AS PREPARATIONS go for taking on a team rated by manager Uwe Rosler as the best in the Championship, Massimo Cellino’s scathing criticism of Sam Byram earlier this week was far from ideal.
The 22-year-old full-back may not be in his best form this season, but the Academy graduate remains a key player at Elland Road and one Leeds will more than likely need to be at his best if the club’s freakishly good record at the Riverside is to be maintained tomorrow.
Owner Cellino’s outburst – he accused Byram, whose contract is due to expire next summer with no sign of agreement on an extension, of believing United were “not big enough for him” – was unfortunate and has left Rosler with the task of ensuring his player is in the right frame of mind to take on a Middlesbrough side looking to claim a seventh straight win.
“I spoke to Sam on Wednesday,” said the United chief ahead of the televised clash.
“I will speak again (today) and I will see where we are at that moment. You will understand that when you speak to a player in private, that stays private. The player has to trust me.
“I am searching for feedback and the player has to have the confidence to give me honest feedback. That is where we are.
“I don’t want to comment on the interview (by Cellino), the timing or the context. I think, in general, Sam needs peace around him. That is my agenda. He needs peace.
“I had many conversations with him throughout the summer because that was an underlying issue since I walked through the door.
“He is a good lad, very understandable. I felt that when the transfer window closed he could relax and know he is a part of our club until the end of the season, hopefully for longer.
“But Sam needs peace and Sam needs talking to, given reassurances. Sam also has to compete like everyone else in our team.”
Byram, with 127 appearances to his name, has been a mainstay of the United side since being given his debut by Neil Warnock in 2012. He has also been linked with a move away for most of those three or so years.
Even before Cellino’s comments, a parting of the ways next summer seemed likely, but Rosler still hopes that a resolution can be found.
“Since I walked through the door,” said the United head coach, “I have made it absolutely clear that I am a football coach and all my decisions are based on football.
“This club has a unique chance to build a future around young players. Sam Byram is one of those young players. I said from day one that the club has tried everything to keep those players and build a team around them. This is a great opportunity.
“I am not involved in any contract negotiations. I am not involved in talks with agents. (Former executive officer) Adam Pearson did that, Mr Cellino is doing it now. For me, I am judging every player in the squad, including Sam, on what I see at weekends and what I see in the week. After those impressions, I select my team.
“I was given complete reassurance when I started my job that I am responsible for managing, and working with my squad of players and staff members. Nothing has changed.”
United have made 13 visits to Middlesbrough’s home since 1995 and lost just once.
Five victories make the Riverside one of Leeds’s happiest hunting grounds, but Rosler appreciates the size of the task facing his men tomorrow if that proud record is to be maintained.
“I saw Middlesbrough on Tuesday (in the Capital One Cup victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers) and they saved five or six first-team players,” said the former striker, who will next week bring in Sunderland winger Will Buckley on loan.
“But it was like I was watching their best team. There was no interruption in their play and their flow of play was the same, like when they played against Forest (last weekend).
“Middlesbrough have a good squad of players, quality in the first XI and quality on the bench that can came on and change games.
“They are favourites not only for this game, but they are the favourites for the league and I am not just saying because we play them next. I think everyone in the Championship will agree with me that (Aitor) Karanka has done a very good job and Steve Gibson is one of the best chairmen in English football.
“He has really supported him (Karanka) and backed him. They have put a squad together that is now very close to winning promotion.
“Last year, they were very close. They missed out in the final, and since then they haven’t stood still. They have gone further, they have improved even more and that is what we will face.
“But we have nothing to lose and I always feel my players like proving people wrong, to go out and play with no fear.
“That suits us. That suits our style and I think when we do it right, any team in our league will have problems against us because we can be very difficult to play against.
“It will be interesting to see how far we have come. We must not show them too much respect.
“I think the best defence for me going into those sort of games is to attack and I have said to my players, ‘I compare this game a little bit to when I went with Wigan to Manchester City (in the 2014 FA Cup quarter-final and won)’.
“Now I go with Leeds United to Middlesbrough. The best way to approach this game is to attack.”