Kemar Roofe is leading the charge for Leeds under Marcelo Bielsa, with four goals in six appearances so far. Nick Wright speaks to his former coaches to find out how he overcame a tough start to his career to become one of the stars of the Sky Bet Championship.
On the long drives to away games during his time in charge of Oxford United, Michael Appleton would sometimes take a stroll down the team coach to check on his players. Most would have their heads buried in flickering laptop screens, he recalls, but not all of them would be watching a Netflix series or the latest episode of Love Island.
For Kemar Roofe, the young forward Appleton first worked with in West Brom's academy, it was more likely to be a video of one of his goalscoring idols. "Kemar used to get a little bit of stick from the lads because a lot of times you would find him at the back of the coach watching videos of the top strikers scoring goals," Appleton tells Sky Sports.
"He would watch goals scored by Thierry Henry over and over again, particularly those trademark ones where he cut in from the left-hand side and bent it around the goalkeeper. He used to watch them and then pre-visualise scoring opportunities in games. Given the choice, not many players would bother with that. But those little things helped him."
During the 2016/17 season, when Roofe helped Oxford win promotion from League Two, Appleton estimates that as many as 10 of his 26 goals came from that same inside-left position, the most notable of which put them 2-1 up in a memorable FA Cup win over Swansea. "That was a big strength of Kemar's," says Appleton, "he always wanted to better himself."
Roofe's constant drive for self-improvement has been a defining feature of his career and it can now be seen at Leeds United in the Championship. The 25-year-old, signed from Oxford for £3m back in 2016, has flourished under Marcelo Bielsa, contributing four goals and two assists in six appearances and winning the player of the month award for August.
Roofe has made it all look effortless at times this season, his speed, movement and finishing ability keeping summer signing Patrick Bamford out of the team and giving Bielsa's side a clinical edge up front, but his journey this far is a story of hard graft. Roofe was always rated highly in West Brom's academy, a smart and skilful forward who loved to take defenders on, but back then he lacked the physical attributes to match his technical ability.
"It's always difficult to put your neck on the line and say that a young player is going to have a fantastic future in the game," says Appleton, who began working with Roofe when he coached West Brom's U14s. "Kemar had bags of talent, but what is difficult to judge when they are that young is whether they will be physically okay to cope with the demands of the men's game."
In those days, Appleton says, Roofe was "nowhere near" the physical level he's at now. "He was a late developer, physically," he says. "He was very wiry. He wasn't strong."
West Brom's solution was to send him on loan, first to Vikingur Reykjavik in Iceland, then to Northampton, Cheltenham and Colchester, but Roofe found the step up to men's football difficult, struggling to make an impact from one spell to the next. It was a testing period but it showed him the need to take matters into his own hands.
"It was around that time that he realised his physical condition was the one thing that was going to stop his progression - especially at a Premier League side like West Brom," says Appleton. "Since then, and this is all down to him, and it's why he deserves everything that he's getting, he has worked ever so hard to get himself into fantastic shape."
With the help of strength and conditioning coaches he enlisted himself during consecutive summers, Roofe worked tirelessly on his physique. Gradually, his frame filled out and his athleticism improved. "He became very conscious of the fact that it was what he needed to give himself every chance of succeeding," says Appleton, "so he went out and did it."
It was only thanks to his West Brom connections that Appleton became aware of Roofe's hard work behind the scenes. "I was aware that he was having a good spell in West Brom's U23s and he was starting to look stronger, so we brought him in at a good time, really," he says.
I actually wouldn't have been surprised at the time if a Premier League team had taken him. He was that good for us.
Roofe initially joined Oxford on loan in January 2015. It was the fifth temporary move of his fledgling career but this time he was far better equipped to cope, scoring six goals in his final seven appearances of the season. With his prospects limited back at West Brom and despite offers from elsewhere, he opted to make the move permanent that summer.
Roofe went from strength to strength in the following campaign, impressing across Oxford's front line and earning a place in the PFA League Two Team of the Year as they clinched promotion. "I actually wouldn't have been surprised at the time if a Premier League team had taken him," says Appleton. "He was that good for us."
Instead, it was Leeds who won the race for Roofe's signature.
"When we brought him in from Oxford, he shocked us from the beginning with his ambition and his desire to get better every day," Pep Clotet, Garry Monk's assistant at Leeds at the time, tells Sky Sports. "He wanted to polish his game every day, always trying to train better and perform better. It was really important because it showed us that his development had no ceiling."
Roofe needed time to adapt to his new surroundings, starting just two Championship games in the first two months of the season and finishing the campaign with just three goals in all competitions, but the coaching staff at Elland Road never doubted his potential.
"We had to be a little patient with him coming up to the Championship in the beginning, but you could already see that he had everything a player needs to take the next step," says Clotet. "He was mobile, dynamic and very good at getting in behind defenders either with his skill or his movement. He was a very good finisher and very good at heading the ball, too."
He wanted to polish his game every day, always trying to train better and perform better. It was really important because it showed us that his development had no ceiling.
Most impressive, though, was his unwavering determination. "For a coach, he was an absolutely perfect player to work with," says Clotet. "He was able to not only talk the talk but walk the walk. Now, when you see him doing so well as a striker, it makes you proud because you know he did it himself. Of course, he has the support of the people and coaches around him, but ultimately his improvement is down to him."
Roofe mostly played out wide or at No 10 under Monk and Clotet in 2016/17, and while there were more opportunities to play as a central striker under Thomas Christiansen and Paul Heckingbottom last season - when his goal tally jumped from three to 14 in difficult circumstances - it is only now, under Bielsa, that he has become first choice.
It has been another long wait but it is not the first time Roofe's persistence has paid off. His speed, energy and technical ability are perfectly suited to Bielsa's short passing style, and his desire to learn and improve has also served him well in the new regime. From the towering header against Derby to the poacher's effort against Swansea, he has scored all kinds of goals.
'Bielsa will be the difference'
Kemar Roofe discusses Marcelo Bielsa, dropping down to League Two and replicating Mark Viduka for Leeds.
Leeds now need Roofe's strong start to the season to continue following Bamford's cruciate knee injury, and the coaches who know him best believe there is plenty more to come. "Bielsa has got everything linked together around him and a way of playing that can maximise his abilities," says Clotet. "I think he's going to have a fantastic season."
"He is so professional," adds Appleton. "He cares about his football and in terms of his preparation and how he looks after himself, he will always do what it takes to be successful. He's got all the attributes to be a top player and I'd be shocked if he doesn't go on and play in the Premier League - whether that's with Leeds or with another club."
It has been a long road for Kemar Roofe, but it seems those hours on Oxford United's team coach were well spent.
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