Leeds United: Sulley the man to revive Whites academy

Chris Sulley.
Chris Sulley.
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From applications numbering more than 100 and a final shortlist of 10, the name of Chris Sulley has emerged.

Leeds United’s new academy manager took up his post yesterday, completing a process that the club hope will safeguard their youth-team programme for years to come.

Four months of deliberation over how best to fill the job at Thorp Arch ended in the appointment of a 51-year-old who, in United’s eyes, ticked the necessary boxes.

Sulley is a former professional footballer, a heavily-qualified coach and a man who, for no fewer than eight years, pulled the strings of Bolton Wanderers’ academy. Notable successes during his tenure at the Reebok Stadium included Kevin Nolan and Nicky Hunt.

United promised to take their time in awarding a position which, in the words of chairman Ken Bates, was “one of the most important in the club, second only to the first-team manager himself”.

Sulley’s arrival at Thorp Arch filled a role vacated by his predecessor, Neil Thompson, at the end of October.

In the interim, the management of Leeds’ academy was handled by technical director Gwyn Williams, one of the men involved in the interviews. First-team boss Simon Grayson and chief executive Shaun Harvey also took responsibility for selecting Sulley from a group of 10 viable candidates.

“You need experience to run an academy like ours and Chris has got plenty of it,” Williams said. “He did the academy manager’s job for a long time at Bolton and his track record for youth development over there was impressive.

“We had a shortlist of 10 people with some very strong candidates on it and we seriously considered all of them, but Chris’ presentation was extremely good.

“He knows what the job involves and he’s got his own vision for taking the academy forward. We were really taken by some of his ideas.

“Christmas slowed the process down a bit but we wanted to do it properly and get the decision right. It’s worth the wait if you get the best man in. Time will tell if we’ve got this right, but Chris was the sort of person we were looking for. He ticks the right boxes.”

Sulley made his first appearance at Thorp Arch yesterday morning and, in an example of how demanding his job will be, was due in London today for a Football Association conference on plans to enhance youth-team productivity across the country.

The need for such improvement at Thorp Arch was behind United’s decision to sack Thompson after six years of service.

The last academy player to debut for the first team at Leeds was Aidan White, the teenage left-back who is presently on loan at Oldham Athletic.

Sulley – a well-travelled defender who began his playing career at Chelsea while Bates was chairman of the London club and Williams worked as their chief scout – has been charged with increasing the flow of players from United’s under-18 squad to their senior ranks.

It is a process which, by the club’s own admission, has all but ground to a halt. A change of academy manager was seen as the best answer to a stagnant system of junior development.

No less important in light of Sulley’s selection will be United’s attempts to prevent the repeated loss of skillful youngsters to clubs in the Premier League. Leeds estimated that as many as 11 credible prospects have walked out of Thorp Arch since the club’s relegation to the Championship in 2004.

Sulley’s background and track record might help convince the existing pool of scholars to commit to their coaching.

Nolan and Hunt were two of the more renowned players nurtured by Bolton’s academy under the management of Sulley, and he worked for Blackburn Rovers in the late 1990s at a time when David Dunn, Damien Duff and James Beattie were showing promise at junior level.

“He’s got a few strings to his bow,” said Williams. “He can coach, he can spot a talented player and he can run an academy to a very high standard.

“The academy at Leeds was fantastic at its best, but there hasn’t been enough coming through recently. We all accepted that we had to make more progress in that area.

“It’s not an overnight process and it’s still going to take a lot of hard work. Twelve-year-olds don’t become 18-year-olds when a new academy manager arrives and (appointing Sulley) is a decision that we hope will pay off in the long-term.

“We needed a rethink because it’s a long time since we had a bunch of youngsters banging on the door of the first team.

“But, in saying that, we’d like to be pushing players through from the academy sooner rather than later.”

Thompson was followed out of Thorp Arch in October by his assistant, Daral Pugh, but the cull of staff did not include existing under-18s coach Neil Redfearn.

Redfearn increased his responsibilities by taking charge of the club’s reserves after Thompson’s dismissal, and he is expected to retain both his current positions under Sulley.

Redfearn recently revealed he had not applied for the academy manager’s job and would prefer to remain in his current coaching roles.

The form of United’s under-18s – a side who were bottom of their Premier Academy League with a single point on the day of Thompson’s sacking – has improved steadily in the past four months, culminating in a narrow and unfortunate defeat to Aston Villa in round five of the FA Youth Cup last month.

Williams, meanwhile, was always a temporary replacement for Thompson and passed control of the academy to Sulley yesterday.

Sulley is returning to the domestic academy scene three years after leaving his job at Bolton. Since 2008, he had worked for the FA and as a lecturer at the University of Lancashire.

“I’m 64 and you need a younger man to do the academy manager’s job,” Williams said.

“We’ve got someone in who’s worked with two Premier League clubs and understands what youth development involves at that level.

“I’ll help him in any way I can, but he’s got a clear idea of what he wants to do and his plans for the job were very convincing. We all agreed that he was our man.”

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