Set to graduate: Noel Whelan sees similarities between today’s academy products and the days when he was rising up the ranks. Leon Wobschall reports.
for THE vast majority of the baby-faced Leeds United line-up who famously beat bitter foes Manchester United in both legs of the FA Youth Cup final, those heady Spring days of May, 1993 represented the zenith of their footballing careers.
It was their Lancastrian rivals who were beaten, but ultimately unbowed. Glory nights lay ahead for Paul Scholes, David Beckham and the Neville brothers, who suffered in silence while scores of ecstatic Yorkshire folk celebrated in front of an Elland Road crowd of over 31,000.
The night was May 13, 1993 with Leeds triumphing 2-1 in their second leg with the Red Devils to secure the sweetest of 4-1 aggregate wins.
Yet while the cream of the Old Trafford crop became household names, only one home player from that Thursday night, Noel Whelan, was to dine out at the top-flight table throughout the bulk of his club career.
Approaching his 40th birthday, Leeds lad Whelan, who found the net in the first leg of the ’93 triumph at Old Trafford, now keeps a watching eye in his role as a radio summariser and fan on the Whites’ new generation, who are currently strutting their stuff at Elland Road.
It is inescapable for Whelan, when seeing Academy products Lewis Cook, Alex Mowatt and Sam Byram on parade in the white of Leeds United, not to harken back to his own time.
Whelan’s coltish swagger and strong belief in his own abilities persuaded Howard Wilkinson to hand him a first-team debut at Sheffield United six days before he lined up at Old Trafford for the first leg of the FA Youth Cup final.
He now sees that same sense of assuredness and self-confidence in Messrs Cook and Mowatt and likes what he sees.
They are young players who are not here to make up the numbers, but aim to make things happen complete with the innate sense that they belong in the man’s world of Football League combat.
Whelan said: “Howard Wilkinson used to say to me: ‘It doesn’t matter how young you are; if you are good enough, you are old enough.’ Simple as.
“And once you have had that taste of the first team, you don’t want to lose it again and want to have it every single week.
“We had a very competitive first-team side back then when you look at the midfield and forward players we had... it was Premier League outfit with good names in there.
“Sometimes you must have that arrogance, determination and doggedness about you to keep your place.
“I know I had that and had to fight through many a time on the training field against some of the players on show.
“I was about showing that I was here for the long-term and am not going anywhere.
“It is about saying: ‘This is my spot’. That determination only comes from yourself, only you can instil that into you and is the foundation you must have to be a player in that team and to cement your position.
“I was disappointed at such a young age when I was sitting on the bench, even though Tony Yeboah was there in front of me.
“That is how much it hurt me as this was my team and I had worked hard for two or three years to get my chance and I wanted to take it and play at Elland Road for my team.
“The young Leeds lads now look like they have that ‘something’.
“They have great temperaments and old heads on young shoulders and they play the game properly and trust the manager and the manager trusts them.
“It is a good relationship that they have all got between each other and that is key.”
Almost resembling a doting father, Neil Redfearn was gushing in his praise of ‘his’ Academy kids in extolling the virtues of Cook, Mowatt and Byram, who all walked the walk on what could have been pressurised circumstances in Saturday’s game with Blackpool.
His reference that a number of home- grown talents were establishing themselves at roughly the same time, along the likes of Manchester United’s famed class of ’92, was a bold one, but it carried weight and you knew what he was getting at.
Perhaps the last time that happened at Leeds was in the late 90s when the likes of Jonathan Woodgate and Paul Robinson were given their heads in the first team alongside Harry Kewell, with the trio all part of the side who helped United lift the FA Youth Cup at Crystal Palace’s expense in May, 1997.
All three went on to prove themselves to be special players for Leeds, even though the golden times they had at Elland Road were cut short and curtailed by circumstance.
Whelan sees quality in abundance in Leeds’ current crop and just as with legions of supporters, his fervent wish is that they can blossom for a good few years in West Yorkshire and not elsewhere.
If it is under the command of Redfearn, who has shown himself not to be scared to blood young talent and has an inherent duty of care to players whom he has nurtured from their formative days at the club, then all the better.
Whelan continued: “It is fantastic to see young lads at Leeds coming through the ranks.
“It is good to see the system bringing these young players through because it is massively important, not just for Leeds.
“For football as a whole, it shows that the system does work and the hard work that Neil Redfearn and the Academy coaching staff have put in on the training field is paying off.
“It is a massive encouragement for a player if you feel you belong in the team and have the trust of the manager.
“And that’s what these three players in Cook, Mowatt and Bryam have got and why we are seeing the best of them.
“(Chris) Dawson is also on the verge and, from what I am hearing, he could soon be starting and getting a few minutes on the pitch as well.
Whelan added: “For me, Sam could be one of the best full-backs in the country from what I have seen.
“I don’t think he is fully match-fit yet, but the signs against Charlton and Blackpool have been absolutely encouraging and show what a first-class full-back he can actually be.
“He is so dangerous going forward and can do his job defensively and is comfortable on the ball and doesn’t give it away cheaply and that’s what I like about him. He is a football player and tries to use the ball and that is testament to Neil in the work he has done.
“Lewis Cook is a bit like a David Batty for me and you need that type of person in your team.
“He is comfortable on the ball and composed and starts things off from the back four and his weight of passing is fantastic.
“That goes for Alex and you can see the confidence and trust that the manager is showing in him by the performances and goals he has been scoring.
“The three also know each other’s game and that is a massive part of having a successful team in knowing how your team-mates play and their strengths.
“It is not something you plan, but what comes natural to these players.
“They know each other’s game and some of the play from back to front is a joy to watch.
“The first 45 minutes on Saturday was the best they have played since Huddersfield Town and I think they are getting back to that under Neil.
“We are seeing the work that has been put in on the training ground coming through under him.