MORE than a few eyebrows were raised last week in the Leeds United dressing room when the Football League revealed the Championship team of the year.
Liam Cooper and Kalvin Phillips both made the cut, helping Yorkshire provide more than half of the second tier’s best XI for 2018-19.
This White Rose dominance, however, was not what caused a stir at Elland Road. Instead, what had the Leeds squad scratching their heads in bemusement was the omission of Pablo Hernandez.
“I cannot lie – we were all very surprised he did not make it,” Tyler Roberts told The Yorkshire Post in the wake of a Hernandez-inspired United returning to the automatic promotion places.
With good cause, too, as the 33-year-old is in the form of his life. Not only is Hernandez’s goal tally into double figures for the first time in his career but this most venerable of veterans also has 11 assists to his name.
To put this into context, just Lionel Messi and Eden Hazard in Europe’s top five leagues can boast the same double this season.
Such a feat may not have been enough to earn Hernandez a place in the Championship team of the year but his value to Leeds cannot be overstated. Just ask Millwall.
Neil Harris’s Lions travelled north to play a full part in a captivating contest that twice saw the home side fall behind.
Their pace and purpose on the break made the Londoners one of the most dangerous sides to visit Elland Road this season. Yet, thanks largely to Hernandez, the return journey back down the M1 was made empty-handed.
The Spanish playmaker netted twice, including a dramatic winner seven minutes from time. But it was his all-round play and desire that did more than anything to drag Leeds across the finishing line and make a mockery of his omission from a Championship XI whose members will be honoured at the League’s annual dinner on April 7 at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London.
“Pablo has been amazing again this season,” added Roberts, who provided the assist for the winner. “He has had a great career and is still doing it.
“For me, he is ‘Player of the Year’. Definitely. What he has done this season has been incredible. He has dug us out in games. He has shown us how to get goals and how to get assists.
“It is great to have him in our team. He is not the loudest player in the changing room but he leads us with his performances. And what he does on the pitch. A great player to learn from.”
Asked what Hernandez had said about being overlooked by the 72 managers invited to vote for the EFL teams of the year, Roberts replied: “Pablo did not mention it. That is not what he is like, not that type of person.
“He just gets his head down, keeps doing what he is doing. He showed with two more goals what he is about. He lets his performances do the talking.”
This was certainly the case against Millwall. Even during a first half when Leeds were way below the standard that has made this such an exciting season at Elland Road, Hernandez was a huge threat.
His return pass to Jack Harrison on 24 minutes was the sort that only a few players at this level can make. Harrison was unable to capitalise, his 24th-minute shot being saved by David Martin.
But, by opening up the Lions defence in such an effortless manner, Hernandez gave United hope after what had been a worryingly slow start.
Millwall had gone ahead inside 10 minutes. Jed Wallace, a problem all afternoon for Leeds, spread the play to the right flank, where Mahlon Romeo was able to take advantage of left-back Ezgjan Alioski being caught upfield.
Romeo got to the ball right on the goalline, and his cross was inch-perfect for Ben Thompson to ghost in unmarked and head past Bailey Peacock-Farrell.
Leeds were gifted a route back into the game just eight minutes later, Alioski’s theatrical tumble under a challenge from Wallace being sufficient to convince referee Darren Bond.
But Patrick Bamford, summing up how his afternoon would go, made a total hash of the spot-kick and Martin made a straight-forward penalty save.
Leeds needed a lift. It came 10 minutes before the break via Hernandez and a sweeping move that began deep in home territory with some sublime play from Liam Cooper.
The United captain, having halted a promising Millwall attack, brought the ball out of defence.
Hernandez became involved and he moved possession on to Mateusz Klich, who found Luke Ayling and the right-back pulled a cross back for Hernandez to sweep past Martin.
Millwall regained the lead 10 minutes into the second half, Ben Marshall beating Peacock-Farrell from the spot after being scythed down by Cooper.
United, however, would not be denied and Ayling headed in from Barry Douglas’s floated cross to restore parity and set up a frantic finale that would fittingly be capped by Hernandez.
He swept Roberts’s cross past Martin with just seven minutes left after Harrison, excellent in the second half, had initially run at the defence.
“Being here, it is surprising to see how big the club is and how great the support is to know Leeds have not been in the Premier League for so long,” added Wales international striker Roberts, just five years old when United last competed in the top flight.
“This year we have a massive opportunity to do that.”