There are academies in England with more money than Leeds United’s but the development scheme at Manchester City is off the scale by the financial standards of almost every club.
The City Football Academy – a vast complex at Eastlands, built at a cost of between £150m and £200m – houses more than 450 players from the lowest age group to the first-team squad. It has an academy stadium with a capacity of 7,000 and no fewer than 12 pitches set aside for youth-team coaching.
City’s Under-18s come to Elland Road tonight for an FA Youth Cup fourth-round tie. Andy Gray, one of Leeds’ two Under-18s coaches, is well aware that United’s reward for seeing off Brentford in round three last month was arguably the most difficult draw going.
Chelsea are holders of the Youth Cup after beating City in the 2015 final but that rivalry is brewing again. City lead the north division of the Under-18s Premier League and Chelsea lead the south. A win over Everton at the weekend was City’s fourth win in a row.
Gray, the ex-Leeds striker who joined the club’s academy staff last summer and manages the Under-18s alongside former Hull City defender John Anderson, said the fixture was exciting his squad rather than intimidating them. “The players are always confident,” Gray said. “It’s a cup game under the lights at Elland Road and anything can happen in knockout football. We’re telling them that this is an opportunity to test themselves against the best and beat the best.”
There is no exact calculation of the money paid by City to amass their Under-18s squad but Gray estimates the cost to be “millions of pounds”. “It’s not really a level playing field when you think about the money,” Gray said. “At City it doesn’t seem like there’s much of a budget. They spend what they feel they need to spend and when they see someone they like they go and get him, from all different countries and all different parts of the world.
“They’ve got so many players it’s almost impossible for us to guess what team they’ll play. I’ve been watching videos of them and their talent is obvious. They’re very strong. But this is one of the biggest games of the season for us, in front of a proper crowd at Elland Road, and the players are up for it. We’ll have a good go at them.”
Leeds, who are without suspended captain Jack Vann, met eventual winners Chelsea in last season’s competition, losing 2-0 at home. United have not made serious in-roads in the tournament for many years but the Youth Cup resonates at Elland Road on account of the famous successes of 1993 and 1997, both of which were masterminded by current academy director Paul Hart.
In that period, Gray fell between two stools. “In 1993 I was a year or so too young, still a schoolboy, so I wasn’t involved,” he said. “In 1997 I was a year too old so I didn’t player either.
“I was around the club at that time, though, and the home leg of the final against Manchester United (in 1993) was a big occasion. Elland Road was packed. It meant a lot to the club and I know it meant a lot to the lads who were involved in those runs.
“The players here now are well aware of all that. They know about the history. I don’t want them to be nervous. I just want them to enjoy it but above all, to play as well as they can play because we do have talented players here.”
City’s Under-18s are co-managed by Jason Wilcox, himself a former Leeds player. Even as of yesterday afternoon, with some of his Under-18s involved with City’s senior squad ahead of a Premier League game at home to Everton, Wilcox was not certain about which of his pool would be available tonight.
The 44-year-old denied that City were out-and-out favourites to win the tie. “I don’t know about that,” he said. “Leeds would probably say so but it’s cup football. Over 35 games in a season the best side will come out on top. Anything can happen in the Youth Cup and Leeds will be very competitive. I know fine well that you don’t get an easy game at Elland Road.
“Every academy sets objectives at the start of the season and ours was to do well in our league programme and go one better than last year in the Youth Cup. We want to win it and before last year we hadn’t been near the final for a long time.
“But as an academy it all means nothing if you don’t have players challenging for first-team places. I’m not knocking the Youth Cup because it’s a prestigious competition but there’s a bigger picture. I haven’t a clue who won the tournament two years ago. I’d hazard a guess and say Chelsea but the point is that academies are remembered far more for the players they produce.
“In the last four or five years City as a club have kicked on and raised their profile in an unbelievable way and the academy is following suit. People say there’s no pathway here but believe me, there is a pathway. And anyway, the best kids don’t worry about a pathway. They’ll get there because they’re good enough.”
Leeds have never had a problem with youth-team progression. Their academy has produced first-team players with remarkable regularity and right-back Lewie Coyle, their Under-21s captain, made his full debut in the FA Cup last weekend. Leeds’ squad at Ipswich Town on Tuesday night had seven academy products in it.
Gray, whose Under-18s side are in the bottom half of their professional development league, said: “There’s no doubt there’s a clear pathway here. You don’t really have to tell the players that because they can see how many are going through to the first team. Players do get a chance here and moreso than somewhere like Manchester City. That’s what the lads here are working towards.”
Tonight’s game at Elland Road kicks off at 7pm. Tickets are priced £3 for adults and £1 for Under-16s.