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Exclusive: Will Huffer on Bradford City move, Leeds United debut and a team meeting with Marcelo Bielsa

It has been a tumultuous spell for Will Huffer since leaving Leeds United. A long-lasting injury to his wrist, initially diagnosed as arthritis, stunted his development at Elland Road and eventually contributed to him being without a club at the beginning of the 2020-21 campaign. Leeds decided not to extend his contract, but now, Huffer is back and looking to break into League Two outfit Bradford City’s starting XI – and he spoke to LeedsUnited.News about his time at Leeds, and the future.

There was plenty of hype surrounding the 22-year-old, when he was given the chance to impress for Leeds’ senior team during Marcelo Bielsa’s first season at Elland Road. Having impressed for the 23’s, Huffer was thrown in at the deep end in November 2018 against Bristol City – with Jamal Blackman and Bailey Peacock-Farrell suffering injuries. He kept a clean sheet, as Leeds won 2-0. Kemar Roofe and Pablo Hernandez got the goals.

Huffer told LeedsUnited.News about his debut: “It was unbelievable, it’s every kid’s dream. You grow up playing for that club. It is a blur, I can’t remember any of it. It was weird, I don’t think it really sunk in – like how many people were actually there. I’ve driven past the stadium when it’s full, and it’s weird to think that there were that many people in the ground watching me.”

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Bielsa, before the match, informed his Leeds players in a team meeting that Huffer – along with Finnish defender Aapo Halme, who is now at Barnsley – would be starting. However, as many might have read in an interview with The Athletic’s Phil Hay, Huffer recalls Bielsa telling the senior Leeds players that they needed to look out for Huffer and Halme as he did not know if they were any good – only to be calmed down by Adam Forshaw and the rest of the Leeds squad before he stepped on to the Elland Road turf.

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“Under Bielsa, it was my first real taste of being near the first team – it was all new to me so I had nothing to compare it to. But the other first-team lads said it was very different to normal. It has clearly worked,” On calling Huffer out in the pre-match meeting: “It was in front of the whole team, I remember thinking like ‘hold on, have you not see me play for the 23’s?’.

“We knew what he was getting at,” Huffer continued. “I had a few of the lads, Adam Forshaw – getting on the lift after the meeting and he said ‘just go out and enjoy it, there’s no pressure on you – just enjoy it’. That calmed me down. Forshaw was the one that helped, most of them around the changing room just said go and enjoy it, you’re going to love it.”

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However, that was that for Huffer in terms of first-team outings at Leeds. A long-lasting wrist injury saw him fail to kick on – and although the original diagnosis of arthritis has since been changed, Huffer is no longer a Leeds player. He was released last summer, and it took until November 2020 for Huffer to find a club – eventually coming in the form of Bradford Park Avenue. Huffer is not annoyed, but is “a little bit frustrated” that only one Leeds game came his way, after years in the academy.

“I am a little bit frustrated that it was just the one, but that’s more to do with timing and luck – I’m not annoyed. But then I might have been fit and not played so you can’t just put it down to that.”

The ex-England Under-17 and England Under-18 international – once compared to Joe Hart by Yorkshire Evening Post journalist Joe Urquhart – has now returned to full-time football with fourth-tier side Bradford City, where he is playing alongside some recognisable Leeds names.

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Paudie O’Connor is at Valley Parade permanently, while Bryce Hosannah has been at Bradford for the season on loan – as is Jordan Stevens who swapped Swindon for Bradford in January. The goalkeeper confirmed he is on a contract until the summer, as he provides cover for injured club captain Richard O’Donnell. Huffer talks of how the move came about, and how he is now enjoying life at Bradford – and that his wrist problem is no longer being labelled as arthritis.

“I’m really enjoying it, it’s a good bunch of lads – a good set-up and nice to be back full time and just catching balls, it’s really good fun,” Huffer said. “The move was a strange one, City’s no.1 [O’Donnell] got injured. The head of recruitment at City, I grew up playing in the same team as his lad – he said do you want to come down and have a few days training, we need cover – do you fancy it? BPA were very supportive. Trained for a couple of days and then got it done.

I was injured for so long so I just want to have fun. It’s not actually arthritis now which is good – God knows what it’s called – I’ve played since October and felt no pain,” Huffer added. “Whenever it is sore, I don’t want to get lured into a false sense of security with painkillers. Cortisone got me playing but it is a short-term fix, I do a load of exercises now around the joint and I’ve had no problem. Of course it has been easier to settle in, familiar faces. I played with Paudie for a season at Leeds, I’ve been with Bryce for a while and Stevo. It’s been nice.”

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Huffer has since been an unusued substitute on three occasions for Bradford City since being lured to Valley Parade from BPA. With O’Donnell expected to be out for the majority of the season, Huffer will be looking to make his debut – but Sam Hornby currently sits between the sticks. However, it is clear that remaining injury free and simply playing football full-time is something Huffer is focused on – rather than looking at a new contract.

Since Huffer’s arrival, Bradford have picked up seven points from a possible a nine and have climbed away from the relegation zone into a much safer 17th place. Perhaps before the end of the season, Huffer will be handed the chance to build on his four senior club appearances – one at Leeds, three at Barnet.

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