Leeds United: Academy back on an upward curve

Leeds United's Thorp Arch training ground.
Leeds United's Thorp Arch training ground.
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The contradiction of the criticism of Leeds United’s multinational academy is that those in charge of it believe they are functioning at a category one standard. Leeds hold second-level status as defined by the Premier League’s Elite Player Performance Plan but the club rate their Thorp Arch facilities at a higher level and employ 27 full-time staff, almost twice as many as their band requires.

There is no less confidence in the development squad they have built, which is where most interest and contention lies. Nine months ago Leeds reached a fork in the road with their Under-23s. At its lowest ebb that group consisted of 11 professionals and was supplemented last season by a number of Under-18s, not all of whom were ready for the leap. Adam Underwood, the academy’s manager for the past four years, said the point of reckoning came at an opportune moment: just as the ownership of Leeds was passing on, from Massimo Cellino to Andrea Radrizzani.

Bailey Peacock-Farrell.

Bailey Peacock-Farrell.

“We ended up in a position where we had 11 young pros,” Underwood said. “Last summer we arrived at a point were we said ‘look, what’s the purpose of this 23s group? Are we simply fulfilling fixtures and are we simply going through motions to keep our status as a category two academy? Or are we serious about trying to create a pool of players who can support the first team and push like we’d done for so many years?

“We reached that crossroads at a good time because Andrea came in and wanted to make the academy a central part of the plan going forward. He invested and we’ve arrived in a very different place to where we were nine months ago. Eleven players is too few to create a professional, competitive training environment and that’s one thing that’s really changed. There were 18s getting pushed up which was decimating them. Now we’ve got two full, healthy groups.”

The development squad was down to the bare bones as a result of natural wastage and judgments passed on players who were failing to make the grade. Leeds’ scope for finding superior talent was limited since, in Underwood’s words, “we didn’t recruit from further than our own doorstep because we didn’t have the resources to do so.”

The landscape changed dramatically after Radrizzani’s takeover. In the Italian’s first transfer window, Victor Orta, Leeds’ director of football, mirrored the club’s approach to first-team recruitment by sourcing inexpensive academy footballers from the continent. Oriel Rey, a 19-year-old midfielder, came out of Barcelona’s academy. Kun Temenuzhkov, a Bulgarian centre-forward, also arrived from Catalonia. Others were sourced from Real Madrid and Benfica and the academy at Thorp Arch, for so long an intrinsically British enterprise, became cosmopolitan in a matter of weeks. It was topped by a Spanish Under-23s coach, one-time Villarreal assistant Carlos Corberan.

Our vision is to have players ready to transition all over the pitch. What we want to be now is an academy which, wherever there’s a need in the first team, we’re able to meet it, be that a central midfielder, a striker, a goalkeeper.

Adam Underwood, academy manager

Externally, the unfamiliarity bred distrust of the plan: were the imports good enough and were they suited to England? Was the influx inclined to block the pathway for local teenagers, something the academy historically prided itself on? Ian Harte, Leeds’ former defender, gave the development squad both barrels last month, attacking their “identity” and the prevalence of Spanish spoken amongst them. Harte would not have known that Corberan and most of his foreign crop had been taking English lessons in their spare time.

“You can’t question the fact that we’ve had a shift,” Underwood said, “but it’s not a thing to say everyone has to speak English or everyone has to speak English in the canteen, or that we don’t want to hear you speaking Spanish on the pitch or in the changing room. Football’s a multicultural game and we have to embrace that. These lads can open our eyes. But they’ve adapted and they’ve taken Carlos out for fish and chips a few times. They love it.

“Any academy or club that wants to be in the Premier League has to cast its net further than its own doorstep. The strengths Victor brings are contacts and the knowledge of the European market. I can categorically say it’s the strongest recruitment set-up we’ve had in my time here. It’s enabled us to find some good players from Europe but players who’ve taken time to adapt because they’ve been plucked from Barcelona or Real Madrid and then plonked in Wetherby, where it’s minus two and snowing.

