his tenacity and ability to break forward. It was during his time at Peterborough that Clayton had started to show a bit of extra bulk, something that had previously been missing whilst at Carlisle. No longer was he the light soul that had seen him immediately questioned at Championship level, this was a youngster capable of handling the physical challenges ahead. His impressive performances earned him an extension to his loan, keeping him at Peterborough for another month.

Another loan spell later on in the season with MK Dons returned another impressive review, with Don's boss Karl Robinson revealing he felt Clayton was one of the leading players in the division, and that he would jump at the opportunity to re-sign him if the opportunity was to arise again. His time at Milton Keynes saw him face previous side Peterborough in the Playoff semi-finals, and despite being knocked out, was judged as the star player of the tie.

Many fans at Elland Road had previously questioned the decision to loan out Clayton again, though, as Leeds' form had started to stutter. The midfield wasn't as connected as it had been during it's impressive unbeaten spell towards the end of the 2010 calender year which saw United climb to second on Christmas Day. Clayton's continued to impress in the reserves between loan spells, and many had questioned why manager Grayson hadn't offered Adam the chance of playing in the first-team, despite bringing in Jake Livermore and Barry Bannan from Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa respectively to fill in the problems in midfield. The decision is still questioned today, as Clayton continued to impress at MK Dons, whilst Bannan and Livermore failed to stamp their authority on games during their time in West Yorkshire.

Bradley Johnson and Neil Kilkenny's departure from Leeds United offered a fresh start for Clayton, who took the pre-season confidently. He remained the regular starter in the United midfield, pairing with Zac Thompson, Jonny Howson and new signing Michael Brown. Short spending and wage restrictions meant many signings at Elland Road were unexpected, and the arrival of just Brown, after his release from Portsmouth, signalled as possibility for Clayton to claim a first team role at the club. Significant injuries to the strike force at the club meant the team travelled to their opening match of the 2011/12 season at Southampton with five in midfield, offering Clayton his first start in a Leeds United shirt. Southampton dominated the game throughout, though Clayton took pride from his performance, receiving rave reviews from the fans, following on from his praise throughout pre-season.

Man of the Match performances against Hull City and West Ham United have cemented his role quickly into the starting eleven at Leeds, having formed a tenacious and hard-working partnership with captain Howson. It's a partnership that has proven to be a shining light in a dismal summer for Leeds United, as the fans grow frustrated with the board and lack of investment towards the playing staff. His quick impression amongst the squad, along with Ramon Nunez and Tom Lees, has started to paper over the cracks at Elland Road which should have been filled in by sufficient investment by chairman Ken Bates. It's a testament to the young talent within the squad and manager Simon Grayson that performances of such quality against the likes of West Ham and Hull can still be produced on what is a shoe-string budget.

His ability to show strength and tenacity on and off the ball has been something missing within a Leeds United midfield for years, and some suggest that this sort of presence could have seen the West Yorkshire outfit press on towards the playoffs towards the end of last season. It almost feels like a vital chance wasted by the management at Elland Road, with Clayton seemingly unable to put a foot wrong whilst in a Leeds United shirt. His attitude to the game is second to none, his effort so far cannot be questioned. Quickly, Clayton is building a rapport and connection with the fans that is rarely seen by a player that isn't 'born and bred Leeds'. It's quite incredible really to think the lad is actually from Manchester. After his equaliser and celebration with the delirious Leeds fans at West Ham on Sunday, it's become quite easy to forget that Clayton isn't 'one of the crowd'.

Despite it being early days in his own Leeds career, there is little to suggest why his sort of performances can't continue long throughout the season alongside Robert Snodgrass, Max Gradel and the aforementioned Howson in what has to be one of the most exciting midfield line-ups within the nPower Championship.

Clayton celebrates his first goal for Leeds, equalising in injury time at West Ham

Contracts are often discussed for Leeds United players, be it by the fans or the media. Jermaine Beckford, along with Kilkenny and Johnson, have all left Yorkshire after seeing out their contracts in the past 18 months, the club unable to agree terms with all three. Not only that, but there are significance doubts as to whether or not Max Gradel will sign a new deal, with his contract running out at the end of the season. Whilst it seems like a Ken Bates policy to leave contract negotiations until within the last year of the deal (something which happened to Luciano Becchio, who negotiated a new deal with six months remaining on his previous contract), some pressure must be on the boardroom to start offering the likes of Clayton new deals soon. Adam himself has just under two years remaining on his deal, though fans will be worrying about a similar situation for the new terrace favourite which seems to be hang over their star players like it has done in the past for Beckford, and currently for Gradel.

To most, it'd seem efficient business and a strong signal of intent for the future of the club to offer the likes of Clayton and Snodgrass (also with just under 2 years remaining) new deals. Pressure needs to be placed onto Bates to have these sort of deals sorted quickly, as these sort of players, with age on their side and bags of potential within them, could be the basis of Leeds United's midfield for years to come. With the protest against Ken Bates still going strong, and signs of unease within the Leeds support growing, it's only a matter of time before pressure is brought upon Bates not only to improve the investment into the playing squad in terms of transfers, but in terms of keeping hold of his star players too.

Bates himself should see Clayton and the like as an opportunity to build some bridges with the Leeds United fans. It may not get the monkey off his back, but a strong intention to keep the likes of Clayton for years to come, a player who's potential promises so much, could give the old man some breathing space away from his protesters.


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