Belfast Telegraph

How Stuart Dallas is looking to cap off stunning rise through football ranks by bringing Leeds back to the Premier League

Dallas
Dallas

by Julian Taylor

From shouldering the wheel on a Belfast building site eight years ago to being a trusted lieutenant of Marcelo Bielsa at the heart of the Leeds United resurrection, the narrative of Stuart Dallas is an ongoing source of intrigue.

How the Northern Ireland international has flourished in a relatively short space of time. He cut a dash at Crusaders before his potential was spotted by Brentford, then he settled at Leeds, where he penned a new four-year contract this autumn.

Dallas (28) is, however, keen to point out that with prestige comes responsibility, with his club harbouring an aching ambition to regain Premier League status after a 15-year wait. How he wants to be a key driver in the quest, and to the young players on the margins at Elland Road, hoping for a break.

These days, versatility is the main currency of Dallas' flowering in west Yorkshire, a particular asset which has led to Leeds' Argentinian chief Bielsa labelling him technically 'a complete player'. High praise from El Loco himself as Tyrone native Dallas has adjusted to his unorthodox approach to the game.

Leeds currently sit second behind West Bromwich Albion in the Championship, eight points ahead of the chasing pack, and are, therefore, in a good place for automatic promotion - a task in which they ultimately failed over the play-offs last term.

The Whites host fifth-placed Preston North End today on Sky Sports and Dallas could play anywhere on the flanks or in central midfield, as he was forced to do during the 2-1 defeat at Fulham last Saturday after an early injury to Pablo Hernandez. Northern Ireland already reap similar benefits of this.

"We still have a good gap there at the top of the table and we've worked hard to get into this position," explained Dallas.

"The Championship is so tight and such a competitive league. Psychologically if you slip from the top two it could damage you, but we still have that cushion.

"We've shown in recent games that if we're not on it we're going to get punished, so we need to be at it from the first whistle. If we can do that throughout the season then I'm confident we'll be in a good position.

"We're up against Preston, who are challenging us - they're a hard-working team with a good manager in Alex Neil, with a good core of players and are up there for a reason. It will be another tough game for us."

Last season was painful for Leeds, who were making strides in the Championship before a disappointing run of defeats at the climax.

Former Argentina boss Bielsa remains the overlord of Elland Road and Dallas is aware of his own extra responsibility.

He added: "I think I've been here around the club long enough and I've played the game long enough to be seen as one of the more senior figures.

"To be here and in this position is why you work so hard, looking back. Playing in big pressure situations, big games and internationals is why you want to play the game.

"There are a lot of young kids in the team. I love that. I love seeing all the young kids coming through.

"Six, seven years ago it was me at Brentford, and the older players looked after me then, so it's important for me to now take on that kind of role at Leeds.

"My dream would be for us to go up along with Brentford, who did a lot for me, a great club with great people and are, in my opinion, one of the better sides in the league."

This is, of course, the same league that Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill recently committed to with struggling Stoke City. Dallas is, understandably, slightly reluctant to expand on the matter too much.

"I haven't been in touch with him recently," Dallas admitted. "I know he had a good start but it's been mixed so far with a few defeats, but I've no doubt he'll go on and do well in the job. Michael knows the Championship inside out and I wish him well, but just not against us."

It's not only promotion the Cookstown man is dreaming of. A place at Euro 2020 is a possibility too, with a play-off semi-final away to Bosnia in March looming.

Dallas said: "If we go there over-confident then we'll get turned over and it'll be disappointing, but I'm more than confident we can go there and win that game. Obviously the incentive of a home play-off final (against the Republic of Ireland or Slovakia) is massive for us.

"It's going to be tough to go to a country like Bosnia where we've been to recently, and they then beat us at Windsor Park, so they're a good side and we've got to give them a lot of respect. It's a winnable game and it's one we have to prepare for right.

"The Nations League gave us the foundation for the team that we have now. We played really well in those games and didn't get anything out of them, but it showed that we could compete against Bosnia.

"We took a lot of confidence and it was helpful for the young lads who came in, which helped us when you look at how well we played against Germany and Holland in our (Euro 2020) qualifying group.

"To get to the Euros would be pretty special, unbelievable.

"It could possibly top the last one, because nobody expected us to really be here in this position with the group that we had.

"We've done really well and unfortunately couldn't qualify automatically, but it would be massive to get there.

"There's still a long way to go and a lot of club football before then, though."

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