STEPHEN McPHAIL learned his trade in a golden era at Elland Road but the Irish midfielder hopes to continue an amazing run against Leeds United today.
For the 34-year-old Irishman has never lost to the Whites as an opposition player despite leaving the West Yorkshire club a decade ago.
After making his debut as a raw 17-year-old, McPhail was tagged “the new Liam Brady” by manager George Graham and won a legion of admirers in his seven years at Leeds before leaving for Barnsley in 2004.
McPhail never faced Leeds in a Reds shirt, but in a seven-year stint at Cardiff City he came up against his former club six times and never appeared on the losing side.
Four wins and two draws saw McPhail – a player who appeared in the Premier League and Champions League for United, in games against the likes of Barcelona and Lazio – build an impressive record and he is determined not to surrender that today at Hillsborough in an eagerly-anticipated Yorkshire derby.
McPhail is back in the White Rose county and hoping to pull current club Sheffield Wednesday away from the Championship drop zone, as well as earning an extension to his six-month contract which expires next weekend.
“Leeds is where I began my career,” said McPhail, who learned his craft alongside United stalwarts like David Batty and Gary Kelly. “They gave me the chance coming out of the youth team to play.
“It’s a huge club. Obviously they were a league above when I was there, lucky enough to get to play in some big European games. My time there was great, I can’t thank the people enough, the fans were amazing.
“It’s a great club but, hopefully, come Saturday we will beat them.”
While Wednesday need the points to avoid being sucked back into the relegation trouble, Leeds are hoping to end a five-game winless run and kick-start their own play-off ambitions.
“The club has fallen out of the top league and beyond, and it’s a shame because I know what it means to the people in Leeds, I lived there for nine years,” said the Republic of Ireland international.
“I know how passionate they are about the club. It’s such a shame after all those good years that they fell away.
“When you make your debut, you always remember the club that gave you your first chance. I am no different. We had some great games to be involved in, but it’s a long, long time ago to be honest.
“There was some amazing footballers. I was lucky enough to break into the team and play with David Batty for a season-and-a-half before he retired.
“He made me learn, showed me how to behave on the pitch, and how to train well. There was some great players, I was very lucky.
“Gary Kelly was another one, who I am still in contact with now, and he just showed me how to train and behave. They had a great set of professionals when I first broke into the team and they set the example.”
While United’s current squad may not match previous eras, McPhail is wary of the threat they pose today at Hillsborough.
“Leeds have a good squad, obviously I keep a close eye on them being an ex-player, and speak to people up there,” he said.
“I know Ross McCormack quite well from my days at Cardiff, I know what a threat he poses.”
McPhail is in talks with Wednesday to extend his contract until the end of the season, but admits the uncertainty over the manager’s position has not helped matters.
Stuart Gray has been left in temporary charge since Dave Jones was sacked six weeks ago.
Chairman Milan Mandaric is set to hold further talks with Gray after today’s match.
Asked if the managerial uncertainty made McPhail’s situation difficult, he replied: “Definitely. I have been hanging on to see if Stuart is going to get it, if not, is someone else coming in? For a player, you want to know, especially if it’s for the next six months of my career. I want to know what’s going on.
“I know the club’s a bit upside down, trying to find a manager but, hopefully, that will come soon.
“I think Stuart deserves it because of performances and the amount of points we have picked up over the eight games. He has done really well. The lads have taken to everything he has done, his training is bright and sharp, he has spoken to everyone individually.”
Wednesday’s next three Championship games are against promotion contenders in Leeds, Burnley and QPR, and McPhail is hopeful the Owls will bring in several new recruits in the January transfer window to bolster a squad depleted by injuries and the departure of loan duo Matty Fryatt and Roger Johnson.
“It’s important that we try and get a few players in this month just to help out, freshen things up, and keep everyone on their toes. I think this month is important. We have a lot of big games against some top teams, so we need to keep our momentum going and get some points on the board.”
Johnson had been expected to extend his loan deal from Wolverhampton last week, but Premier League side West Ham United nipped in to sign the defender on loan, swaying the deal with a better financial package for the League One promotion-chasers.
McPhail said while he was hopeful of a new Owls deal until the end of the season, it was not “a formality”.
He continued: “It’s never that simple. We have seen that with Roger (Johnson). A couple of weeks ago we thought it was done, then at the last minute something pops up. Until it’s done, anything can happen. But I want to stay. I have made that clear to Stuart (Gray), I don’t want to go elsewhere.
“If they can get me a deal done, let’s get it done.
“I want to just play, help the team as much as I can. It was a bit frustrating last week losing Roger (Johnson), and a few weeks before losing Matty Fryatt (recalled by Hull City).
“We seemed to be getting somewhere then lose a couple. I know Stuart doesn’t want anything like that to happen again, so, hopefully, we can get something done.”