Leeds United: Future is bright if Whites can keep stars

Lewis Cook
Lewis Cook
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Academy products Sam Byram, Lewis Cook, Charlie Taylor and Alex Mowatt have become the backbone of the Leeds first-team but predators could still take advantage of their contract situations. Phil Hay reports.

There’s a photograph doing the rounds on Twitter of the moments after Alex Mowatt’s winning goal against Millwall. It shows the midfielder sliding in front of the Elland Road crowd with Sam Byram, Lewis Cook and Charlie Taylor running in behind him; the academy frozen in time.

At certain clubs those four players would make up one third of a development-squad line-up but at Leeds United they have become the spine of the first team. In the remainder of a season which is suddenly stable and in control, attention will turn to the job of keeping that spine intact.

United’s forward-planning does not stop with the playing squad – at some stage in the near future, the club must decide if head coach Neil Redfearn has earned himself a second season – but the core of academy footballers in Redfearn’s side are not as secure as they could be.

Mowatt has been approached about a new deal but he and Taylor are reasonably well protected, under contract until the summer of 2017. Mowatt received improved terms 14 months ago and Taylor signed a three-year contract at the end of last season, one of the few commitments made by Massimo Cellino to existing players after his takeover of Leeds in April.

Cook and Byram are different. Both players negotiated deals running to 2016 prior to this season but neither contract has been extended despite recent discussions between the club and their representatives. Further negotiations will be necessary as Leeds inch towards the summer transfer window.

Cook’s reputation has been on the rise since he featured in England’s tournament-winning squad at the European Under-17 Championship last May.

Staff at Thorp Arch were keenly aware of his potential at the time but did not tout it openly and the midfielder took up a professional contract amid very little publicity.

United spoke with his agent around the turn of the year and their conversations are said to have been productive. It was agreed however that Cook – a player who turned 18 a fortnight ago – would not consider signing an extension while Cellino was subject to the ownership ban imposed on him by the Football League in December.

Cellino is disqualified from running Leeds until April 10, the consequence of his conviction for tax evasion in Italy last March. The 58-year-old has been absent from Elland Road for the past month and he flew to Miami on Sunday after belatedly deciding not to attend Saturday’s 1-0 win over Millwall. He is expected to remain in the USA for at least two weeks. The message from Cook’s camp was that they would be more willing to commit to another deal once the situation surrounding Cellino became clearer.

The Italian has resigned from the board of both United and Eleonora Sport Ltd – the UK firm which led his 75 per cent buy-out of Leeds – but his ban is temporary and the Football League has not ordered the sale of Eleonora’s majority stake.

Cellino does, however, face further tax charges in Italy and could find himself in breach of the League’s Owners and Directors Test again. His next case – concerning the alleged non-payment of VAT on a car – is due to be heard in Cagliari four days after his present disqualification ends.

Cellino met face-to-face with Byram’s agent before Christmas, though their meeting did not go well. It is understood to have ended abruptly after a disagreement, with Byram’s agent asked to leave. Byram, nonetheless, says he is happy at Elland Road. “I’m actually looking to buy a house in the area,” he told the YEP last month. “I live here, I’m from here and all my friends are here. But I’m back in the team and enjoying my football and that’s really the main part of it.”

There is satisfaction too in the en-masse progression of players from Leeds’ academy. Byram was an isolated representative of United’s youth-development scheme during his first season as a professional – a season when Neil Warnock was manager – but Mowatt emerged under Brian McDermott and Cook and Taylor have benefitted from Redfearn’s long-standing faith in them.

Redfearn was Leeds’ academy boss before his promotion to the head coach’s job and Cook’s involvement has been consistent ever since his appointment in November. When Leeds chose to allow former club captain Stephen Warnock to Derby County last month, Redfearn’s solution at left-back was to give 21-year-old Taylor an immediate chance. United’s line-up is increasingly home-grown.

Speaking after Saturday’s victory over Millwall, Mowatt said: “We’re a tight group, all the young players. You can see in the warm-up that we’re all together and we all get on really well. It’s nice to have all of us all out there and it’s better to be playing week in, week out (at a club).”

Gareth Southgate, the England Under-21 coach, was at Elland Road for Leeds’ 1-0 defeat to Brentford on February 7, hinting at possible call-ups for some of United’s players. Cook is an established youth international and Byram and Mowatt have both been selected by England at various age levels. The Under-21s play Germany and the Czech Republic next month.

Taylor, meanwhile, has been capped by England’s Under-19s and of all the youngsters in United’s line-up, Redfearn has been most quietly impressed by him.

“Charlie goes a bit under the radar,” Redfearn said. “People spot you more easily when you’re scoring goals or getting forward like Sam, Alex and Lewis do. Those three have been fantastic for us.

“But if you think about the time Charlie came into the team – a time when we needed results and things weren’t going great, a time when he hadn’t played for a while – his performances have been top draw. He’s good enough for the Championship and he’s shoulder-to-shoulder with the other young lads. It becomes a bit of a competition. They’re pushing each other to play well.”