Joe Gelhardt exclusive interview: Leeds forward on why there’s no place he would rather be than Elland Road
Joe Gelhardt is smiling as he recalls that goal against Norwich last season, converted in the fourth minute of stoppage time at a delirious Elland Road and remembered now as perhaps the pivotal moment in a turbulent campaign for Leeds.
The Whites had lost their previous six games, a run which cost Marcelo Bielsa his job, but following Gelhardt’s late heroics, only minutes after stepping off the bench, they went on to win three of their next four, eventually clinching survival on the final day.
“It was a crucial three points, in terms of the season we were having, and we built momentum off it,” Gelhardt tells Sky Sports. “When the fans went crazy, it was just, ‘Wow, these are so good’.”
The only way it could have been improved? The knee-slide celebration. “Oh God, yeah,” Gelhardt says with a chuckle, wincing as he remembers his aborted attempt. “I have to work on it.”
You suspect there will be plenty more opportunities.
Gelhardt, nicknamed ‘Joffy’, played only 738 minutes for Leeds in the Premier League last season but few players made more game-changing contributions.
In addition to the goal against Norwich, there was the explosive run into the box to win a stoppage-time penalty and rescue a 1-1 draw against Wolves in October. In May, there was the sensational dribble and cross to set up Pascal Struijk’s equaliser against Brighton.
Leeds would have gone down if not for those contributions and Gelhardt’s progress was rewarded with a new long-term contract in August. “A no-brainer,” he calls it. “There’s no place I would rather be than Leeds. It was a proud moment for me and my family.”
Gelhardt, born and raised in Liverpool but a product of Wigan Athletic’s youth academy, was tracked by a host of top clubs before choosing to move from the DW Stadium to Elland Road for a bargain £1m two years ago. He couldn’t be happier with his choice.
“When Elland Road is really rocking, I can’t think of a better atmosphere. Anfield is good on Champions League nights, but in terms of what I’ve played in, nothing beats Elland Road. I just want to pay the fans back for all the support they have shown us.”
Gelhardt clearly feels at home in these surroundings. His demeanour is relaxed as we sit down in an office at the club’s Thorp Arch training ground for our interview. There are jokes with academy players playing table tennis in the adjacent room afterwards.
But the transition from Wigan to Leeds was not straightforward. Gelhardt arrived with a stellar scoring record at youth level and continued in the same vein for his new club’s U23s. Behind the scenes, though, he was undergoing an intense process of physical adaptation.
“The main thing I had to change when I joined Leeds was my habits, my eating and my diet, for how hard we work outside,” he explains. “I had to adapt to that to get in and around the first team.
“I moved to Leeds and I was living in a house on my own, so I had to mature quickly. The nutritionist, Andy, helped me a lot. I would send him photos of what I was eating and he would give me ideas.
“Before I joined Leeds, I didn’t really think it was that important. I had never had education on nutrition and stuff like that. I was eating the wrong food before games in the week.
“Once I finally got it right, my weight started coming down and my body fat percentage started coming down. I was much fitter, much lighter and I could run more.”
Gelhardt shed almost a stone-and-a-half during that period, his weight meticulously monitored by Bielsa and his staff until he was deemed ready for the step up to the senior side, making his Premier League debut against Southampton in October of last year.
He is grateful to Bielsa for giving him his chance – “he made my dream come true, playing in the Premier League,” he says – and feels he is a better player for the manner in which he pushed him.
“Every day, he was very demanding. Some days when you came in, you could be tired and just want to get through the day, but he didn’t let you. He made sure you were on it all the time.
“Sometimes, you might think you had gone to your limit, but he would get onto you more, and push you to somewhere you didn’t even think you could go. We got results from that.”
Jesse Marsch, Bielsa’s successor, has adjusted the tactics, altered the set-up and changed much of the personnel since his arrival in February. But intensity levels remain breathlessly high.
“It’s right up there,” says Gelhardt. “I think, when you look at the results we are getting, it’s starting to show. Especially at the end of last season. We were picking up points late in games and that’s because of the intensity of our training. It’s hard, but it pays off.”
Gelhardt’s body has changed – he retains his naturally stocky build but he is far leaner – and so has the way he plays.
“My natural thing in my position, as a striker, was to come to feet, but Bielsa drilled it into me that I had to score goals from running in behind as well and I’ve taken that into working with Jesse.”
Bielsa described Gelhardt as a player who “always creates danger” last season – those game-changing cameos explain why – and his successor has tried to maximise his effectiveness too.
“Jesse tries to improve every aspect of your game,” says Gelhardt. “He gives you ideas. I try to stick to them and, most of the time, they work. One example is staying in the box. He wants me to be there because that’s where I’m going to get goals.
“I’m an attacker, so I want to score, assist and create chances to try to help the team win games and get results.
“Whenever I step on the pitch, that is my main objective.”
That determination to affect games has been evident since his breakthrough.
Gelhardt averages more touches in the opposition box than anyone else at Leeds. He had 11 of them – the joint-most of any Leeds player in any game across the whole of last season – in only 28 minutes on the pitch in that 1-1 draw with Wolves in October.
Gelhardt nods at the mention of that statistic – “I think that game shows why it’s so important” – before pointing out that Bielsa and Marsch aren’t the only ones who have helped him hone his game.
“Patrick Bamford always gets on to me and helps me as well. He’s like a mentor. He always speaks to me about where I should be or how I can score more goals. He’s older than me and he’s got a lot more experience, so anything he tells me, I’m going to listen.
“At the end of last season, when he was injured, he would even get clips from some of my games to show me where I could be more dangerous and what I could do differently.
“He also showed me clips from other strikers in the Prem. I remember he showed me a goal from [Liverpool’s] Diogo Jota, a header inside the box. He scores so many headers, it’s ridiculous. Pat just told me, ‘If you stay between the sticks, you’re going to score goals.'”
Bamford rates Gelhardt highly and he has another admirer in Jamie Carragher.
The Sky Sports pundit, who comes from the same area of Liverpool, described Gelhardt as a “special talent” on Monday Night Football last season and revealed he had followed him since he was 12.
“He played for Bootle Boys and so did I,” explains Gelhardt with a smile. “He holds the record for the most goals in a season and I was two behind him. We had a final at Goodison Park and I was hoping to beat his record, but I pulled a glute the week before and had to miss the game.
“I was gutted, but I think he’s been watching me since then. Obviously, locally, in Liverpool, but I also played against his son, James, when I was at Wigan. It’s nice to have someone who has played so many games in the Premier League speak highly of you.”
Gelhardt was released by Liverpool as a boy and later by their Merseyside rivals Everton too, but he found a home for himself at Wigan and has no regrets about the path he took to the Premier League. “Looking back now,” he says, “I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Instead, his focus is on his immediate future at Leeds. “I just want to keep racking up as many appearances as I can in the Premier League,” he says. “Hopefully, I’ll score a few goals too.”
Whether he risks another knee slide, though, remains to be seen.
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