Leeds United: Naylor’s enjoying his role with Whites INTERVIEW

Richard Naylor.

Richard Naylor.

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If the FA Youth Cup has a sense of humour it will send Leeds United’s Under-18s to Histon in round five.

Part of the club’s dignity was buried in that village on the day their senior squad capitulated there four years ago.

The law of averages says United’s youth-team are destined to avoid a visit to that graveyard.

Nothing in football is pre-conceived but with Leeds due to meet the winners of Wednesday’s game between Histon and Liverpool, it is more than likely that Anfield will be their next stop on February 9.

The Premier League venue would befit a squad who are far closer to the ballpark of England’s elite clubs than they are to the standards of non-league.

United’s Under-18s have lost only one game this season and are joint top of their Professional Development league.

On Tuesday night they ran Burton Albion ragged, winning 6-1 at Elland Road in the fourth round of the FA Youth Cup.

I suggest to their coach, Richard Naylor, that it’s been a good year so far. “I think that’s an understatement,” he says.

This is Naylor’s first season as a coach; his first since retiring after almost 20 years as a professional player.

Brought in to handle the Under-18s amid the implementation of the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) – the controversial brainchild of the Premier League – United’s scholars have thrived under him. One of them, midfielder Chris Dawson, signed a professional contract in October.

“For a young side, what they’ve done is really impressive,” Naylor says.

“We’ve only got four or five second-years in the squad and we’re basically a team full of first-years.

“That makes a difference because at this age older players are stronger and more mature.

But we’ve only been beaten once (a 3-0 defeat to Barnsley in September) and I don’t think we deserved to lose that game. It’s some going.”

And so the obvious question – how much potential do the latest crop of juniors at Thorp Arch have?

It is a point of interest each and every season; a query encouraged by the historic reputation of United’s academy. There are times when the production line seems to be running out of steam.

Then the likes of Tom Lees and Sam Byram emerge from the shadows. Dawson might be next, the name on everyone’s lips. “He’s got a great chance of progressing,” Naylor says.

The 35-year-old is wary of making outlandish comparisons between this group of players and those who Leeds nurtured before them.

United are a club who twice won the FA Youth Cup – the country’s most prestigious junior competition – in the 1990s. The walls at Thorp Arch are covered with photographs of the players responsible.

“It’s difficult for me to judge exactly how good these lads are,” Naylor says. “I’ve come into the job this season and for obvious reasons I don’t have great experience of watching this age-group play. It’s hard for me to gauge how talented this group are compared to other years.

“What I can say is that the lads in the building at the moment have the right attitude.

“They’re hungry to do well. There’s a lot of talk about the youngsters of today – a lot of bad press – but the lads here listen, learn, do their jobs and want to do their jobs.

“I’m not sure what more you can ask for. Most of them have big hearts and you can go a long way in football with one of those.”

Dawson scored a hat-trick against Burton on Tuesday, inspiring an emphatic win despite Naylor admitting that Leeds “didn’t really play our football.” Alongside Dawson, their impetus this season has come in no small part from strikers Lewis Walters and Luke Parkin, both of whom have reached 10 goals in league fixtures.

“We’ve got goals in the side and the front three have been great,” Naylor says. “Little Chrissy Dawson in behind Parkin and Walters. When you’ve got that threat it’s important that the rest of the team keep it tight. To be fair, they’ve done that really well.”

Naylor succumbed to retirement last May but did so willingly, encouraged by a body which was giving up on him.

The latter stages of his career with Leeds were plagued by injuries, the worst of which required invasive surgery on a slipped disc, and it was apparent 12 months ago while at Rotherham United that he had reached the end of the line.

A lifelong Leeds fan, he is arguably as respected a captain as United have had in their post Premier League years, the man who led the squad in the season when Leeds finally escaped from League One.

He has coaching qualifications but relevant experience too. As a way of keeping United’s players relaxed before Tuesday tie, he joked with them about conceding an own goal in front of the Kop during a game against Millwall in 2011.

“I think it helps having people around who’ve been there and done it,” he says. “The lads look to you for reassurance.

“I talked to them the other night about scoring that own goal, just to settle their nerves.

“It makes the point that that sort of thing happens and I’m not going to criticise them for making mistakes. I think I’ve got them onside.

“When I retired it was an easy decision. I’d had enough and my body was telling me it was time to go, probably six months before the end of the season.

“I got through to the end by playing bits and pieces but you know when it’s time and that was mine. I haven’t regretted it at all.

“I’d started doing my badges and coaching was something I was interested in but I hadn’t made a firm decision because when you’ve done something for a long time, you start to think ‘maybe I’d like to do something else. Maybe it’s a chance for a fresh start.’

“But then you look at it and realise you don’t have much experience of anything but football. I asked Redders (academy manager Neil Redfearn) if I could do a bit with the kids to keep my hand in, see how I got on and see if I enjoyed it. I did enjoy it and the club asked me to stay. I haven’t looked back.”

Path

The natural assumption is that Naylor is clearing a path into management. Many of his peers will follow that route but the former Ipswich Town captain is less enthusiastic.

“I can’t say that the prospect of managing excites me,” he says.

“At first-team level there’s no security for a start. It must be the worst job in the world for job security. You move from place to place.

“I was lucky that in my career I had a good stint at Ipswich, a stint in Leeds and that was me. I haven’t had to move my family around the country and to be honest, they’re the most important thing to me.

“I wouldn’t want to put my name down for a job here or there. It doesn’t interest me.

“Some people enjoy that kind of pressure but it’s not what floats my boat. I enjoy football and I’m enjoying coaching with the kids. That’s enough for me.”

Naylor argues that the experience of playing at Anfield, should Liverpool keep their side of the bargain, is more important than the result – “At this level it’s not so much about winning cups. What the players want is a career in the game” – but there is kudos involved with the FA Youth Cup.

People in Leeds still speak wistfully of the squads which won the competition in 1993 and 1997.

“The more you work with the kids, the more affinity you have with them and the more you care about how they do,” Naylor says. “So I want them to do well in the cup and to have something like that on their CVs. Football at this level is about development but yeah, I’d like them to win it.”

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