Sport Soccer

Saturday 7 December 2019

'Leeds will not miss out on promotion again'

Pablo Hernandez tells Luke Edwards about recovering from last season's play-off agony

Fire still rages: At the age of 34, Leeds’ Pablo Hernandez says he is still holding his own in training. Photo: Getty Images
Fire still rages: At the age of 34, Leeds’ Pablo Hernandez says he is still holding his own in training. Photo: Getty Images

Luke Edwards

It is a dread that stalks every footballer in their thirties. That nagging sense that the best years are behind them, that younger, fitter rivals will soon supplant them, mixed with a sense of fear and foreboding about what comes next.

For Pablo Hernandez, that internal turmoil has been brought into sharp focus. At the age of 34, the Spaniard knows time is his enemy. Suffering with a niggling knee injury that kept him out of the Leeds United team for almost two months, he had a lot of time to think and reflect.

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Hernandez was convinced Leeds were going to be promoted last season, that he would get at least one more season in the Premier League. He was devastated by the play-off semi-final defeat by Derby County, a brutally crushing experience at the end of an exhilarating campaign.

He feared the worst. That the hangover would debilitate Leeds and, in the back of his mind, he knew he would be another year older. Could he be the same player who is adored by supporters?

Did he have the same hunger that has driven him throughout his career, first in Spain with Valencia and Getafe and then in English football with Swansea. Would he still be the player Leeds supporters need him to be?

"It was a really hard moment for all of us, really tough," said Hernandez.

"It was hard for the fans. When you lose a match like that and you hear the whistle, you are devastated. You think in the game, we can still win. All the time, I was telling the players to keep calm, that we would still win and then it is gone. Everything you have worked for is done.

"I thought about everything at that moment, all the work, how close we had come, the near-misses, the games we should have won. It was incredibly tough to accept we would be in the Championship for another year.

"When we returned for pre-season training, I expected there to be problems. I thought it would be tough to get motivated. I thought the players would return with their heads down, thinking about the negatives, but it was not like this at all.

"I was so proud, from the first day we came with a lot of energy, with a lot of belief. We knew we had lost a big chance, but we wanted to make sure we had another one this year. There was nobody feeling sorry for themselves. Why, if we had one good season, could we not have another?

"If we play like we have done so far this season, I still think we are good enough to win every game. We have to think we are the best team in the league."

The table would suggest Leeds have been the third-best in the Championship to this point. They are below West Brom and surprise automatic promotion chasers, Preston North End, but there is a long way to go.

Accusation

"There is an accusation that we blew up last season," Hernandez sighs. "That we got tired, but no, that did not happen. I do not think pressure is trying to get promoted.

"When you play for success, you should enjoy it, you should be motivated, you should be excited. We know the reason for not going to the Premier League, but we also believe it will not happen again.

"Do not have fear. This is how I've played every year. At Valencia, a big club, needs to be in the top four... it is hard to play for that. But I still played like I do now.

"With freedom. I want to be at a club with pressure and expectation. We have that at Leeds."

To have some idea of Hernandez's popularity, when local hero boxer Josh Warrington defended his world featherweight belt in the city last month, he asked Hernandez to be in his corner. When Hernandez's face was shown on the big screen, the roar inside the arena was as loud for him as it was for the man about to fight.

"Leeds is a very passionate club, the energy from the supporters, you can feed off that," Hernandez explains. "The bond is special. That is not the same at other clubs. It has made me a better player, it is like a gift. We have a responsibility to a club and a city, it is important for me at my age."

But how much longer can he continue to enjoy it, how much more has he got left to give?

"Normally in football, yes, when you get to 30 you are winding down," Hernandez admits. "But I feel good physically, but also mentally, which is probably more important.

"I still have more years as a player, maybe two or three more years.

"The day I go to train or play and I see the other players run more than me and I always arrive late for the ball, it is time to stop. I'm holding my own in training, the youngsters are not quicker to the ball than me. I feel good."

Leeds supporters will feel good about that, too.

© The Daily Telegraph, London

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