Ask anyone who has watched on during Joe Gelhardt’s development and they will say that it was only a matter of time. On Saturday, it arrived. Leeds United’s 19-year-old striker came off the bench and, with his virgin touch, scored his first Premier League goal to level against Chelsea at 2-2.
Having scored all 10 goals in a 10-6 victory for Wigan Athletic under-18s against Huddersfield Town and, more recently, netted 17 goals in 22 games for Leeds under-23s, Gelhardt was always going to find his feet on the biggest of stages sooner rather than later.
Gelhardt joined Leeds in August 2020 but it has been Patrick Bamford’s and Rodrigo’s injuries that have given the Merseyside-born striker the chance to deputise as Leeds’s No 9. Marcelo Bielsa has started him in just one Premier League game, against Tottenham Hotspur, but has been brought on from the bench on three occasions, including Saturday’s 3-2 defeat to Chelsea.
“It was an unbelievable experience scoring my first Premier League goal,” Gelhardt explained after becoming the first teenager to score in the first division for Leeds in over 17 years. “I am sad [my family] couldn’t be here but I know they were watching at home.” His career has been building to this moment and it was only a question of time that the striker would find the back of the net.
“When I came on, as always I try and impact the game, and the manager told me to just get on it,” Gelhardt said. "My eyes lit up and when it went in, I almost didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know how to react but it was a special moment. I saw all the fans going crazy. Obviously it would have been nice to get a point in the end, but on another day we get a point out of it and go home, but the penalty was unlucky.”
A boyhood Liverpool fan who idolised Fernando Torres when growing up, Gelhardt resembles another striker to have emerged from the city. Maybe it was the barrel-chested physique or his penchant for scoring spectacular goals that led to comparisons with Wayne Rooney. If Gelhardt achieves half of what England’s leading goalscorer managed then his career will have been well lived.
Growing up in a football mad city such as Liverpool steered Gelhardt to the beautiful game. Whether it was in the playground at Netherton Moss primary school, then later at St Ambrose Barlow and Chesterfield High, or on the academy pitches, ‘Joffy’, as he is known, took to the game like a duck to water and developed a devastating left foot.
He spent time at both Everton and Tranmere Rovers, but it was Wigan who signed him having seen him score a hat-trick against them for local side Marine as a 10-year-old. Anthony Barry, Gelhardt’s first team coach with Wigan, explained: “Joffy has the ability to become a very special player. He has the capabilities to decide games and be destructive in the big moments, and not too many young players have that.
“To go with that, he is a great kid who loves playing football, and when you have that enthusiasm and appetite for the game, those types of players normally find a way to be successful.”
Gelhardt has been knocking on the door at Elland Road for some time now. Having moved from Wigan in the summer of 2020 following their relegation, his development has been clear. Visible even. He has never been tall, but he has always been strong, and now he is stronger, leaner, quicker and sharper. He looks like a Premier League footballer. “I’ve lost eight kilograms,” Gelhardt said in June. "There was a photo on social media when I signed, and one with the [U23s Premier League 2 Division Two] trophy, and you can see it.
“When I came in here I didn't have much information on nutrition or fitness levels, so I learned a lot. When I was in the condition I was in before I came, I was running eight or maximum nine kilometres a game. I think my average last season with the 23s was 10 or 10.5km per game.”
Such hard work is starting to pay off for Gelhardt and with the experienced guidance of Bielsa there is every reason to suggest that he could become a vital part of the Leeds set-up as well as with England having already been drafted into the under-21s by manager Lee Carsley in October.
When Gelhardt came on against Wolverhampton Wanderers for his first Premier League appearance, the 11 touches in the opposition box he managed were the most by any player brought on as late as the 62nd minute in a Premier League game since Opta began recording the data in 2008.
“He’s a player that always creates danger in a game,” Bielsa said. “He’s a player who’s more linked with the finishing of chances rather than the creation of them, but he has resources to beat an opponent and he has a final shot, a finish that is very good.”
Leeds travel to face leaders Manchester City on Tuesday and Gelhardt can expect another cameo at least against Pep Guardiola’s team. As his short career shows already: give Gelhardt a chance and he will get you a goal.