“For me, looking at Sam, I remember Gareth Bale coming onto the scene and looking like something similar. I do think Sam has got that sort of ability to go on and become that type of player. From our point of view, he is a tremendous young talent.”
They were the words of Leeds United’s first team coach and development boss Neil Redfearn, a man better positioned than many to make an informed assessment of Sam Byram, Leeds’ versatile right-back. Redfearn had played a key role in developing Byram from the signing of his first professional deal last May to an integral member of Leeds’ squad and such as been the progress of the 20 year old, Redfearn’s disapproval of his omission from last season’s PFA Championship Team Of The Year may be seen as valid.
“To be honest – and I am biased as well – I don’t see that there’s a better right-back in the division.” he said.
Byram’s elevation from youth team prospect to a first-team regular at Elland Road has surpassed many expectations in terms of time-scale. Born in Essex, Byram moved up north at a young age, joining the City Schools Team before moving to Leeds United as a teenager. The Whites allowed him to complete his secondary education before signing him to scholar terms in the summer of 2010. Despite playing as a scholar, he “dropped down” a year to play in the under 16s in order to aid his development, later moving back up to his under-18 age group in 2011-12. Byram’s under-18 side finished second to Newcastle in their divisional league, the young full-back playing a predominant role and earning his full contract the following summer.
Manager Neil Warnock bought into Byram’s potential immediately and included him throughout the pre-season of 2012-13, seeing enough to hand him the squad number of 25 ahead of the new season. He made his full-debut in a 4-0 League Cup victory over Shrewsbury Town and then regained his place for a 1-0 win over Wolverhampton Wanderers the following week. Impressing with a fine defensive job on highly-rated winger Matt Jarvis, Byram was rewarded with a 3 year contract extension, just 2 months after signing his initial deal.
He scored his first professional goal in the second round of the League Cup with a superb solo goal in a 3-0 win over Oxford, cementing himself in Warnock’s side with some assured defensive displays and appearing comfortable on the ball regardless of where his manager fielded him. After scoring his first league goal in a draw away at Bolton and reaching his 35th appearance in late-January, Byram signed yet another contract, this time extending his stay at Elland Road until 2016. It was a move designed to fend off interest from Liverpool and Everton in the then 19 year old and, as an official club statement read, “to reward Sam for his contribution in the first-team this season”.
The young right-back would go on to score two more goals and make a total of 53 appearances, 44 coming in the league with only goalkeeper Paddy Kenny playing more than the young full-back. His superb form was universally recognised by Leeds fans who voted him as the Yorkshire Evening Post’s Player of the Year and he became a rare bright-spot in an otherwise dull campaign for Leeds which involved the uncertainty of a new takeover and a change of manager.