lEEDS United’s new academy boss Chris Sulley is relishing the challenge, reports Phil Hay.
IT drew little more than passing comment on Wednesday but Liverpool’s acquisition of a young defender from Bradford City – 14-year-old Nial Heaton – did not go entirely unmentioned.
This on top of two other recent transfers from Valley Parade to the Anfield academy. Bradford said they were disappointed but “realistic”.
They are not alone in their vulnerability; other clubs in West Yorkshire can sympathise. The man appointed as Leeds United’s academy manager this week need only research his job on Google to gauge the siege his new employers have been under. Eleven losses and counting when the position was advertised in October of last year.
Leeds have gained financially from the trickle of talented teenagers out of Thorp Arch, but the academy system imagined and realised by Howard Wilkinson was never designed as a money-making exercise. Nor was it part of the blueprint for United to benefit from their junior ranks once every few years.
The damning fact surrounding Thorp Arch is the date of the most recent first-team debut made by an academy footballer – August 26, 2008.
Chris Sulley assumed the academy manager’s post on Tuesday morning with the intention of clearing that impasse. It is, he said, a “medium to long-term” project that will concentrate not only on persuading the most gifted players to remain in situ but also on designing a wider, more thorough and more stringent process of initial recruitment in the youngest age groups.
“Talent ID is a major thing for me,” Sulley said. “It’s not only a case of spotting who you think are the best young players. It’s also about confirming that talent with a more rigorous screening programme. From that point on, how well their ability develops is down to the development programme we put in place.
“If it’s not broken then you don’t fix it but I’m aware that there’ve been losses here in the past, for various reasons. My brief is to get the recruitment right but we have to sell ourselves too, not only to the players we want but also the players who are here.
“If you present yourself in a professional manner and convince parents that this is where their boys should be, the attitude of parents becomes part of the solution rather than being part of a problem.
“What I will say is that we’ve got talent here already. There are players in every age group who excite me. On that basis, we’ve got resources to work with. What we probably need is more depth in numbers.”
As Sulley agreed, he is not lacking a helpful catchment area. Leeds have the advantage of occupying a heavily populated region and a city in which only one professional club exists.
West Yorkshire is something of a battleground where relatively local Premier League clubs – Manchester City not least – have spread their attention and invaded the junior market, but United are at their highest ebb for almost five years and attracting the largest average gate in the Championship.
Beyond the club’s reputation, Sulley would argue that the training complex at Thorp Arch is still a viable means of winning arguments with junior players (and, more often than not, their parents) who are caught between offers from different teams.
“The facilities are impressive, and I really mean that,” he said. “If you’re judging Thorp Arch by Premier League standards, it comes up very favourably.
“When I first went to Blackburn, they were in the early throes of building their academy. They were very much on the cutting edge and leading the line with Jack Walker’s money.
“Before the academy at Bolton was built, they had no facilities at all, or nothing to speak of. That was a real frustration. We worked all over the town – begging, borrowing and stealing to keep ourselves going.
“To come into a place like Thorp Arch and have this complex as your starting point is a huge asset. Even now, I doubt whether many academies have two grass pitches, a full-sized Astroturf surface and a proper indoor pitch.
“In terms of the training ground itself, nothing here should stop the academy from being a complete success. It’s not an issue.
“Beyond that, we’ve got a massive area to pick players from. That was one of the appeals of the job. Leeds as a city is quite unusual in that it’s only one club, and a club with great appeal. The area round about is densely populated so you can’t look at it and argue that there isn’t plenty of talent to invest in. It’s all down to recruitment.
“The point I’m making is that the right basis exists. It maybe needs a different direction. That doesn’t happen quickly but I’m clear that the main purpose of an academy is to produce players for the first team. Sooner rather than later is certainly the plan.”
Sulley will use the next three months to fully assess the machinations of the academy at Thorp Arch. After an application process which started in late October and concluded at the end of February, it could not be said that Leeds are proceeding with excessive haste.
Sulley said the period of analysis and reflection would allow him to “be certain that, at the very least, we’re getting the basics right, with round pegs in round holes”.
He will also analyse his staff and look for confirmation that the existing academy team at Thorp Arch are willing and able to carry out his wishes. His first impressions have been encouraging.
“There’s a sense of togetherness about Thorp Arch,” he said. “It’s not always like that. At some clubs, they try to separate the first team from the academy. It can be a real barrier for someone in my job.”
Sulley left Bolton’s academy in 2008, eight years after taking control, and he has broadened his horizons since. The 51-year-old worked as a lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire and also accepted employment with the Football Association, all of it devoted to the subject of youth development. It has long been his passion.
Ken Bates, United’s chairman, made the point on Tuesday that in Sulley he had found a specialist academy manager, rather than a failed first-team coach who was stumbling into a junior role.
The irony of Sulley’s appointment was that it came after a 10-month period in which he carried out a major study of youth academies across Europe for another English club – or, as he put it, “a major rival as it turns out”.
No names were mentioned but Leeds are one of two sides who will benefit from his time abroad.
“The fact that Leeds have chosen me (from a list of 100 applicants) makes me very proud,” Sulley said. “But I do feel as though I’m recognised. I’ve just finished a 10-month study of youth academies around Europe and that allowed me to experience what people would call best practice.
“I’ve seen the workings of clubs who get it right day after day and year after year. Clubs like Bayern Munich and Ajax. It was noted in the World Cup final that eight players were produced by Barcelona and eight by Ajax. To see how it’s done first-hand has confirmed some things to me and opened my mind to others.
“Somebody said to me recently that managing the academy at Leeds was a pressurised job. I don’t see it quite that way. Of course there’s pressure, but that comes in the main from the expectation I put on myself. I want to make an impression here and, when all’s said and done, this is something I really enjoy.
“There were opportunities in the past for me to work with senior players but it wasn’t for me. I’ve always done youth-team coaching and I never expect to do anything else. To me it’s not pressure – it’s a real joy.”