Leeds United: Heartfelt recognition for returning academy boss

Former Leeds United midfielder Andy Couzens celebrates with Rod Wallace and Lee Sharpe in 1996.
Former Leeds United midfielder Andy Couzens celebrates with Rod Wallace and Lee Sharpe in 1996.
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PAUL HART’S door was always open to aspiring young players at Leeds United in the 1990s – when he proved a ‘father figure’ to a golden generation of talent – in the words of ex-Whites midfielder Andy Couzens.

Couzens, Noel Whelan, Jamie Forrester, Kevin Sharp, Mark Ford and Mark Tinkler all flowered under Hart’s tutelage, with their crowning moment coming when they lifted the FA Youth Cup at the expense of a feted Manchester United side in 1993.

The conveyor belt of prodigious young talent rolled on seamlessly under Hart’s command, with the club triumphant in the youth cup again four years later when they beat Crystal Palace, with the likes of Jonathan Woodgate, Harry Kewell, Paul Robinson, Matthew Jones, Stephen McPhail and Alan Maybury taking centre stage this time around.

Hart famously left Leeds in 1997 after rumours of a fall-out with boss George Graham over the lack of first-team opportunities being given to young players.

Eighteen years on and the 62-year-old is back in his former post of academy supremo at Leeds, with the sight of a clutch of academy talents in United’s first-team likely to have provided the Lancastrian with ample reassurance too.

Hart’s arrival was greeted with widespread acclaim last week and among the number heralding his arrival is one who worked under him at close quarters in Couzens.

Couzens, now 40, and a member of the 93 Youth Cup-winning side under Hart, told the YEP: “The good thing is that Paul knows the club and it’s a great appointment.

“He will progress players who we have coming through. It’s a very sensible move and in the long-run, hopefully we are going to get another influx of young players coming through the ranks.

“For him to come to Leeds is huge and I am sure the young lads will have the utmost respect for him with his record. As a guide to all of us young lads such as myself, Jamie Forrester, Mark Tinkler, Kevin Sharp and Gary Kelly, he was there for us whenever we needed it and that’s a huge advantage for any young kid going into the first team.

“He would give you the confidence to do your stuff and Paul will take that mantle on with the young players again.”

Couzens says that Hart’s technical skills as a coach were exemplary, with his sessions vibrant, thought-provoking and never dull.

But if Couzens had to chose one word to describe his former youth team boss, it would be this one: Discipline.

Hard, but fair is the apposite term to describe Hart, in his view.

“Work hard and show the right attitude and he would always be in your corner with his mentoring skills helping many a young player starting out on their footballing journey.

Couzens recalls: “Paul likes his discipline, which is a good thing. Because at 16 years old, you need a bit of discipline putting into you.

“He was like a father figure to all of us, really. You could always go and speak to him.

“He was a hard man, but at the same time, if you did something right, he would praise you and push you if he thought he could get more out of you.

“But if you weren’t doing the job on the pitch, he made sure you knew you weren’t doing it.

“I remember he brought us all in one Sunday morning because we had played terribly the day before. When we were doing the jobs around the ground, if somebody hadn’t done it right, then we are had to do our jobs again.

“He instilled into us as young people that we weren’t professional footballers yet. He wanted us to keep our standards up.

“Paul went off to try his hand at management and maybe didn’t cut the mustard in that sense. Maybe his real roots were with the academy where his record is second to none.

“His training will have changed since he was with us. But it was always technical and every day was different and we didn’t go out there and do the same things all the time.

“It was really enjoyable.

“He nurtured you and always took you to one side and analysed what you have done and what you could maybe do slightly better.

“Now, with all the technology and everything else, I am sure he will evolve that.

“He is a great appointment and adds to the fantastic ones over the last few months from Uwe Rosler to Adam Pearson.

“We seem to be a more stable club these days, which is brilliant.”