After taking up his position as Academy boss at Leeds United last month, Paul Hart has admitted he should never have left his role in charge at Thorp Arch after lifting two FA Youth Cup in the 1990s. Phil Hay reports.
Paul Hart thinks of Leeds United as his spiritual home, even though the past 45 years have taken him all over the Football League. They say that players and coaches should never go back but Hart has. Twice.
“The truth is I should never have left,” he says, remembering his first stint in charge of Leeds’ academy in the early 1990s. He says so with a smile but he isn’t joking. The academy at Thorp Arch was his baby and he and Howard Wilkinson held a shared appreciation of its value and ethos. “It was a time of huge progress,” Hart recalls.
Wilkinson was sacked as manager in 1996. Hart left the academy the following year, not long after United’s Under-18s won the FA Youth Cup for the second time under him. The story went that Wilkinson’s replacement, George Graham, objected to the level of authority given to Hart and took far less interest in youth development than Wilkinson had.
As that relationship deteriorated, Hart realised that his presence at Thorp Arch might only encourage Graham to ignore the academy completely.
In an interview with The Guardian in 2002, while he was managing Nottingham Forest, Hart said: “It’s one thing having a youth policy but you also need a manager who’s brave enough to pick the players when they come through.”
Time moves on but Hart describes that episode as a “massive wrench”. “It was very much my decision to go – which doesn’t mean I wanted to leave, if you understand me. There were reasons that necessitated me going,” he says.
“We’d worked very hard to get to where we were – including the building of the training ground and all that – so to leave behind everything, and to leave all the players who were coming through, was a wrench. A massive one. But I felt they’d progress better at that point if I wasn’t there. Me staying might not have helped them.”
Last month, Hart found his way back to Thorp Arch after accepting an offer to become Leeds’ new academy director. A former United defender, who played for the club between 1978 and 1983, this spell with Leeds is his third. There are few faces that the 62-year-old recognises now. “But I got Eddie Gray up for a chat last week,” Hart says. “It was nice to see him again.
“I always loved it here and when I drove back in, I remembered why. This is my third time at Leeds and second time around I should never have left. But it is what it is.” Hart’s appointment – a long-term replacement for former head of youth development Neil Redfearn – was United’s way of dispelling suspicions that their academy was about to wither and die.
Massimo Cellino had given mixed messages during his first year as owner and Redfearn’s acrimonious resignation in July left a category-two scheme without an experienced boss. Hart, who has worked in several other English academies, was one of a number of additions to the coaching team.
John Anderson and Daral Pugh arrived from Hull City and Andy Gray, nephew of Eddie, is running Leeds’ Under-16s this season.
“I’ve yet to see the budgets but this is as well-run as anywhere I’ve been,” Hart says. “The recruitment is excellent but there are things we can improve on. That’s always the case.
“The good thing is, everybody who works here seems to be looking forward to the changes. They seem happy about the idea that things will change.
“Right now I’ve been in three weeks so I’m still trying to get an eye on all the players within the academy – all 150 of them, make some opinions, draw some conclusions. If you look at the productivity it’s still good. There’s a host of homegrown players and Under-21s in the first team. But if we stand still we’ll get caught with our trousers down. Football doesn’t stand still.
“So it’s onwards and upwards and I’m confident we can improve.
“The staff I’ve found here have been brilliant. Really second to none. And we’re recruiting in inner-city Leeds which is something I found extremely difficult to do when I was here as a coach. It wasn’t something we ever got on top of or properly broke into. At this time you couldn’t speak to a happier person.”
Hart’s name was pushed Cellino’s way by Adam Pearson, United’s former executive director and a colleague of Hart’s at Leeds in the 1990s. Pearson convinced Cellino about his strengths and arranged for the two men to speak in person.
Cellino and Hart shook hands on a deal at the end of August.
Pearson resigned two weeks ago, less than a fortnight after Hart took up the role of academy director. “It was a major blow,” Hart says. “I felt it as a major blow after only a week.
“I thought that would have been a long-term thing but when you’ve been in football a while, you learn that things change and you learn to get on with them.
“I think Adam was instrumental in an awful lot of things that happened in the short time he was here. He’ll be remembered for that. It’s a shame but it happened and we moved on.
“From speaking to Mr Cellino, the impression I get is that the academy is an integral part of the club moving forward.
“To be honest, after speaking to Adam I wouldn’t have expected anything else. That was the message I got from him and we spoke at length about what was planned and what would happen. The owner believes in it and I certainly believe in developing young players.”
Hart has a track record for that. “Whenever I’ve been involved with young players, for some reason they’ve always been thereabouts and they’ve always got into the first team,” he says. “Down at Charlton now there are four or five and even at Portsmouth we had Joel Ward and Matt Ritchie. I’ve probably been lucky, there’s always an element of luck, but I’d hope I helped them to get better.”
In respect of the players who Leeds produced in Hart’s first reign at the academy, that is not in dispute.
The Youth Cup wins in 1993 and 1997 are still the only occasions when United’s Under-18s have held that trophy.
“We won our league as well,” Hart says. “The first time that happened for goodness knows how long.”
The Youth Cups, still, are the achievements that resonate. “The first time we won it, at the quarter-final stage, I realised what it would mean for the club,” Hart says. “It was televised, the first time Sky had televised a tie, and it opened Leeds United up to a whole new parental audience.
“We could spread our wings, we could pull people in and we could do it with the FA Youth Cup behind us. If people asked ‘is this club any good for our kids?’ we had the trophy to prove that it was. It told everyone that the club were making inroads.
The first one opened the door to recruit better – which I think was crucial and has been crucial.”