Lewis Cook had just walked out of the changing room. Warm up done. Kit administered. Shinpads applied. Before him stood the imposing figure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Wayne Rooney too. Cook was about the make his Premier League debut, and there is no bigger introduction to the Premier League stage than an encounter with Manchester United.
“Seeing them all in the tunnel all standing there – I was blown back,” Cook remembers with a smile.
“But as soon as whistle blows you don’t think about it. You just play the game and it doesn’t really phase you.”
Bournemouth lost the game 3-1 with Rooney and Ibrahimovic both on the scoreesheet for the visitors. But Cook wasn’t overshadowed. The 19-year-old had acquitted himself excellently in the heart of the Bournemouth midfield. Many even went as far as to say that he was their best player that afternoon.
“Playing against United was a great experience for me – one I always dreamed of,” said Cook.
“I didn’t expect to get the start straight away but I really enjoyed it. Playing against of top players was is what you want to do, and it’s something that I can learn from.”
The dream became a reality for Cook this summer when he completed his move to Bournemouth from Leeds United for a fee that could rise to £10m. He is the latest to emerge from the talent factory at Elland Road which has seen the likes of James Milner, Fabian Delph and Sam Byram progress into England’s top tier. It’s a trend that looks poised to continue too, with youngsters Alex Mowatt, Charlie Taylor, Lewie Coyle – just to name a few – already making an impact in Leeds’ first team.
Cook earned his break aged 17 after being a standout player in the club’s youth teams. His guile, passing range and energy – akin to his idol – Steven Gerrard – made him a fan favourite almost instantly, and a shining light in what was tumultuous time at the club.
By the team Cook reached 18 he had already played under five managers. But for all the changes at the helm, he a constant figure in the side. Something he thanks former coach Neil Redfearn for – a man who had overseen his development from a boy.
“There was a part a couple of seasons ago where he [Redfearn] was manager and all the young lads were playing – and playing really good – I enjoyed it. He’s the one to thank for everything that’s happened to me.” Discontent was rife, but as the fans’ morale declined, Cook only got better.
“I didn’t know anything different so I just got on with it,” said Cook – in a way which almost makes you feel sorry for him.
“I kept trying to improve my football because I know that if I’m playing then I’ll enjoy it. It’s every young players dream to be a footballer so I can’t really be negative. You can’t get drawn into all of that, just enjoy it.”
Former Leeds owner Massimo Cellino was – many claimed – central to the hostile atmosphere at the club. A volatile character, the disconnect between himself and the supporters was palpable.
Nonetheless, the Italian took a liking to Cook almost instantly, and – testament to the youngster’s character – is one of the only players to leave the club with his relationship with the Italian still intact.
“Without him I wouldn’t have played all of those games, so I thank him for that. He was the one who saw me pre season of 2014 and took a liking to me and helped me enjoy my time there.”
Cook’s amicable departure was a stark contrast from that of Sam Byram’s, who left to join West Ham United in acrimonious circumstances in 2015. But nobody in Yorkshire could begrudge Cook’s rise to the Premier League. A winner of the LFE apprentice of the year in 2015, before being named as the Football League Young Player of the Year the season after, his arrival at Bournemouth is just part of a natural ascent.
The footsteps that he follows bring pressures too. Dele Alli, the award’s recipient in 2015, had an excellent debut Premier League season, something that Cook looks to for inspiration.
“Dele’s done great. He’s a great player deserves and everything he’s got because he had a great season. They’re the things you look out for. You see any young player doing well, it’s where you want to be, so hopefully if I keep working hard that can be me.”
Premier League clubs monitored Cook way before Bournemouth, with the likes of Arsenal and Manchester United keen to sign him. But it was Eddie Howe who made the first move. An eleventh hour hiccup prevented Cook from moving to the south coast in January, but Howe eventually secured his signature in the early stages of the summer window.
“It’s nice when someone shows a keen interest. As a young player you want play and if someone shows interest you’re likely to do that. Eddie was definitely a positive that drew me here. He likes young players he likes developing them. I just think the group of players are very similar to my previous group. It’s a family group and I feel I can fit in. There are no big players who will just steal it away. You’ll always get a chance to do your best and try and get in the team. Sometimes at other places you can get lost, but here I’m happy and I feel I can enjoy my training and can try and force my way into the team.”
The term ‘family club’ used a lot, but Bournemouth personify that more than most. Owner Jeff Mostyn has installed a clear sense of direction, and most importantly, a sense of stability. Leeds couldn’t be the opposite. “I just think here its constant football,” said Cook. “Training is intense. Everyone is trying to improve. If it’s one week you’re playing, then one week you’re not then everyone’s trying to support and it’s good to have that.”
Cook added: “I’ve played under a lot of managers in the past few seasons and seen different aspects to football. But in a career things like that can happen. But it’s good to have stability as a young player.”
With football the main focus, Cook now has ambitions to be a part of Bournemouth’s upwards trajectory.
“They’ve gone from bottom to top and they will want to carry on improving,” he said. “The players here are technically great. We have a lot of attacking options, a lot of depth.
“We have a lot of energy and everyone who’s come in is really talented. If we keep improving, then I don’t see why we can’t all push on together.”
*This piece was written back in August and was intended for print purposes. Thank you to Lewis Cook and the team at AFC Bournemouth for making this possible.