WHEN Sam Byram returned for pre-season training with Leeds United in early July, his aims were simple.
The teenage defender had only signed his first professional contract a few months earlier after helping United’s Under-18s to runners-up spot in last season’s Academy League behind Newcastle United.
So, as the various squads reassembled at Thorp Arch, Byram’s target was to try to hold down a place in the Under-21 Development squad. Then, if things went well, maybe he would be able to train with a first-team squad that, as the players returned after the summer break, was undergoing a serious rebuilding programme.
It seemed a sensible plan for a youngster who had been at the club since his ninth birthday. Fate, however, was about to intervene in the shape of Neil Warnock not having enough right-backs when the senior squad came together for the first time.
Cue a hurried look around the development ranks for a willing volunteer to step up, which, as luck would have it, turned out to be Byram.
A little over four months later on and the 19-year-old is one of only three ever-presents for Leeds this season with 19 league and cup appearances to his name. Jason Pearce and El-Hadji Diouf are the other two to feature in every game and Byram admits he still finds it hard to believe how the opening third of the season has panned out.
“Everything has happened so fast,” Byram told the Yorkshire Post ahead of today’s home encounter with Watford.
“When I came back in the summer, I was hoping just to play in the Under-21s. I knew a lot of new players would be coming into the first team and my aim was to eventually be able to train with them.
“But I knew it would take time so, at first, I was just looking forward to being involved with the Under-21s league and trying to push on.”
All that changed when Byram’s name was included in a training ground game between the first-team squad. He recalls: “I don’t know why it happened or if they were a player short. I was just with all the other young pros and training when my name was on the sheet read out for the team.
“I played right-back and Aidy White was up against me. I did quite well and managed to get forward a few times. After that, the manager said he wanted to involve me in the Farsley game.
“Since then, things have gone better than I could ever have hoped.”
Byram’s first-team debut was at non-League AFC Farsley and he then travelled with the rest of the first team to Cornwall for the club’s tour.
At that stage, Warnock had made only a handful of signings with Lee Peltier, one of his key targets to fill the right-back slot, not yet among the list of new arrivals.
The upshot was the Essex-born Byram holding on to his place in the south-west. Even so, he still felt a return to the development squad lay just around the corner.
He said: “Starting pre-season in the team was great but I didn’t think for a second I’d still be here three or four months later.
“After Cornwall, I thought I would not be needed any more because the squad was getting bigger. Then there was a friendly at Burton when the manager was asked in an interview about me and if he’d use me that much during the actual season.
“He replied along the lines of, ‘Probably not’. So, I thought I’d go back to the Under-21s. It was disappointing but I was still happy to have been given a chance.
“But then, as things turned out, I was still around for the start of the season because before the opening day game against the Wolves, Tom Lees got a bit of a strain. The manager said, ‘I am not afraid to put you in because I trust you’. That was brilliant to hear.”
Byram’s journey from first-year professional to first-team regular has been as speedy as it has been unexpected.
‘Living the dream’ is one possible way of describing his rapid ascent, though at a club where that phrase will always be associated with Peter Ridsdale then maybe that is not the most appropriate.
The teenager does admit, though, that playing alongside a player of Diouf’s calibre is what dreams are made of.
“He is a quality player and brilliant to play with,” says Byram. “Even in training, we seem to have a good understanding. I know if I give the ball to him and then make a run, the ball will find me.
“It is great to play alongside someone like El-Hadji Diouf. He is someone who has done everything in his career and I have done nothing.
“Put it this way, I couldn’t have imagined six months ago that I’d be in the same team as someone like him.”
Byram’s form, both at right-back and on the right side of midfield, has been one of the standout features of the season at Elland Road.
Such has been his impact, in fact, that Merseyside duo Liverpool and Everton have already had the teenager watched.
It is easy to see why considering the standard of his performances while the Academy graduate also already has two goals to his name, one of which was a truly stunning individual effort against Oxford United.
As pleasing as all the plaudits have been, however, Bryam’s main focus is on helping United’s push for the Premier League.
He said: “The season started well but we have taken a bit of a dip lately. I am not too sure why. But I am also sure we will get back up there. The league is so close and we are only six points off fourth place but probably the same off the bottom three.
“That shows how tight things are so if we can go on a run then we will be okay.
“A few more wins and we are right back up there. No-one is letting their heads go down and a win against Watford can really help push us back up the table.”