Andrea Radrizzani and Ian Harte did not take long to patch up their differences over Leeds United’s development squad and, little by little, Harte’s criticism of it has been forgotten.
Monday night, away at Ipswich Town, brought a third straight win for the club’s Under-23s and another indication that the plan at that level is gradually gaining traction.
Harte, the former Leeds left-back who played his way through their academy in the 1990s, accused the same academy of “losing its identity” after watching a 2-2 draw with Birmingham City in February during which, he said, “all I could hear was Spanish being spoken by players and manager.” He was not alone in questioning the changes to United’s Under-23s and, at the time, coach Carlos Corberan was sitting on a run of six wins from 21 games.
The meeting with Birmingham, however, marked the start of a sequence of six matches without defeat.
Nottingham Forest were routed 5-1 a week later and the past three fixtures against Sheffield Wednesday, Hull City and Ipswich have returned nine points. Players like Bryce Hosannah and Madger Gomes, formerly of Crystal Palace and Liverpool respectively, have recovered from injury, and Leeds are beginning to blood the British contingent who came to Elland Road in January.
Sam Dalby, the 18-year-old striker signed for a six-figure fee from Leyton Orient, scored twice on Monday with a physical performance which dominated Ipswich’s defence. Midfielder Jordan Stevens, who arrived from Forest Green Rovers, made his debut in the second half. Corberan’s line-up was a blend of domestic and foreign footballers, which is what Leeds aim for in the longer term.
At the end of last season the core of the development squad at Thorp Arch had dropped to around 11 players. Radrizzani called 2017-18 “year zero”: a season in which Leeds needed bodies on board to properly lay the ground for subsequent team building. Many of those recruits came from abroad, at a cost which Leeds could afford. “But our priority in the future is to be very strong locally,” Radrizzani told the YEP.
In the past month certain Under-23s have crossed into Paul Heckingbottom’s senior squad. Bailey Peacock-Farrell established himself in goal and Tom Pearce, at the age of 19, made his debut at left-back against Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday. Pearce’s promotion prevented Corberan from using him against Ipswich and the Spaniard has rarely had a full complement of players to work with. Finland Under-21 centre-back Aapo Halme spent two months injured after his move from HJK Helsinki in January.
“The performance of the team now is great,” Corberan said after Monday’s victory. “We’re six games unbeaten and the players are showing they’re ready to win games and ready to be competitive.
“One very positive thing is that we believe a lot in us. We’re in the right way to finish the competition. The first part of the league wasn’t strong enough but the reaction of the team was great. We’re happy too because we’re helping the first team.”
From a slow, standing start, Leeds are two points off second place in the northern Professional Development League, a division in which the top two join the leading two southern sides in the end-of-season play-offs.
“We’re going to try and win all the games we can because we know the play-offs are a possibility,” Corberan said.