Football academies are forever fighting the numbers stacked against them. Nationally fewer than one per cent of players who go through the system will finish with a career in the Premier League; fewer than one per cent from an estimated 12,000 who are housed in English youth teams at any one time.
Leeds United have often bucked the trend with an output rate which ranks their development scheme as one of Europe’s most fertile. The academy is in another purple patch, with another debutant in the bag after 17-year-old Jack Clarke’s appearance against Brentford last weekend, but change is everywhere at Thorp Arch: in the facilities, the kit and the management of their coaches.
Leeds’ academy staff have moved into a new two-storey building which sprung up in the car park at Thorp Arch in the space of eight weeks, providing classrooms and office space. They have been issued with green training tops, distinguishing them from the first-team employees. And in April, without any fuss, the club appointed Richard Cresswell as their head of academy coaching, giving him oversight of a production line which runs from primary school age to the Under-23s.
Cresswell’s remit is continuity: the implementation of training methods which, while making allowances for the management of different age groups, align each squad. Marcelo Bielsa’s tactical brain is the talk of Leeds but Cresswell’s job is less about an overarching commitment to 4-1-4-1 (though the development squad have switched to that system and ooze the fundamentals of Bielsa’s high press) than it is about ensuring every academy coach thinks the same way.
“We’re not asking six year olds to train like Bielsa does,” Cresswell said. “That would be madness. What we’re saying is that there are characteristics we’re looking for. It’s about bringing the club’s game model and training model together and making sure it’s implemented right through the phases. It’s about focusing on the similar characteristics we expect in the academy.
“There’s a certain style of play we need to implement: how to play from the back, through the middle of the park and how to finish in attack. We want the boys to have fun here but we want them to be driven and professional. It’s showing in the results and the players coming through. And I have to say we’ve got quite a few coming through underneath them as well.”
This is, by any measure, a good time to be working in an academy which has coped with fallow periods of funding in the past. Leeds’ Under-23s are top of their professional development league. The Under-18s – a squad which includes Cresswell’s son, Charlie – are three points off the top of theirs. Cresswell takes the results with a pinch of salt. “It all comes down to development. At 18s level in particular it’s 100 per cent not about coaches wanting to win. That drive comes from the players, who want to win because every player does. But the coaches set up the team to test them with how we want to play and what we expect.”
In the area of progress which matters, the club’s first-team squad is awash with young professionals: Clarke, Jamie Shackleton, Ryan Edmondson and Tom Pearce. Others, including a number of Under-18s, have taken part in regular training sessions under Bielsa. “You can’t replicate that,” Cresswell said. “It opens their eyes to the intensity and the tactical awareness they need. If you don’t expose them, they’ll never learn.”
Bielsa has been nothing but effusive about the academy; relieved, perhaps, that the resources within it have helped to cover for injuries to marquee players like Pablo Hernandez and Kemar Roofe. Bielsa’s way with words is such that if the academy was substandard he would not pretend otherwise. “Obviously he thinks the players are good enough or he wouldn’t have them around the squad,” Cresswell said.
“He’s one of the best managers in the world and I think we’re all learning from him. There are things he’s doing that we’ve not seen before and I’ve been involved in the game for over 30 years. It’s down to the detail and the preparation; what he expects and how he expects it.”
Bielsa asked Carlos Corberan, Leeds’ Under-23s coach last season, to join his backroom staff and assist the process of youngsters moving between the development squad and the first team. “That’s where Carlos is involved,” Cresswell said. “He manages the transition of the 23s. I’ve no doubt Marcelo’s really busy with the first team but the lines of communication have been excellent.”
Cresswell felt a mild sense of disbelief when Leeds appointed Bielsa as head coach. On United’s part, their initial approach had been a stab in the dark with no real expectation of Bielsa saying yes. “It was a shock for everybody, in a good way,” Cresswell said. “I’d known about him for years, I’d read his books and followed his journey with Chile’s national team in particular, but to see the actual delivery of what he does is fascinating.
“There was some recognition for me because of the type of player I was. I was one of those who played at the highest intensity and covered the most ground with high-intensity sprints so it really sits with me. Because this guy just doesn’t rest.”
Cresswell, an intelligent striker in his time, contributed to Leeds’ run to the Championship play-off final in 2006, one of two seasons he spent at Elland Road. The club were financially stricken when he left but by that time, at the age of 28, he was already coaching at grassroots level. He later worked as player-coach with Sheffield United, managing an Under-21 team which included Harry Maguire, and took up technical roles at York City and the i2i Football Academy – the scheme which yielded Ronaldo Vieira – after retiring.
“I’ve been coaching since I was 26 and I’ve done every badge possible,” Cresswell said. He gained his UEFA Pro licence two years ago. “I played at every level in England and internationally for the Under-21s so why wouldn’t I want to pass on that experience?
“In any job in elite sport there’s pressure to get it right but I’ve had pressure all my life and I do thrive off it. That’s the thing. If you’re doing something you love you tend to put more hours in and you take it personally. I don’t know if that’s healthy sometimes but it’s a passion of mine.”
Long hours come with the post and more of them than he can count. How demanding is the job? “Do you want to ask my wife?” he joked. “Time management’s something I need to improve but the output of players is the most important thing for me.” Moreover, he wants to reach the stage where his role allows him to get his hands dirty.
“I’m around each coach and there’s a lot of them here,” Cresswell said. In total Leeds employ more than 30 full-time. “I can be with the Under-nines one day and the Under-23s the next. I haven’t had as much of a chance as I’d like to get out on the grass but once the training model’s in place, I can’t wait. I’ll be diving into different sessions with different age groups.”
Bielsa wanted structural changes to Thorp Arch which created clear boundaries between the academy and the first team but there is a healthy mutual interest. Leeds have used several senior players, the likes of Kalvin Phillips, Adam Forshaw and Liam Cooper, to talk to their juniors about lifestyle and performance. “When the message comes from those guys it’s a lot stronger than from us,” Cresswell said.
In a similar way, the academy players breaking through under Bielsa are creating a productive culture of envy. “If there were no players from the academy in the squad, the opportunity in the players’ minds might not be there,” Cresswell said. “Now they can see it with their own eyes. They can feel it and taste it.
“This is one of the highest-performing academies in Europe, never mind in the UK, and the biggest thing about it is the opportunity; the opportunity the boys have to progress into the first team or even be around it. It’s been evident for years, way back before I was here.
“I’m a realist and I know the stats say that 0.012 per cent get into the Premier League as professionals. In context it’s very difficult. But what we have to do is create an environment where we give the kids the best opportunity.”
The work, headed up by academy manager Adam Underwood, seems to be keeping Bielsa happy. Again last Saturday, after Clarke’s 20-minute debut, he gave a little nod to the work going on beneath him, saying he was grateful for a raft of young footballers to fall back on.
"With an academy, when the credit’s getting thrown at you it’s good to accept it,” Cresswell said. “It’s good to say ‘yeah, we have done a good job.' Just don’t be satisfied. Never be satisfied. Always push for better.”