Leeds United’s Under-18s set the stage for the appointment of the club’s next academy manager with a brave and ill-deserved defeat to Aston Villa in the fifth round of the FA Youth Cup.
United’s youngsters produced a fine display against last season’s beaten finalists to threaten an upset and a rare appearance in the last eight of the prestigious competition.
But two goals in the final seven minutes salvaged a quarter-final place for a Villa squad containing no fewer than seven of the players involved in their loss to Chelsea in the 2010 final.
Last night’s 2-0 defeat came as Leeds worked to finalise the selection of their new academy manager following a final round of interviews last week. Confirmation of the next incumbent is due to arrive before the start of March.
Applications for the vacant position at Thorp Arch were assessed by first-team manager Simon Grayson, technical director Gwyn Williams and chief executive Shaun Harvey, with a view to making an appointment within the next fortnight.
The club moved to restructure their youth-team system by sacking former academy manager Neil Thompson and his assistant, Daral Pugh, at the end of October in an attempt increase the flow of players between their junior sides and first-team squad.
Left-back Aidan White is the most recent academy product to make his senior debut for Leeds, some two-and-a-half years ago, but United’s crop of Under-18s have given rise to fresh optimism with their run to the last eight of the FA Youth Cup.
Harvey spoke of the need to restructure United’s academy programme shortly after Thompson’s dismissal, saying: “We’ve got a great track record of bringing youngsters through and the changes at the academy are all about maintaining that.”
Grayson was among a respectable crowd at Elland Road last night and watched Neil Redfearn’s team soak up periods of pressure during a competitive first half.
Goalkeeper Alex Cairns’ sliding save from Connor Taylor prevented an early concession, and Zac Thompson was called upon to clear the ball from his goalline when Michael Drennan met a corner with a firm header in the 23rd minute.
But Leeds had chances of their own and Charlie Taylor’s left-footed volley brought an anxious parry from Calum Barrett on 19 minutes. James Booker caused the keeper more discomfort when he pulled a volley from the edge of Villa’s box wide of the Barrett’s far post.
United survived another near-miss after Daniel Johnson, Villa’s midfield playmaker, drove a goalbound shot against the legs of team-mate Taylor and the impressive Cairns stood up to Johnson’s long-range effort early in the second half.
Leeds, however, began to sense an opportunity and Dominic Poleon – the scorer of a hat-trick in the a third-round win over Scunthorpe United – took to the field from the bench shortly after Nathan Turner flashed the ball wide of Barrett’s left-hand post.
The striker took no time to threaten a goal by driving the ball against Barrett’s feet and Jonathan Birbeck came within inches of scoring when his shot on the turn crashed against the crossbar 19 minutes from time.
Leeds meanwhile were angered by the failure to award a penalty for a clear foul on Taylor. The left-back was booked instead for diving.
Cairns maintained parity with a fine block from substitute Callum Robinson but Robinson settled the tie with his next opportunity, drilling the rebound from a Jordan Graham corner into the roof of United’s net, and Graham Burke added a second goal in the final seconds of injury-time.
United: Cairns, Thompson, Taylor, Turner, Cardwell, Turner, Booker, Snodin, Lenighan (Poleon 60), Baxendale (Killock 90), Birbeck (Payne 78). Subs (not used): Paulat-Brigg,