The progress Garry Monk’s Leeds United has made this season is undoubtedly down to an improved backline, one that has kept 15 clean sheets to date.
The focus of this back line has been on the season’s new arrivals: Luke Ayling; Kyle Bartley and of course the wearer of the ‘Magic Hat,’ Pontus Jansson. The coveted Charlie Taylor has also been under the spotlight after he refused to sign a new contract, alerting Premier League suiters Liverpool and West Brom to come sniffing around Elland Road.
But away from that spotlight, one man has quietly gone about his business, working hard in training and professionally biding his time until opportunities to help the cause arose. His chance came after an injury to Charlie Taylor meant cover was needed on the left flank, and while he didn’t have the greatest game on Monday, he has been essential throughout the entire season.
Stand up, Gaetano Berardi, this season’s unsung hero.
In July 2014, after signing from Italian Serie A side Sampdoria, big things were expected. But the former Swiss international’s career at Elland Road didn’t get off to the start we all wanted. After a kung fu kick that a martial arts expert would have been proud of, he saw red on his debut versus Accrington Stanley, ironically against James Beattie, who is now coaching at Leeds. The red card meant he missed the next three games through suspension. In fact, his first four games were marred with 2 reds and 2 yellows as he struggled to get to grips with life in the EFL.
Yet, unlike some that arrived that season, he never gave up and became a first team regular.
Being displaced from his natural right back position that season by the emergence of Sam Byram, Berardi was switched to the left back position made vacant after Charlie Taylor was moved to a more attacking role. He finished his first season strong, becoming a favourite among the fans who loved his commitment and relied upon his versatility. In the September of the following season, he was awarded a two-year extension to his original two-year deal.
Now, into the third of the four year deal, his stellar performances have once again made him indispensable to the team, switching between left and right back positions, helping to keep clean sheets on 9 occasions. His endeavours earned him the Leeds United Player of the Month award for February, and his exploits have cemented him as a fan favourite, even opening up the debate that we could cope with the loss of Charlie Taylor.
5 reasons why I love Gaetano Berardi
1. During the “Sicknote Six” stay away episode at Charlton 2015, Berardi travelled with the players to give the team his support even though he actually was injured.
2. Blood spilling from a wound to the face after an elbow, Berardi showed Rotherham’s Leon Best what it means to be Leeds, never giving up. “Keep Fighting” is his motto.
3. His passion. No one was hurt more than Berardi after Liverpool’s second goal marked our exit from the League Cup in 2016, literally punching the Anfield turf in an outburst of emotion.
4. His commitment. All Leeds fans love an old school player that never gives in, Berardi is one of them. Gets fouled, goes down, carries on.
5. Gives away his shorts. Banned from giving away team shirts, Gaetano found a novel way of providing a supporter with a memorable memento of the day.
His stats back up the support too... while his pass success rate and assist totals might not be that of Luke and Charlie, his number of bookings and aerial duals won surpasses them both.
As the season draws to a tense finish, we are sure need to him to brush off Monday and return to the quality we’ve seen all season. He’s one man I wouldn’t leave out of the side.
But with Ayling and Taylor both recovered from injuries and suspension free, where should Berardi start? Some think that Taylor could be once again moved forward so Berardi could slot into leftback, but I personally feel that Berardi is a natural ball winner and good enough passer of the ball to be utilised in the Bridcutt role just in front of the back four.
I’d love to know how you feel about this and how you would accommodate Berardi as we push for the play-offs. Please leave your thoughts in the comments and I’ll be sure to send them on to Garry Monk next time we meet for lunch. MOT.