No matter how this season ends, Leeds United will miss it when it goes. Ten more points makes this the best Championship year the club have seen and the thought occurs that football so captivating does not come around as often as it should.
Further down the chain and in the ranks of their academy, the past nine months have taken more blood. An unforeseen bounce in the form of Leeds’ first team has drawn attention from the labour of their development squad and Under-18s, a tired slog which the club hope will ultimately administer some worthwhile medicine.
Both teams are bottom of their respective divisions, with five victories from more than 20 matches. Leeds’ Under-23s, who lost to Queens Park Rangers at Elland Road on Monday night, last won a league game in November, 12 fixtures ago. United have never used results as a gauge of the standard of their youth development, but the academy is caught in a perfect storm of form, injuries and the usual trickle of players into their senior squad.
The club describe this season as “transitional” and transition has been the word at Thorp Arch for a while. Leeds’ Under-18s were in Richard Naylor’s hands for two years before he was sacked in 2014. Since then they have passed to Jason Blunt – now United’s development squad coach – John Anderson, Andy Gray and Mark Jackson, the former United defender and the current incumbent in that post. Gray began this season in the Under-18s set-up alongside Jackson but left before Christmas.
At a higher level there were other comings and goings. Neil Redfearn led the academy from 2012 onwards but was moved temporarily into the role of first-team coach in 2014 and resigned as academy boss in the summer of 2015. Paul Hart, who had the reputation of winning two FA Youth Cup with Leeds in the 1990s, subsequently returned to run Thorp Arch as academy director but quit the role inside 12 months.
Daral Pugh – recruited from Hull City as head of coaching two years ago – moved on in October. Amid the constant changes Leeds have retained Category Two status under the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) and the academy is overseen by Adam Underwood, previously part of Leeds’ performance analysis team.
United’s youth teams have traditionally been victims of the productivity of Thorp Arch. For years, the better prospects in Leeds’ development squad have migrated to the first team at a young age. Kalvin Phillips made the jump as a teenager in 2015. Ronaldo Vieira, who will be 19 in July, turned professional last May and has not appeared for the Under-23s since. Lewie Coyle and Tyler Denton have carried injuries this season but Denton has played seven times and Coyle has not featured under Blunt once. Monk rarely supplements the development squad with senior figures, even those on the fringes of his own squad. Marcus Antonsson, whose most recent first-team appearance came two months ago, has dropped down only three times. His hat-trick earned the Under-23s their last win at Huddersfield Town in November. The shallow nature of Monk’s resources does not allow him to take risks.
Injuries, in addition, have been rife all year. Bailey Peacock-Farrell, the young goalkeeper who Monk keeps close to the first team on match days, suffered a broken hand at an early stage and required surgery. Mallik Wilks, Romario Vieira and Jamie Shackleton – a diminutive midfielder who, at 17, is touted as one of the best prospects at Thorp Arch – have all missed months at a time. Leeds attempted to flesh out their Under-23 pool by signing the McKay twins, Billy Whitehouse, Conor Shaughnessy and, more recently, teenage centre-back Paudie O’Connor from Limerick, but Shaughnessy is out for the rest of the season.
His injury undermined a plan for the former Reading midfielder to provide some nous in the middle of a young line-up.
Leeds’ Under-18s have been weakened in the same way, deprived of seven longer-term absentees. Blunt has compensated for his losses by promoting players from Jackson’s squad and Jackson in turn has compensated by relying on younger age groups again. The club’s hope is that the a year of hard results will be of benefit to players who have stepped above their natural level. More signings are likely this summer once the retained list confirms which development-squad members are being released, but for as long as United are trapped in the Championship, the club know they are prone to the aggressive recruitment of more wealthy teams.
Leeds say their commitment to the academy remains intact and that they expect the flow of players to the first team to remain as consistent as it has been.
Mallik Wilks made his debut at Sutton United in January and Callum Nicell, a 17-year-old Irish midfielder, was put through United’s warm-up by Monk before a 1-1 draw with Fulham at Craven Cottage three weeks ago. Earlier this month Underwood travelled to Qatar to visit the Aspire Academy, a scheme set up to harness the potential of Qatari athletes. Aspire is led by Ivan Bravo, a close associate of United co-owner Andrea Radrizzani and a one-time employee of Real Madrid who, at various stages, has been linked to the job of sporting director at Elland Road. This season is one that United’s academy will be happy to leave behind, with quiet confidence that better times lie ahead.