“We’re in a business where risk is inherent in everything you do. You take risks to get a return but we’ve got a structure which enables us to take calculated risks in the right way. These players who’ve come across (from abroad) were not unknown to us. They’ve got quality and they lifted the group. But we’ve done a lot of work since then to take on UK-based players who’ve cost us money.”

Tom Pearce.

Tom Pearce.

The first half of Under-23s season was no advert for the changes but there has been more sign of cohesion and ability since Christmas, and in the team’s current streak of seven games without defeat. The byproduct of Leeds’ recruitment has been a more consistent Under-18s side, who are third in their division. The development squad’s form could see a previously meandering year end with an appearance in the play-offs.

There were more foreign signings after last summer’s transfer window – Aapo Halme from Finland and Pascal Struijk from Ajax Amsterdam – but domestic deals too. Fees were paid to sign strikers Ryan Edmondson and Sam Dalby from York City and Leyton Orient, and midfielder Jordan Stevens joined from Forest Green Roberts. Stevens, 17, reportedly cost in the region of £200,000. Players like Callum Nicell, Bobby Kwame and Jamie Shackleton will jump into the Under-23s next season and as a result, Underwood said transfers would become “specific and targeted.” “Any gaps we have, that’s how we’ll recruit.”

Around the players and Corberan, the club introduced a wider programme of sports science and analysis. “Combine that with the recruitment we did and it’s going to take time to bed in,” Underwood said. “This isn’t a first team where these lads are seasoned pros who’ve been around the block and lived in different cities. We’ve taken kids and stuck them in with our local players. There’s all the cultural stuff to deal with before we even get to the football.

“As a category two academy, as a minimum we have to run with about 17 staff full-time. We’re up to 27. We have a staffing structure that is absolutely category one. We have a facility that’s category one. What we feel we have now is a pool of players who are category one, with the right depth of quality to come to fruition within the short to medium term.”

Rey has been a mainstay in Corberan’s midfield all season. Underwood said the former Barcelona trainee was an example of how Leeds were exploiting “all three markets”: the local area, the wider British leagues and European countries.

“Look at it this way – we’ve got Oriel, who’s 19 years old. He’s come up through Barcelona’s academy. He’s got lots of great qualities and he’s quite English in the way he plays but he has that technical class which comes from being in an academy like Barcelona’s.

“He’s playing next to Callum Nicell from Doncaster, a lad who’s been with us all his playing career. We’re giving Callum the opportunity to play with someone like Oriel in the centre of midfield. What a tremendous platform that is to develop from.

“Expectation is moving up all the time because the Championship is getting stronger all the time. It’s getting tougher and the challenge is getting harder for these kids. So what Carlos and Mark (Jackson, Leeds’ Under-18s coach) are doing is striving to push them as much as they can.”

Leeds intend to upgrade their academy to category one level if and when their plan for a new training ground in the city centre becomes bricks and mortar. Productive talks with the local council were held before Christmas. Underwood said the prime benefit of changing category immediately – “a different games programme” against predominantly Premier League sides – was not necessarily worth the expense for a club who are trying to fight their way out of the Championship. “We’re satisfied with what we’re doing,” he said. “As far as producing kids goes, we’re doing it.”

That was shown this month by Bailey Peacock-Farrell’s appearance in goal for the first team and Tom Pearce’s debut at left-back against Sheffield Wednesday last Saturday. United’s dismal Championship form might tempt head coach Paul Heckingbottom to dabble with others from a development squad which has ridden its revolution and shown definite signs of settling down.

“Our vision is to have players ready to transition all over the pitch,” Underwood said. “Once upon a time it was about the one or the two. What we want to be now is an academy which, wherever there’s a need in the first team, we’re able to meet it, be that a central midfielder, a striker, a goalkeeper. We can meet the need because we’ve got the quality.”