Alfie McCalmont making fine progress with Leeds United and Northern Ireland
On the day that Kalvin Phillips got his first England cap, one of his Leeds United understudies was involved in his second international matchday in 24 hours.
Alfie McCalmont, a 20-year-old midfielder being moulded into a Phillips-style deep-lying operator at Thorp Arch by Marcelo Bielsa, is yet to play a league game for his club but earned his first senior Northern Ireland international cap almost exactly a year prior to Phillips’ England debut.
Two EFL Cup appearances were the height of McCalmont’s match action with Bielsa’s first team before he ran out at Windsor Park as a 60th-minute substitute in their September 2019 friendly win over Luxembourg.
Since then it has been Under-23s football with Leeds and Under-21s football for his country.
It was under 21s caretaker manager Andy Crosby’s side with whom McCalmont spent most of his international duty, playing in the Friday 2-0 win in Malta.
But when Northern Ireland boss Ian Baraclough needed to fill places in his squad for Monday’s Nations League game against Norway, McCalmont and team-mate Ethan Galbraith of Manchester United were promoted to the senior set-up.
“We trained with the 21s on Monday morning doing the shape for the (Denmark Under-21s) game and ‘Crosser’ pulled us in as a group and explained that me and Ethan were going with the seniors to be on the bench,” said McCalmont. “Being with the seniors is the main objective for all the lads and I’m really proud and happy.”
McCalmont didn’t come off the bench against Norway, a chastening 5-1 defeat in which Leeds utility man Stuart Dallas played right-midfield, but the youngster was back in action with the 21s the very next day, getting 90 minutes in a 1-0 loss to Denmark.
There’s no question that McCalmont is very highly-rated in the Northern Ireland set-up and the new four-year contract he signed in August backs up suggestions from Leeds that he’s well thought of by Bielsa and his staff.
There is a question mark over the best path for some of the Under-23s to take in the 2020/21 season, now that Leeds are a Premier League outfit.
At any other club, loans would have been signed off for a raft of players by now, with youngsters bolstering lower-league squads and gaining match minutes that, for McCalmont and others, did not materialise in the Championship last season and would therefore appear unlikely in the top flight this season.
Loan moves can do wonders for careers, as 2019/20 Leeds United Young Player of the Year Ben White has proved.
His step-by-step rise through the Football League, taking in the sights of League Two with Newport and sampling League One with Peterborough, is the perfect example of how a club can allow a player to develop elsewhere, until he’s ready for first-team involvement.
When White returned to Brighton this summer, he took a Championship winner’s medal and a year of Bielsa’s coaching with him, which will now benefit the Seagulls.
When it comes to his own players, Bielsa has largely kept them in-house because he prefers players’ development to take place where he can see it and control it.
The Under-23s train with the first team, play in murderball sessions and carry out the same instructions as the senior side when they play matches.
It was only this summer, after promotion was secured, that loan deals began to enter the conversation around Elland Road for players considered part of the ‘plan’ at Thorp Arch.
A potential move to Huddersfield for Robbie Gotts appeared on the radar and then vanished again.
Ryan Edmondson was sent to Aberdeen but got injured within days.
McCalmont was keen to go out on loan after signing his deal and, while there’s no doubt whatsoever that Football League clubs would take him, it is, somewhat oddly, only UD Ibiza, a Spanish third-division outfit, who have been mentioned in dispatches to date.
Others, like Jordan Stevens and Bryce Hosannah, might be at a similar crossroads, weighing up progressing under the watchful eye of a world-renowned head coach, in the way Phillips has, and developing through first-team games somewhere else, in the way White did.
Football’s mountain has more than one path.
A career will not wait forever, though, and it will soon be time for some very talented youngsters - McCalmont included - to choose a direction in which to travel.