Leeds United’s Joe Gelhardt developing special relationship with Whites fans in breakthrough Premier League campaign

Chemistry can be so important in football. Joe Gelhardt has it with Sam Greenwood, the friend and under-23s strike partner he is inseparable from, but more importantly with the Leeds United supporters.

Gelhardt is not a Yorkshireman nor a bona fide academy product and has only started two Premier League games yet it has not stopped him winning the hearts of the fans with outrageous skill and a rumbustious playing style not too dissimilar to another Merseyside-born striker who burst onto the scene a few weeks before Gelhardt was born.

The affection is mutual, which is why he is only too happy to give back when he can, as he did by meeting young cancer sufferers at Elland Road on Tuesday.

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It says something a lot he was chosen alongside Kalvin Phillips and Raphinha for the job.

GIVING BACK: Joe Gelhardt, above centre, was one of three Leeds players who surprised 10 children and their families who had been invited to Elland Road by Yorkshire Cancer Research this week. Picture: Leeds United.

Granted there were not many to choose from, but the biggest cheer of Marcelo Bielsa’s final game as Leeds coach came when Gelhardt ran down the touchline. Just him warming up got a Premier League stadium excited.

It was partly a message to the Argentinian - one he ignored - but also an appreciation of the talent within the 19-year-old centre-forward who already has a goal against Chelsea and a dramatic last-minute winner against Norwich City which owed much to him outjumping a far taller centre-back.

So powerful is Elland Road it once did the seemingly impossible and made Gelhardt not want to play football. But now he has swapped Wigan Athletic for Leeds he cannot wait to get out there every chance he has.

“The first time I went I was playing against them and that’s when I first experienced the atmosphere,” recalls Gelhardt, “I was like, ‘Oh my God!’

HOME COMFORTS: Joe Gelhardt celebrates a huge goal in Leeds United's season as he nets a last-minute winner at Norwich. Picture: Tony Johnson.

“It’s the only game where I thought, ‘I don’t want to come on here,’ because it was absolutely rocking. One game I came on and I was, like, ‘Oh my God, these fans are crazy!’ All it does is help you on the pitch. You don’t get tired, you want to run that extra yard and do more for them so they can enjoy their weekend.

“I know people say, ‘The fans helped us,’ as a cliché but these fans really do. When they’re screaming you’re just pushing to score or help the team get a goal.

“I admire the fans so much and how much they support us through thick and thin. We’ve been through bad moments this season and they’re still there at the end, singing. It shows how much they appreciate us and we appreciate them so much.”

Saying it is one thing, doing something about it another.

SAM GREENWOOD: Is another rising star in the Leeds United ranks. He and Joe Geldhardt are firm friends. Picture: Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images.

Gelhardt’s cheeks are flushed as he speaks to the media in the Elland Road player’s lounge, perhaps a sign of mild discomfort at the attention but if it is, it is the only one. Like his football, the way he speaks belies his years.

Gelhardt has big-time talent but no big-time ego. Asked to surprise 10 children and their families invited by Yorkshire Cancer Research, he is the first player there, fully aware of his responsibilities.

“The fans come every weekend and support us,” he says. “This is the least I can do to show them how much we appreciate that.

“When I was younger we had professional footballers come to our school and it would make us so happy. I expect to do it as a footballer because I’ve seen people doing it for me. These kids have been through some hard times so if we can make their day better or even their week or month, I’m happy to be involved in that. I wouldn’t see myself as a role model, I just see myself as me, but when you see kids smiling it makes you feel happy. When you stop outside the stadium or the training ground and they’re made up to see you it’s such a nice feeling.”

It is not just the support that makes Leeds a good place for a youngster to learn his trade. Bielsa’s insistence on only 18 senior players has hurt Leeds this season but opened doors for the likes of Gelhardt.

It means fans at the under-23 game against Manchester City at Elland Road on Friday, when the aim is to break the Premier League 2 attendance record, will see players genuinely close to the first team, not just ticking boxes.

“They trust youth players and give you a chance when you deserve one so it’s a great club for young players,” argues Gelhardt.

“Training on the pitch next to the first team helps. You are always under the manager’s eye. At some clubs they are at different facilities and it could make you not try because the manager can’t even see you. The first-team lads are class, they welcomed me straight away and just made me feel like one of them. None of them are big time.”

Gelhardt and Greenwood have been friends since one was at Wigan, the other Sunderland. Now they are a potential future Leeds No 9 and 10.

“I wouldn’t say I am going ahead of him, it’s just different times,” says Gelhardt.

“We are always together, people are always like, ‘Ooh, friends!’ but we just get on well. On the pitch we are always passing to each other and helping each other - trying to score goals together, really.

“Me and Sam knew each other from England four years ago. To play in the Premier League together or see each other doing well, it’s an unbelievable feeling. He said to me after the Watford game it was crazy, he didn’t feel nervous, just excited coming on but on his debut he was nervous.”

Not that you can imagine Gelhardt, who made his debut against Rotherham United shortly after turning 16, ever being nervous on a football pitch.

“I am confident when I play wherever I play,” he says. “I always try things and it doesn’t really scare me to lose the ball. I don’t really care as long as I try and get it back.”

The moment against Norwich he threatened to take the roof off Elland Road should live with him forever. It will not.

“Even against Chelsea, I can’t remember it,” he admits. “I remember heading it but I didn’t look at the ball, I was just looking at the man. It came off my head and I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ Then I saw Rapha (Raphinha) and I thought he was going to score so I didn’t move but he took it round and I thought, ‘God, I am going to have to get in the box now!’ The rest was just a blur!”

Not that is has all been plain sailing. Coach Jesse Marsch has been keen to give Gelhardt a first start under him, but something has always got in the way.

“I have had a few knocks, I tried to get minutes with the 23s and I got injured,” says Gelhardt. “One day I tested positive (for Covid-19) and the next I was negative. I missed two days of training. You have just got to keep your head up and go again. I am just going through a bit of a rough spell so hopefully I can get as many minutes as possible (for the under-23s) because I love playing 23s football as much as first team. I just want to get fit and play as much as possible.

“You can be annoyed when it (injury) happens but once you have spoken to the physios and you see the bigger picture you tend to be all right.”

Mature and capable beyond his years, if Gelhardt is part of Leeds’s bigger picture they too should be all right.