Huddersfield’s Tom Lees: ‘With Carlos Corberan I stepped out of my comfort zone and learned so much’

A year ago, Tom Lees faced an uncertain future.

In the final weeks of his contract at Sheffield on Wednesday, he suffered a season-ending ankle injury as clubs tightened their financial belts due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Offers from elsewhere that had been made before the Birmingham-born defender landed awkwardly in a 3-1 defeat at Middlesbrough, ruling him out for the two remaining matches that sealed Wednesday’s relegation to League One, suddenly been discarded. Lees understood why, but it didn’t make the prospect of joining football’s legion of free agents in such a tough market any easier last summer.

“I was worried,” said Lees, who has become a mainstay of Huddersfield Town’s efforts for a Premier League return since joining neighbors Yorkshire on Wednesday in August.

“Everyone thought the first season with COVID and the lockdown would be the worst. But, really, it was last summer that the clubs really felt the impact.

“Anyone who comes out of contract, I imagine they’ve really felt it. I certainly did. I had something sorted but then the injury – and it was pretty bad – s is produced. The offers have just left.

“That’s the nature of business, especially in the wake of COVID. Finances are tight. Paying someone who is not fit enough to start (pre-season) training right away becomes a problem. Certainly not an easy time.

“I knew my only chance was to prove that I had overcome the injury. I worked so hard to get in shape, knowing that if I did, I could hopefully contribute somewhere.

Lees certainly did. He only signed for Huddersfield on 1 August, the first day of their season; coincidentally, just hours before his new employers beat the previous ones on Wednesday in the first round of the Carabao Cup.

His debut came 16 days later, at home to Preston North End, as Huddersfield claimed the first of 23 wins in a 46-game league campaign where they confounded the bookmakers – only Blackpool and Peterborough United, two of promoted teams, had longer chances of earning promotion before a ball was kicked in August – finishing third, just six points off the automatic places.

Luton Town now await Carlos Corberan’s men – who have taken four points from both regular season meetings without conceding – in the semi-final of the play-offs, with the first leg taking place at Kenilworth Road on Friday.

“We’ve had a really good season but we want to make it a great season,” said Lees, 31, who started his career at Leeds United after joining their academy as a young lad. “We are the underdogs. Everyone seems to be waiting for us to leave, probably since Christmas. But here we are.

“Sometimes it’s been frustrating to watch games (on TV) and there’s no mention of us when it comes to the debate over who will come up. But we should accept the fact that no one expects what we are here.

Will it be the third lucky time in the Championship play-offs this month for Huddersfield’s Tom Lees? (Photo: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)

Such an attitude certainly served Huddersfield well five years ago, when all talk before the play-offs centered on Slavisa Jokanovic’s Fulham, the fine football played by Reading under Jaap Stam and whether a Wednesday side with Lees could do better afterwards. having lost the previous one. final of the year in Hull City.

David Wagner’s men simply shrugged off all the outside noise to prevail on penalties against Hillsborough on Wednesday and then again when they met Reading at Wembley.

“We’re in the playoffs for a reason,” Lees said. “Now you absolutely have to give it your all, dedicate every second of the day to these few weeks, because the rewards are enormous.

“You never know when you might get that chance again.”

“He’s probably the definition of ‘Student of the Game’. Every second of his day is devoted to football, he’s absolutely obsessed.

Lees talks about Corberan, the charismatic Spaniard whose remarkable recovery job at John Smith’s Stadium was achieved by putting into practice lessons learned from some of the best players.

Most recently a member of Marcelo Bielsa’s staff on the road at Leeds United, Corberan had previously studied Pep Guardiola’s methods so carefully that he moved to Saudi Arabia in his twenties to learn with key members of the two-time League winner’s inner circle champions seemed perfectly natural. .

Corberan’s methods transformed a club that had strayed dramatically after defying all expectations in that first Premier League season under Wagner – Huddersfield had won just 18 and lost 59 of their 100 league games and cutting preceding his arrival. in July 2020.

“I feel lucky to have learned so much this year,” says Lees, who is closing in on a career-high 500 league appearances. “Carlos helped me get out of my comfort zone, which I definitely had to do.

“I needed to broaden my mind. I had probably been a bit guilty in my career for thinking, ‘This is the championship and this is how things are’. Coming here has made me much more open to new ideas.

“I learned so much from him. He always watches football, cuts football and collects examples which he can then show you what he has learned. Everyone talks about Bielsa’s influence, but there’s definitely more to it.

