A true disciple of self-control

 

If half the game is about gaining control and the other half is about not losing it, then a journey many miles and minutes from Leeds city centre into the moors and farmland of rural Yorkshire and the quaint village of Thorp Arch, home of Leeds United's training ground, reveals why this United are gradually taking control of their own future. Much industry occurs here, yet it feels like an oasis, a controlled calm before the bi-weekly controlled storms.

Thorp Arch is all about quiet control. David O'Leary has it here, Eddie Gray has it and as anyone who has ever seen him caress a football would confirm, Stephen McPhail has it. Unquestionably. McPhail has it in his feet, in his mind's eye, and when he talks, in his conversation. Not many 20-year-olds receive praise from George Graham, who called McPhail's left foot the best since Liam Brady's, still less could cope with it in such a composed manner.

Sitting with him in Thorp Arch is to understand why O'Leary always adds: "And a lovely young man," after he has called him a lovely young footballer, as he does routinely. O'Leary must relish the class of McPhail's deportment and, if he reads McPhail's infrequent interviews, the fact that McPhail has clearly absorbed the lessons of his five-year indoctrination at Leeds - McPhail is a disciple of self-control. He is full of praise for O'Leary and Gray, but of this young Leeds team's undoubted potential, he said: "It's up to us now, we've got to keep it flowing." The emphasis was on "us" and "we".

He was talking about the bright start, the glamour games and the players' responsibilities to themselves. Realism shone through, with good reason it turned out. Talking further about today's match at Old Trafford and one likely aspect of O'Leary's preparatory team-talk this morning, McPhail noted: "We haven't won anything yet and he always reminds us of that." Until there is silverware to be polished, that will remain O'Leary's bottom line.

Not that McPhail thinks it unfair: "He'll say that to us, but he'll also say that as a manager he's the same. It works both ways".

Indeed. The parallel perspective extended to McPhail's assessment of both today's clubs and their managers. "David O'Leary's just been a revolution," he said. "It's a different club completely to when I started here. There's more expectation, the crowd expect us to go out and beat teams and beat them well. And all the young lads here, he's just given us the belief that we can play against anyone in the world.

"That's the kind of man he is. He's a determined man. Alex Ferguson is the same, driving the young players on. They might not be able to win another treble but I'm sure he says they can."

It is a measure of Leeds's improvement since O'Leary succeeded Graham that McPhail is able to compare the two clubs with little sense of hyperbole. The Leeds players now inhabit the same airport-match-airport world of Ferguson's squad and the demands of constant travel have left him full of admiration for today's opponents.

"I think people overlook how hard we train, how hard we play. We're playing two games a week and we've had a couple of bad results in the league, but people don't see how big a squad you have to build to win every week. The lads feel a lot of criticism comes when we get back from Europe. But it's very hard, I think it shows how well Man U did to get their treble. It's frightening to think of physically how they could do it.

"If I wasn't playing I wouldn't think anything of it, but 'til you're there travelling week in, week out, with the pressure to play well twice a week, sometimes the body can't do it. It's physical rather than mental."

Evidence of that is McPhail's Achilles heel injury. It has seen him miss several Leeds fixtures this season and cast doubt on his availability for the Republic of Ireland's World Cup qualifiers. "It's been bad for about a year, but I played on it. Now it's caught up on me."

During the Holland and Portugal games McPhail was sent to Germany twice to see the idiosyncratic doctor Hans Muller-Wohlfahrt, and once to Germany's camp when Wohlfahrt was acting as team doctor before the England game - and McPhail said there was an immediate improvement. He did not say if it was down to calf's blood, an alleged Wohlfahrt remedy.

Thus McPhail was able to make a brief appearance against Charlton last Saturday and again in Istanbul against Besiktas in midweek. Achilles withstanding, his career is back on track.

Though McPhail could never be accused of being in a hurry, it is one that began at Rush Athletic in north Dublin a decade ago. Born in London and raised briefly in New York, Rush was and continues to be the club of McPhail's father Leo, still turning out for the over-35s - although the son attributed a fair amount of his genetic talent to his mother Paula who also played football, and to his grandfather Paddy Doran, who played for Dundrum. "A massive influence."

Signs of ability were picked up quickly by scouts. Home Farm were first and then Arsenal, Tottenham and Everton came calling. McPhail went on trial to each, but had his mind made up by his first experience of Leeds United. Howard Wilkinson receives a lot of abuse, but at Leeds he installed a thorough youth system with the acknowledged best youth coach in England, Paul Hart, at its apex.

Hart is now at Nottingham Forest - which could explain their crop of coveted youngsters - and McPhail said: "Paul and Eddie Gray, they marked Leeds out. Unbelievable coaches, you knew you were going to progress. They demanded more than the others. A coach can make 20 per cent difference, especially to a young player. Leeds bring you up the right way and it's still like that today. You see it with Brian Kidd."

Another Manchester United connection for this morning, as was George Graham who gave McPhail his debut against Leicester City as an 18-year-old two years ago this month.

But it was O'Leary who forged McPhail. In the heat of the Olympic Stadium, Rome, O'Leary's first game as then interim manager after Graham, McPhail was given his full 90-minute debut. He was excellent.

"I was told just an hour before. It gave me no time to think, which was great. It will always stick in my mind, every minute of it, my first touch, every little detail." So it did not, as performers often say, pass in a blur? "Matches never blur by me." With Old Trafford today and Barcelona at Elland Road on Tuesday, it is just as well.

There was no conceit in that reply, it was merely an assured response from an assured young man on an assured display. There have been many since and, doubtless, many more to come. He will be 21 in December, entering manhood, and worryingly for the opposition, it seems fair to assume Stephen McPhail will be taking ever greater control.