Leeds United’s talented academy players are developing their first-team potential under coach Jason Blunt who sees a clear pathway for them to the senior set-up. Lee Sobot reports.
Charlie Taylor, Alex Mowatt, Kalvin Phillips, Lewie Coyle, Tyler Denton, Ronaldo Vieira and Bailey-Peacock Farrell.
Leeds United under-23s coach Jason Blunt admits his team would win most leagues if fielding his strongest possible side.
The 39-year-old’s Development Side has provided rich pickings for the Whites first team, and 17-year-old striker Mallik Wilks might be next.
Blunt already has well in excess of half a team unavailable due to progression up the ranks.
But that’s quite all right with the United’s under-23s boss who admits the lightning-fast progression of the club’s youngsters clearly highlights that United’s Thorp Arch Academy is doing its job.
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With Garry Monk’s first team not in action owing to the international break, the Whites spotlight fell on Blunt’s Development side last weekend in their Friday-night hosting of Crewe Alexandra under the Elland Road lights.
Teenage striker Wilks took the plaudits by capping a strong performance with the night’s opening goal in a 1-1 draw as Crewe’s Owen Dale bagged a leveller five minutes from time.
That strike denied United’s young central defensive pairing of Jack Vann and Mike Taylor a clean sheet at a time when extra attention is drawn to any centre-back in the vicinity of LS11.
Former club captain Sol Bamba’s departure has left Monk with only three players who naturally occupy that position and the need to bolster that department is obvious.
Vann and Taylor might need more time – but in whatever position, Blunt remains deeply proud to continue to supply a ready-made conveyor belt of talent destined for United’s first team.
“I am extremely pleased and if we wanted to put a strong 21s team out we would probably win most leagues,” said Blunt.
“If Ronaldo steps up, Kalvin, Coyley and if we put a 23s out we would have Kalvin, Mowatt and Charlie Taylor. You could go all the way through it probably.
“And that’s not frustrating for me or the club at all because it shows that the Academy is doing its job.
“All of our players have all gone at different stages to train with the first team since the gaffer has been here which has been great.
“I don’t think there’s any that haven’t been with him for a period of time, even if it’s one session, but this week it’s been three or four of them – Mallik, Jack Vann, Jack McKay and they all get called over at different times. But they have spent the full week with them.
“For us, from a development point of view, we have missed them in our training in preparation for a game but it’s not really about that.
“The rewards they will get from training with them and being in and around it is much more than they would get with us.”
Peacock-Farrell was the only member of Friday night’s starting line-up to have featured in the United first team but there is a strong feeling that 17-year-old goalscorer Wilks might be next.
United’s first team squad is almost as short on strikers as centre-backs but Leeds’ under-23s lined up with four attacking options on Friday, with Wilks, McKay and Eoghan Stokes all filling striker roles, ahead of Frank Mulhern, who also impressed in attacking midfield. Billy Whitehouse also provided an attacking threat in bombing forward from right-back.
“I was extremely pleased with the performance,” said Blunt.
“The front three were a threat and in the first half I think we could have been two or three in front so maybe a bit more composure in and around the box would have been great.”
It is for such reasons that Blunt believes the members of his current crop probably needs a little more time before being parachuted into Monk’s first team – especially at a time when centre-backs in particular are in short supply.
There will, though, naturally come a day when another member of the Development side dons a first-team shirt for Leeds United, and there are few prouder men in such occasions then Blunt.
Assessing United’s two young centre-backs on Friday, Blunt reasoned: “Jack has just come back from injury and I thought they both did extremely well.
“But Mikey Taylor is naturally a right-back. Paul McKay is injured so we are playing people out of position.
“I thought they both did well – Taylor and Vann – but I think sometimes we can be in a rush to get in the first team when sometimes I think they need that bit of development.
“Even the boys that step up – Denton, Phillips, even possibly Ronaldo – sometimes they can go from being 17, 18 and going straight to the first team where it all becomes about winning and preparing to win.
“Sometimes you have got to be cautious about how long you throw them in and do you bring them out and manage it because sometimes they get carried away.
“Everything is different, their social life is different and the fans, and sometimes you might need to rein them in for a period of time.”
At just 16 years of age, midfield prospect Jamie Shackleton has all of this ahead of him, with Shackleton one of two 16-year-olds to feature on Friday alongside late sub Alex Wollerton.
“The 16-year-olds showed no fear and I think that is the best way to do it,” said Blunt.
“At times last year we had first teamers stepping down and sometimes they take it for granted whereas for the younger boys it’s their cup final. It’s better to do it that way. I have been very pleased. It’s a young squad and it’s a lot more enjoyable that way. You get a lot more satisfaction from it as a group.”