“He takes things from coaches all over the world. We watch football from many different leagues. The director always comes to you with ideas or something he’s seen and says, “You can incorporate this in your game.

“The way this manager works is very different from anything I’ve experienced before. Even in my first meetings with Carlos, I walked out thinking, ‘I learned a lot there.’ I’ve been playing for a long time and I heard a lot of people thinking about football, but it was something really new.

“The success of Huddersfield can only help the manager to move forward as well. The players will think: ‘Look at what he has achieved – if I open my mind and listen to him he can develop me as a player”.

Lees is in his 11th consecutive season as a Championship player with Leeds, Wednesday and now Huddersfield. Before that, he had been on loan in League Two with Accrington Stanley and Bury, winning promotion with the latter in a 2010-11 season where he was voted their Players’ Player of the Year.

He also has six England Under-21 caps from his time at Leeds, including when he was one of only two non-Premier League players in a squad for the 2013 European Championship that included future senior internationals Danny Rose, Jordan Henderson, Jonjo Shelvey, Wilfried. Zaha, Nathaniel Clyne and Jack Butland.

Lees, No.7, has rubbed shoulders with big stars of the future at England Under-21 level (Photo by Adam Davy – PA Images via Getty Images)

Lees, a huge boxing fan, appreciates perhaps more than anyone how Huddersfield have punched above their weight again this season. After finishing 18th and 20th in the Second Division in the previous two seasons, recruitment last summer was limited to free agents and loans, meaning they had to find an edge in such a competitive market.

For example, the pitch to sign Levi Colwill on loan from Chelsea last summer included a detailed presentation to the European champions and the teenage defender on how he would be deployed and developed if he came to Huddersfield. Similar efforts were made to secure Luxembourg internationals from Norwich City Danel Sinani and Tino Anjorin, who followed Chelsea colleague Colwill north in January.

Lees, as a free agent, might not have expected a similar level of focus on his own game. But Huddersfield again spared no effort in their attempts to get him involved.

“Huddersfield is very progressive in its thinking,” says Lees. “Very modern in their approach. I was shown what the club calls an “individual development plan” for a few of their players. Basically describing what they did to develop these players.

“They also showed me what they thought they could do with my Game. I found it really interesting and I would say that people have probably seen another side of my game this season by coming here. In particular, when it comes to what to do with the ball.

This desire to try something new could still lead Lees all the way to the Premier League.

He has come close twice, reaching the Championship play-offs with Wednesday in back-to-back seasons.

A 1-0 loss to Hull City at Wembley in May 2016 was followed by that semi-final penalty shootout loss to Huddersfield 12 months later. Both stung badly – ​​Lees’ own goal late in the second half of the Hillsborough tie-breaker was the only one Huddersfield scored in the tie – adding to their determination to make it a lucky third time this month -this.

“My big memory is the intensity of the play-offs,” he said. “That and a bit of a lottery. It can come down to a decision, a mistake, a fantastic skill. Just something on the day that you can’t legislate for.

“Having said that, I think being there a few times already will help me. Make me a little more relaxed.

With an 18-month-old toddler determined to get into mischief at home, Lees admits it’s not always easy to relax away from games. AthleticismThe suggestion keeping track of junior Lees might be harder than scoring most Championship forwards brings a knowing smile before he quips: “He’s also faster than some!”

In truth, Lees has proven more than a match for the best forwards in the second tier.

Mainly alongside Colwill and Matty Pearson – also signed on a free transfer last summer, in his case from Luton – he has helped Huddersfield keep 19 clean sheets in the league this season, a total bettered only by Bournemouth (21) and Sheffield United (20).

Only 47 goals were conceded, the seventh in the division. This is in stark contrast to last season, when Corberan’s Huddersfield had the most slippery defense in the Championship, beaten 71 times.

Now the challenge is to maintain that form in the play-offs as Lees looks to bring down the curtain in style on a 12 months that began last May with those worries over his future.

“It all seems a long time ago now,” he said of the ankle injury that ended his seven-year playing career abruptly on Wednesday. “But things definitely worked out. I am so happy to have been able to prove my physical condition and to have had this chance.

“At the time, Huddersfield seemed like a really well run club and something to be involved with. That’s how it was.

“I can’t say that I totally expected this. We did a little better than we probably expected. But I knew there was a chance things would turn out well.

“Now we just have to finish the job. Whether you’re 31 or 19, you never know when an opportunity like this might present itself. We have to take it.

(Photo: John Early/Getty Images)

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