Leeds United's academy progress matching senior ranks as Premier League 2 top flight awaits
Leeds United’s development squad has undergone vast changes in recent times.
The Whites Under-23s have moved from simply filling out the team sheet with names to fulfil fixtures to providing a clear pathway to first-team football.
When majority owner Andrea Radrizzani charged sporting director Victor Orta with overhauling the club’s development team upon his arrival in 2017 few, if any, could have expected the rapid rise that has been witnessed.
United have focused heavily on recruiting some of the best young talent the country has to offer in the transfer window to help bolster their homegrown players at Thorp Arch.
The club swiftly won the Professional Development League title and subsequent play-off in 2018/19 before earning category one academy status just last summer.
In their first campaign amongst the elite teams at Premier League 2 level, Leeds blew the competition away to reach the top division at the first time of asking.
The Whites will now compete in the highest possible league of England’s academy structure this season - a feat that looked a million miles from reality when former head coach Carlos Corberan arrived four years ago.
The likes of Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur await along with a much-anticipated meeting against Manchester United.
“That’s what we wanted,” current boss Mark Jackson said following the club’s promotion in April.
“The club achieved category one status and progressed into the league we are in now, so that is the next step.
“As a club, at every level we want to grow and play against the best opposition. Ultimately, when players play against better opposition and the best in the country, they are going to get better. Those challenges are what we are striving for as a club, we will look forward to those challenges next season in the league above.”
The first cohort of Orta’s initial development recruitment is now reaching an age where first-team football is preferred.
A number of loans were permitted last season and have been again this year, while Jordan Stevens has been allowed to head out to Harrogate Town on trial to gain experience and, presumably, a new home.
Some have departed - Oliver Casey, for example - such is the way of filling squads to the brim. Not everyone can make it.
Ryan Edmondson and Alfie McCalmont are among those who have filled their boots in the Football League and will do so again this season.
Back in West Yorkshire, though, the recruitment has continued and the challenge to progress has too.
Winger Amari Miller was a first capture from Birmingham City with long-term target and former Wigan youngster Sean McGurk not far behind. Both players are young for the Under-23s at just 18 years of age but, like those who arrived last year - Joe Gelhardt, Sam Greenwood and Cody Drameh - will cut their teeth in the academy leagues, meaning game time has to be accessible.
“I think we can give a few teams a good go [next season],” Gelhardt said recently of the challenge of the upcoming campaign. “It’ll be a lot harder obviously with the standard of players and what not but I wouldn’t put it past the lads to give it a good go.”
Leeds made light work of their short stint in the second tier of the Premier League 2 last year, having been crowned champions with little fuss.
Marcelo Bielsa’s use of Jackson’s squad to nurture talent but also help keep his more senior players fit has helped - though Leeds has a long tradition of producing talent.
Now, though, they can attract it too, by playing the best of the best week in and week out.
“We just need to keep pushing now we’re in the league above next year,” Greenwood said of what is next for the Whites academy outfit.
“It’ll be another test and I think we can do well. You have tough days during the season but it comes to times like this where it’s the best feeling in the world - you can’t beat it.
“As a team we have a great togetherness. We just need to keep pushing.”
Leeds at senior level have certainly progressed - going from Championship strugglers to Premier League top-half finishers.
The academy’s leap from playing in the PDL North to the PL2 top division is an equally impressive feat.
Money, coaching and clever recruiting along with a restructure has all had to happen behind the scenes but, by putting one foot in front of the other, Leeds are now rubbing shoulders with the best the country has to offer at senior and youth level.