Leeds United’s academy is the club’s most sacred cow. Attacks on it provoke fierce defence of its work and understandably so in light of the centre’s history.
If the drip of players into the first team was drying up then support for United’s development scheme might wane but this weekend on the first day of the Championship season, Uwe Rosler’s squad will contain at least four academy products and probably five. As Neil Redfearn said last season, the production line is an asset at a time when Leeds don’t own too many.
There is nonetheless a perception that United’s academy is under threat. Massimo Cellino, the club’s owner, has long complained about a training complex which costs more than £600,000 year to rent. Back in May, and annoyed by the loss of a young prospect to Manchester City, Cellino suggested that he was seriously considering scrapping the lower age groups at Thorp Arch and working with players from the age of 16 up.
Later this summer, Redfearn – Leeds’ long-standing youth-team coach who worked as head coach in the second half of last season – resigned from his post as academy boss, saying his position had been made “untenable” by United.
The 50-year-old was entitled to retake control of the academy following the end of his tenure as first-team boss but the collapse of his relationship with Cellino left him vulnerable. Upon resigning, Redfearn said an invitation from Adam Pearson, Leeds’ executive director, to stay involved at Thorp Arch had not been “genuine”.
The impression created was that of an unseemly mess in which the academy was liable to suffer but Pearson disputes the suggestion that United are giving up on it. “It makes me laugh when I hear that,” he said. “Our academy budget is as good as any other club in the Championship. It’s not at all under-funded.”
What matters more is whether that investment will continue but on the evidence of the past month the structure of the academy is not being allowed to decay. Leeds have recruited Daral Pugh – once assistant to United’s former academy manager, Neil Thompson – from Hull City to act as their head of academy coaching. John Anderson, who has also worked with Hull’s youth teams and is well known to Pearson, will coach Leeds’ Under-18s next season. The job of Under-16s coach has gone to ex-United striker Andy Gray.
Jason Blunt took charge of the club’s development squad last season after Redfearn’s promotion to the position of head coach but while Blunt remains on the staff, coaching the Under-18s with Anderson, Cellino intends to appoint a new Under-21 manager shortly, effectively filling the vacancy that Redfearn’s resignation created. Neil Sullivan, meanwhile, has gone back to his old post as academy goalkeeping coach.
“We’ve got one position left to fill and that’ll be done very soon,” Pearson said. “I know Daral and John and they’ve both been at Hull’s academy. They’re very good, credible appointments in those jobs.
“It’s good to have a couple of ex-Leeds players involved too. It helps with the ethos and the understanding of what it means to play for the club. People don’t necessarily see this from the outside but the idea that the academy’s being down-graded or under-funded is ridiculous. It’s simply not the case.”
Redfearn’s exit last month was bitter and acrimonious, and frustrating a support who in the main had warmed to him during his time as head coach and respected his historical input at Thorp Arch. The former Barnsley midfielder is expected to take legal action against the club. There have been other changes to the academy staff too. Lucy Ward, the club’s head of education and welfare and Redfearn’s partner, has been suspended from that post. Long-time academy employee Steve Holmes is also believed to have lost his job.
Asked about Redfearn’s departure, Pearson said: “Look, I think as a club we’re moving on. Neil said what he said in the papers and that’s fine but our focus has really been on making sure the academy got what it needed this summer.
“I’m not going to pretend that the academy and the staff there haven’t done excellent work over the years. Its record speaks for itself. But it’s important to remember that the success of the academy – and the club for that matter – doesn’t just come down to one individual, or two or three.”
The Thorp Arch academy achieved category two status under the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) in 2014, passing an audit after overcoming cash-flow problems in the final weeks of Gulf Finance House’s time as club owner. Leeds are reassessed annually and are required to maintain a certain level of investment and staffing in order to receive around £500,000 in central funding.
Pearson said there was no plan to scale back the academy from category two status and admitted he was sceptical about the idea of Leeds leaving Thorp Arch to escape a punitive rent.
“That (the loss of category two status) has never been suggested to me or discussed,” he said. “It’s very much the plan to stay as category two.
“We get audited every year and there are certainly things that we’ll need to do before the next audit comes round but that will be addressed. Academies are all about ethos and facilities and I mean this seriously when I say we’re protecting all of that.
“As for Thorp Arch, I can’t see us leaving. In my view you can’t build a decent new academy for less than £15m. I don’t think that’s where we need to be spending money right now.”
Pearson said Cellino’s comments about abandoning the lower age groups were an impulsive response to the loss of a teenager to Manchester City’s cash-rich and state-of-the-art academy. Leeds received around £100,000 in return but saw the fee as a poor consolation. City and Liverpool are currently showing an interest in other players.
“I think what Massimo said was a knee-jerk reaction to the thought of two or three really good youngsters leaving,” Pearson said. “It hurts because you’ve got talented kids going to clubs with bigger budgets when – on the evidence of our first team – they really would be better staying at Leeds.
“I’ve always taken that view and with someone like Lewis Cook, there’s no better path for him than to play week in, week out at Leeds and try to get this club promoted. Then when you get to the Premier League you can name your ticket. We’ve got a wealth of talent at our academy – a real wealth of talent – and that’s proven by the scouts who try to crawl all over Thorp Arch.”