Behind Leeds United’s bubbling exterior is a patched-up squad. Eunan O’Kane is a good example of it. The midfielder has scarcely trained since returning from international duty with a pelvic injury last month.
Steve Megson, the club’s head physiotherapist, is combatting the pain with a massage technique known at Thorp Arch as ‘the knobbler’.
On Tuesday night County Derry-born O’Kane’s body caught up with him and his appearance in Leeds’ League Cup quarter-final at Liverpool ended inside half-an-hour but the medical staff are working their magic again.
Head coach Garry Monk expects him to start against Aston Villa tomorrow and Monk needs O’Kane fit. Between the Irishman’s pelvis and the fractured foot bone suffered by captain Liam Bridcutt, the centre of midfield – Leeds’ most populated position at the end of the summer transfer window – is threatening to run short of bodies.
“It’s an ongoing thing,” O’Kane said. We’ve been trying to cover me up and get me ready to play.”
There is, to his relief, no suggestion of an operation any time soon. “If that was the case you wouldn’t have seen me after the international break. We’d have got it (surgery) done then. It’s just something that’s there and annoying.
“Since I came back from the international break I haven’t been able to train much. I’ve not trained to the same level as the other boys and I’ve not done a full week. I damaged a ligament high up in my pelvis and as far as we’re led to believe, the issue is coming from fluid from that injury. It seems to find its way to the nerve in my groin and that’s excruciating when it starts giving me pain. We’re doing everything we can to get rid of it and up until Tuesday I’d been getting through games, only feeling it towards the end. It’s not been a huge issue but 15 minutes into the game on Tuesday it was there.”
The price for O’Kane was an hour on the bench as an excellent cup tie raged in front of him. It tested his patience to watch Leeds dominate, miss chances at crucial times and then concede late in a 2-0 defeat but the consolation was an opportunity to properly take in the wall of noise from the Anfield Road end, filled by 5,000 Leeds supporters. “I’ve never heard anything like it from away fans in my life,” he said. “Unfortunately I had to come off but I was then on the side where I could sit for a few minutes and take it all in. It was incredible.”
O’Kane, who played in the Premier League with Bournemouth last season, has taken the view that the Championship on balance creates more atmosphere. England’s top flight holds the money and the attention but it is never far away from accusations that the competition is losing its sting and intensity and becoming sterile as a result.
“It’s maybe a bit disrespectful to some of the teams in the Premier League but I think the fans in the Championship are actually better than some of the big Premier League grounds,” O’Kane said.
“Last season I went to a few and some of them are like the old movies where there’s a boxing match going on and people are sat around having dinner. “There’s just this constant hum of chat, rather than a stadium full of people. Some of them aren’t as great as others but one place I went to last season was Palace.
“The atmosphere was incredible. As a player you don’t necessarily take it in because you’ve got a job to do but at times it gets through. Of course it makes a difference.”
O’Kane, a Liverpool fan in his youth, shared the feeling of almost everyone who took in Tuesday’s tie: that Leeds had enough of the game to have won it.
An early chance from Hadi Sacko, saved by goalkeeper Simon Mignolet with his legs, and a strike from Kemar Roofe which hit the post were let-offs for Liverpool while the match remained goalless. “It’s a good marker of where we are,” O’Kane said. “We’ve not come away with anyone thinking we’ve been battered. They’ve taken their chances, we didn’t take ours. On another day who knows which way that result would have gone?”
Tomorrow’s meeting with Villa at Elland Road – another televised event and the latest leg of United’s Sky Sports tour – left little time for Monk or his players to dwell on the loss at Anfield. Leeds’ fixture list is overrun by high-profile games at present, Newcastle United and Liverpool in the past fortnight and another former Premier League side in Villa this weekend, but the club are in their highest league position of the season and their highest for three years. Newcastle’s win on November 20 is Leeds’ only league defeat at home since the second week of September.
“I don’t think you can complain about being in the play-offs,” O’Kane said. “But even if you’re ninth or 10th, you won’t be too far off in January or February and really that’s the business end. I’d swap this position now to be in it in May.
“If we lose a few games and slip down the table a bit it’s not the end of the world. That’s football and we still have a lot of games left. But at this point there’s no real downside for us.”
Villa, in convincing fashion, have turned the corner since Steve Bruce inherited the poor form that Roberto Di Matteo left behind him. A difficult game is, like the meeting with Newcastle last month, another of those matches: one which played out in England’s top division for years and would not look out of place at that level.
“These are the fixtures Leeds United should be involved in,” O’Kane said.
“They should keep coming and with no disrespect to Villa because they’re a huge club, the ambition is to get back to the Premier League. Villa should be a game where it’s one of the so-called smaller fixtures in the league. But it’s a learning curve and it’s what you all want to be involved in.”