Wetherall's empirical progress to be tested

Phil Shaw meets the science graduate whose footballing education at Leeds United undergoes a stiff examination by Dutch masters PSV Eindhoven tonight
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On a scorching afternoon, the coach carrying the Leeds United team edged through the masses besieging Old Trafford. A seasoned international turned to David Wetherall and said: "Welcome to the real world."

While the notion of football as the real world would make a fascinating thesis in one of the "ologies", the words were carefully chosen. Wetherall, who sat out the match as a substitute, was then embarking on his last year as a chemistry undergraduate at Sheffield University. Not so much an unreal world, more a different planet.

Three years on, and with a BSc (Hons) degree to his name, the 24-year- old six-footer has made the transition from lab coat to first-team shirt so successfully that he is Leeds' first-choice centre-back. Tonight, in the first leg of a Uefa Cup tie against PSV Eindhoven, he faces his sternest examination.

The Dutch club's Brazilian prodigy, Ronaldo, will be missing because of injury. Even so, Wetherall might have wished for an easier evening after Saturday's chastening experience against Messrs Bergkamp and Wright. The technique of players like Wim Jonk and Jan Wouters should ensure that the game is an education for the Leeds defence.

Given the way he balanced a desire to pursue a sporting career with the wish for a qualification, it seems odd that Wetherall's approach is now characterised as uncompromising. He chose a course in his home city so that he could live with his parents and play for Sheffield Wednesday's reserves. When he left for Leeds, in a pounds 275,000 package with Jon Newsome, the close proximity was part of the attraction.

For 12 months, his first at Elland Road and last as a student, Wetherall lived a double life. His debut, four days after the visit to Manchester United, was an extraordinary initiation. There he was, a part-timer, playing for the champions-to-be against the reigning champions, Arsenal.

"With 20 minutes to go, we were 2-1 down and I was on the touchline ready to go on," Wetherall recalled. "Then Lee Chapman scored and the gaffer (Howard Wilkinson) told me to sit down again. But he threw me on for the last two minutes. I always tell people that made the difference in winning the title!"

Wetherall initially felt he was "on the outside looking in" at Leeds. His conscience nagged him, especially when the squad toured the city in an open-top bus with the trophy. "I had an exam that week, so I could either go with the lads or stay home to revise. I decided to work, but looking back I think: `What the hell were you doing?' Those experiences don't come around that often."

His development as a player was hindered by being unable to train every day. "I definitely missed out. I noticed a massive difference in my fitness coming in full-time after just having two blasts a week."

Nor was he able to join in college life as he would have liked. Time- honoured student pursuits such as collecting traffic cones or occupying the refectory went by the board as he dashed between South and West Yorkshire.

"The last reserve game of my first season here coincided with my finals. I finished at five o'clock and belted over here, got changed and went straight out on the pitch. I was trying to concentrate when I suddenly thought: `Damn - I answered question seven wrongly'."

Late in the "hangover" season which followed the championship, he began playing regularly in the Premiership. The strides made since then were recognised last spring, when Wilkinson named him as his player of the year.

Wetherall has learned, according to his manager, "when to push up, when to step back and when to put a foot in". In the sense that he is more effective imposing himself between opponents and goal than in bringing the ball out, he is an old-fashioned stopper. His aerial ability also makes him a threat at set-pieces.

Organising the defence is an aspect where he admits there is room for improvement. "I'm naturally quiet, but that's no excuse," he said. "A lot of people change their personalities when they cross the line, and I've got to do the same."

Tony Adams sets the standard to which he aspires, while Alan Shearer has been "by far" his most troublesome opponent. Europe presents a different test. The main threat for Monaco, Leeds' first-round foes, was posed by Ronaldo's compatriot, Sonny Anderson. Quick and clever as he was, Wetherall found the Continental tempo more problematic.

"They were patient in their build-up, deceptively slow at times, waiting for the moment to deliver. Almost before you knew it, the ball was whipped in. English teams tend to get it forward much more quickly."

PSV may, if anything, be technically superior to Monaco. Fortunately for Leeds, their defensive linchpin is more alert than most to the danger of being blinded by science.