For Leeds United the last month of the season is a perfect opportunity to experiment.
Clubs don’t always have a pressure-free finish and, if truth be told, most clubs don’t want one. Given the choice you’d always choose to be right in the mix of promotion, with something riding on every game.
But while Leeds were never in the running for the play-offs, they’re a mile above the bottom three and in no danger whatsoever. That situation gives Neil Redfearn a good chance to have a think about which players fit and which players don’t going into the summer transfer window.
I know that signings at Elland Road aren’t exactly under Neil’s control but he’s tried to turn Leeds into his own team and he’ll have plans for the future in his head.
Assuming he’s in charge at the start of next season, he might want to set the side up differently or make more use of players who haven’t featured so much under him. He might want to test other systems. And given his track record, he’ll probably be tempted to give a few more academy lads a go.
This is the point of the year where you inevitably hear that old phrase: throw the kids in and let them have a go. What’s the worst that can happen with seven games left and nothing to play for?
I don’t disagree with that sentiment but I don’t accept either that blooding youngsters willy-nilly is a good idea simply because the season is dead.
I think back to a scenario I encountered when I was a 16-year-old at Manchester United.
The manager at the time, Tommy Doherty, wanted to play me in Alex Stepney’s testimonial. It would have been quite a big deal for someone as young as I was. People would have focused on it.
Unbeknownst to me, my youth-team coach talked Tommy out of it. He basically said that I might be ready but I might not. He wasn’t sure. So the decision was taken and I played no part in the game. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that someone told me I’d been in with a shout.
The worry was that they’d throw me in and I’d look way out of my depth. Or worse still, I’d feel way out of my depth. Having kicked on and got myself close to the first team, a bad experience might set me back and hamper my progress.
Take it from me, as a young footballer, playing for the first team isn’t enough. You want to play well and you want people to think you’ve played well. That’s the reality.
None of this is a reason for Neil to avoid using any of the academy products who are ready.
It’s simply an example of why there’s no chance of him overloading his team with kids in the last seven games.
No matter the circumstances, a side has to be balanced and it has to be right. Otherwise everyone in it struggles to play well and you risk taking a hiding.
The run-in carries no pressure for Leeds but it’s not at all easy. They’ve got Blackburn Rovers (and Jordan Rhodes) on Saturday and two other sides who are bang in the race for promotion – Norwich City and Wolves. They’ve got derbies against Sheffield Wednesday and Rotherham and a long trip to Charlton who, to be honest, don’t always have the best pitch.
None of these clubs will roll over and die and some of them will be fighting like hell. So Neil’s experiments have to be measured and have to be logical. For instance, if Lewis Cook is going to be out injured for a few games then maybe Kalvin Phillips can get his chance.
In a strong line-up, maybe there’s an opportunity to see what Chris Dawson can really do at number 10.
Alternatively, Neil might feel that half-an-hour off the bench would be a better plan of attack for them; to limit the expectation and to give them a chance when games are stretched. Blooding young players and blooding them properly isn’t as simple as just throwing them in.
To be fair to Neil, he’s very good at it. Charlie Taylor is a really good example of a situation where a vacancy in the side came up overnight and, in Neil’s view, the time was right for Taylor to step in. I fully expect more new faces to get a run before the season ends but what you know with Neil is that they’ll get a go because they’re ready to play, not because the season is over. Professional football only forgives so much.