Andy Keogh rarely features in laments about the looting of Leeds United’s academy. Flogged to Scunthorpe for the price of a Mercedes, his transfer caused none of the hell raised by other Thorp Arch sales. Perhaps it should have done.
In his own way, Keogh upheld a sorry trend – Leeds’ academy working to the benefit of other clubs. Scunthorpe paid £50,000 to sign him and United pulled in twice that sum through a sell-on clause when he joined Wolves in 2007, but both of those clubs relied on Keogh during seasons in which they were promoted. There were times in the intervening years when Leeds would have made better use of him.
The explanation at the time of his sale was that Leeds were unable to promise Keogh, pictured inset below, more than a seat in the stands. It is often the way with aspiring professionals and a recent reality at Elland Road. For the past two seasons, academy representation in United’s first team has been virtually nil, Jonathan Howson aside.
Where that left a player like Tom Lees was difficult to say before his debut last week. At the end of last season he harboured doubts himself. “Playing football’s what I want to do,” he told the YEP. “It’s really up to other people decide where I do it.” Or, to read between the lines, I’ll leave if I have to.
His hesitancy in clinging too tightly to a career at Elland Road was understandable. Simon Grayson’s years as manager of Leeds have been a period of evolution, but they have not been a time of stoic dependence on the club’s academy. When Lees appeared in their Carling Cup tie against Bradford City, he became the first graduate since Aidan White in 2008 to debut for the senior team at Leeds. Within days, Charlie Taylor and Zac Thompson became the second and third. Some will see this as a notable change of policy. There is a distinction to be made between Taylor and Thompson – two raw teenagers who have already played more senior football than they were entitled to expect this season – and a player as educated as Lees. The 20-year-old came back from Bury in May with 84 league appearances behind him and enough in the way of schooling to make another loan pointless. Had Grayson shown a reluctance to lean on Lees after two full years in League Two, the defender might as well have packed his bags and taken Keogh’s lead. He was not alone in that respect. Last month, Adam Clayton and Ramon Nunez were in the same boat with the same itchy feet. Neither player was produced by United’s academy but both were in the untapped category after sitting on contracts for a full season without scratching the surface at Elland Road.
In Nunez’s case, Grayson wanted to see him receive the sort of Football League enlightenment found by Jermaine Beckford at Glanford Park and Davide Somma at Lincoln City. Clayton, by comparison, was squeezed out last season by Grayson’s natural loyalty to Bradley Johnson and Neil Kilkenny. Moot though the discussion is now, his aptitude in the past fortnight makes you wonder if Clayton, in the absence of a midfield signing in January, could have offered Leeds a service when their form deteriorated after Christmas.
The point with him is that a second year of “development” - translated as more time on loan – would have been a charade. By Clayton’s own admission, he was in danger of wasting away at Manchester City and came to Elland Road in search of open doors and greater inclusion. Leeds might claim to have one of the highest wage bills in the Championship, but they do not delight in carrying excess baggage. Aged 22, Clayton’s apprenticeship has clearly been served.
That much was also true of Lees and Nunez, who extended his contract with United for a further 12 months in April. If Grayson had found no reason to use them or Clayton this season, there would have been no reason for having them on the books at all. A summer of few signings and a glut of injuries and suspensions made their involvement swift and essential, but it was United’s duty to blood them regardless. It also seemed necessary to make a definitive judgement on White, three years and 18 appearances after he tempted Leeds to offer him a five-year deal. He is at the crossroads.
The debate over the calibre of Grayson’s squad will not be swayed by the emergence of players on the fringes of it. It is a separate argument altogether. But the desire in Leeds is for signings of overwhelming merit. There is no enthusiasm for stop-gap recruits to fill positions which players in situ have the skill to occupy.
With Lee Bowyer on board, Clayton’s selection would have been questionable (though his performances to date have overshadowed those of Michael Brown). What he should not have been asked to do was yield to recruits of the ilk of Barry Bannan and Jake Livermore who, on the evidence of last season, looked greener and less accomplished than him. Lees is worthy of the same opportunity. Having promoted him to a starting position for reasons of form, Grayson should keep him there for as long as it takes Lees to either hang himself or prove that he is a defender for all seasons. The managers who coached him at Accrington Stanley and Bury know where their money would lie. Keogh left Leeds untried and untested. It was not befitting of a club who pride themselves on youth development and not a mistake to repeat.