Leeds ready for another glimpse of the flash boy
Ten years on, Tottenham winger Aaron Lennon returns to Elland Road
You have to go back fully 10 years for the last time Aaron Lennon played in a Leeds v Tottenham fixture, but it is an occasion he will not have forgotten. It was August 2003, and when he stepped on to the White Hart Lane pitch as a 78th-minute replacement for Mark Viduka aged 16 years and 129 days, he became, for a time, the youngest player in the Premier League.
That statistic is a reminder of the precocity of the Leeds lad with turbochargers in the boots he already had a sponsorship deal for at 14 when coming through the academy at Elland Road, his teenage field of dreams and the place to which he returns for the first time as a Tottenham player in today's FA Cup fourth-round tie.
Lennon was a raw talent then but what he had, recalls Eddie Gray, was "that flash that made you think he was going to be a player". Flash was the operative word. "When he picked the ball up he could always go by two or three players as if they were standing still," adds Gray, a man whose own credentials as a winger in Don Revie's great Leeds team need no retelling, but also a man who, as Leeds's caretaker manager for six months in 2003-04, monitored Lennon's baby steps in the first team.
Gray remembers Lennon then as a quiet, reserved character. "Aaron worked hard but at times he could be a bit moody if he didn't think things were going for him, if he thought he should be in a team [when] he wasn't." He also had to learn on the pitch, where "his final ball was not the best".
Happily for Tottenham, who signed Lennon in 2005 for a bargain fee of £500,000 rising to £1 million, Lennon did learn, although the talent that earned him trips to the 2006 and 2010 World Cups has never attained such a consistent level of expression as this season under Andre Villas-Boas. Gray sees a confident, mature player today.
"When you look at him now, he gets his head up more when he's on the ball," says Gray. "He has a better knowledge of how to get into the game and how to get away from defenders. Aaron can drift about the pitch now and link up with front people, drift into the midfield area and start things from there." With his low centre of gravity, he could already twist, turn and wrong-foot defenders, but is now as threatening running inside his man as out.
Lennon has been an ever-present in Spurs' 2012-13 League campaign – making as many appearances already as in the whole of last season, when he was affected by hamstring problems – and the 25-year-old's senior status in the dressing room was underlined when "Azzer" captained the team for the first time against Lazio in September, the same month he signed a new four-year contract.
Moreover, he is Tottenham's leading goal-maker in the Premier League with six assists after keeping a cool head to tee up Clint Dempsey for the last-gasp equaliser against Manchester United last weekend, a performance which showed opposition managers that even if they keep Gareth Bale quiet, they now face an equally potent threat on the other flank.
Gary Mabbutt, the former Spurs defender, says: "I was at the game last weekend and [Patrice] Evra will be having nightmares about the way Lennon was going past him." For Mabbutt, the last Tottenham captain to lift the FA Cup, in 1991, Lennon is becoming "the complete winger". He explains: "I played with some great wingers in my time at Tottenham, the likes of David Ginola and Chris Waddle. He's getting himself into that bracket."
He adds: "Overall in the past maybe people have questioned first of all his consistency and sometimes not being able to pick out the final pass, but this season Aaron has been very consistent. When he loses the ball he gets his head down, chases back and works hard to try and regain possession."
Mabbutt is surprised that Lennon is not an England regular; his outing against San Marino in October's World Cup qualifier was his first cap since the 2010 World Cup. On current form he seems certain to feature against Brazil at Wembley next month, yet thoughts of England can wait. Elland Road beckons.
Lennon seldom speaks to the press, but when the draw was made, he tweeted excitedly: "I can't wait, feel like a little kid already." That may be so, but the kid is now a man in his prime.
Leeds United v Tottenham Hotspur is on ESPN today, kick-off 2pm
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