The threat to the existence of the academy at Leeds United was not imaginary, even if it seems exaggerated now. There were times when Massimo Cellino thought about taking a hatchet to it, in spite of the implications or the grief it would cause.
He had his reasons. The cost of funding an academy for one. United’s programme at Thorp Arch pays in spades for its keep and, with category two status, receives around £500,000 in central funding. But as a basic outlay on the club’s balance sheet, it does not come free of charge.
Thorp Arch itself soaks up money and Cellino has never come to terms with the idea that Leeds pay annual rent of £600,000 for the use of their own training ground. He would leave it tomorrow if that option was open to him but United’s lease does not give the club the freedom to vacate Thorp Arch on a whim. And as Adam Pearson admitted last month, a comparable complex could not be built for much less than £15m.
So Thorp Arch survives and, on the evidence of the past two months ,the academy will too. When Cellino talks privately about academy systems, he is more enthusiastic about the concept than his scheming implies. He ought to be. Cagliari ran a useful line of production in his years as owner and the first team at Leeds would be riddled with holes without theirs. Cellino was only able to sell Stephen Warnock in January because he had Charlie Taylor sitting in reserve. Without him, Warnock would have rolled to the end of his contract and left United with the cost of buying a new left-back.
The issue which almost tipped Cellino against academy development – a perennial problem in England – was the poaching of youngsters by wealthier clubs. Manchester City recruited one from Thorp Arch earlier this year and paid £100,000 in return. United saw that as a feeble exchange and would rather have kept the player. There are others who City like and could easily afford to tempt to Eastlands. Leeds suspect Liverpool will dip into the pool too.
That was the niggle that prompted Cellino to speak about gutting the lower age-groups at Thorp Arch and running the academy from the age of 16 up. The strategy is at odds with the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) – the scheme which most English academies adhere to – and is, in the view of many people who know the landscape, a flawed policy. Far from losing good teenagers to other clubs, Leeds would be lucky to attract them in the first place. A club’s academy cannot afford to be so far outside the tent.
On so many of these fronts Cellino has relented. The recruitment of academy staff by United since mid-July, including the appointment of Paul Hart as academy director last week, is bringing the system up to the required strength. Pearson promised it would go like this; that suggestions that the academy was being downgraded were “ridiculous” and “not the case”.
Hart is the headline recruit, Leeds’ choice for a job which attracted countless applicants, but the lower age groups have not been forgotten either. Andy Gray, the former United striker, has taken charge of the club’s Under-16s. Daral Pugh – once the assistant academy manager at Leeds – is the new head of coaching and will concentrate on the development of players between the ages of nine and 16. The Under-18s squad have two coaches, Jason Blunt and John Anderson.
Anderson and Pugh are well known to Pearson having worked in the academy at Hull City. Hart is well known to almost everyone. At the age of 62, his career as a coach is into its latter stages but United, and Pearson in particular, value his background and his experience. Leeds have a young academy manager – an administrative job – in Adam Underwood and Hart’s appointment will free him of the interim task of handling the development squad.
Blunt was new to the academy last season and Gray thought about joining Guiseley before opting to pursue a coaching position instead. Leeds needed someone to pull the threads together as Neil Redfearn used to.
When Redfearn resigned as the head of United’s academy in July – standing down before Cellino found a way of pushing him – Cellino reached a moment of reckoning. Without a replacement and other staff besides, the scheme at Thorp Arch was bound to lose its category two status under the stipulations of EPPP.
Weeks passed and the role stayed vacant but Leeds dealt with applications quietly and offered the job to Hart after he and Cellino spoke in person the day before United’s win at Derby County. Cellino said he liked his “experience and personality”.
Academies have evolved dramatically since Hart coached Leeds to two FA Youth Cups in the 1990s but the view at Elland Road is that the principles of managing and enhancing young players remain the same. He has worked in youth development at no fewer than three other clubs. Some who know him think it’s what he’s best at; the work he enjoys most and his underlying passion. His comments last week – “the excitement and thrill took me back a bit” – struck the right tone.
The impact of his appointment will not be seen quickly. Academies don’t work quickly. That was Neil Thompson’s argument when Leeds sacked him from his post as academy manager towards the end of 2010.
At the time, before the advent of EPPP, the club’s Under-18s were trailing at the foot of their league with a solitary point. The results were damning on paper. In his defence Thompson pointed out that players were being pushed above their natural age category, making the Under-18s vulnerable.
He argued that the benefit of that experience would be seen when the same players grew up a little. On the basis of those who have reached the first team since then, and the Under-18s’ title-winning season in 2013, he might have had a point.
Others have had their own challenges at Thorp Arch. Chris Sulley was a high-profile pick as academy boss in 2012 but he moved on quickly and without scratching the surface.
United’s reluctance to implement some of his ideas was said to have frustrated him. Leeds, for their part, felt that some of his ideas were out of touch with their budget and their catchment area. Redfearn found the right balance easier to strike.
In that complex world of youth development, Hart has his work cut out. Most academy heads have their work cut out and it will be some time before Leeds can say whether changing the guard at Thorp Arch was the right policy.
But there is a depth of raw talent there. Even as he left the building, Redfearn was enthusing about kids playing at under-14 and under-15 level.
And what can be said already is that news of the death of United’s academy was extremely premature. The club won’t be sorry about that.