Phil Hay: Thorp Arch not to blame for Leeds United’s ills

Leeds United's training ground at Thorp Arch.
Leeds United's training ground at Thorp Arch.
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Leeds United’s training ground has its detractors, but since it opened has produced its fair share of players – and financial income – for the Elland Road club.

The good news for Kalvin Phillips this week wasn’t the prospect of a day trip to Blackburn Rovers. It was the realisation that Leeds United are starting to think of him in that context. This is how is goes for graduates at Thorp Arch: a sniff, a taste and then the watershed.

On occasions Leeds dangle the carrot without offering an immediate chance to bite. Alex Purver, an 18-year-old midfielder, travelled to Birmingham City in September but did not make the bench and has not made his debut. Likewise, the intention with Phillips is to open his eyes, not to drown him at the deep end against an adept Championship club. In the end Leeds chose not to take him to Blackburn but his chance will come. The point is that he and others are on the doorstep. The line of academy players edging into the party shows no sign of ending.

It will be longer by default on the basis that Neil Redfearn is United’s head coach. He knows the kids, he’s loyal to them and he more than anyone will feel a duty to test their potential. You would call him a partial judge were it not for the fact that the players he puts forward keep shaking the ground. The past month has been Alex Mowatt’s best without exception. He’s the same Alex Mowatt whose face didn’t fit in David Hockaday’s light brigade.

There were other notable achievements during the international break. Eric Grimes, United’s 19-year-old goalkeeper, made his debut for the Republic of Ireland’s Under-21s. Eoghan Stokes, a teenage striker, scored for the Republic’s Under-19s in a European Championship qualifier against Malta. They all want what Mowatt, Lewis Cook and Sam Byram have got – domestic exposure and first-team appearances – but in terms of focus, Thorp Arch has become a broad church. Most of Leeds’ young professionals are finding a way of amounting to something.

All of which makes you question whether Thorp Arch deserves to be under threat. United’s training ground is under threat and has been since Massimo Cellino bought the club in April. He dislikes the complex and he has his reasons. The lease on the training ground is punitive and makes no financial sense. The location of Thorp Arch, 15 miles north of the centre of Leeds, is prohibitive for families who lack the means to transport youngsters. Back in the day, Fabian Delph needed three buses to reach the academy, albeit from his home in Bradford.

It strikes Cellino as an unlucky place too, though that’s as maybe. The facility as it stands was largely completed in 2002, the point when so much began to go wrong, but the brainchild of Howard Wilkinson made United the progressive club they were for several years before the collapse. Blaming Thorp Arch then was like blaming Thorp Arch now. The cost of rent aside, it’s the last of the problems if it even classes as a problem at all.

In an interview with the YEP before the international break, Cellino touched on the subject of building a new training ground. Since his takeover United have looked for suitable pieces of land in the centre of Leeds and have spoken to the city council about the many issues involved. Money is bigger than most. Southampton’s new academy cost £30m to build and Brighton are paying a similar amount for theirs. That consideration is secondary to discussions about how Leeds might extricate themselves from lease at Thorp Arch which runs until 2029 and currently costs £600,000 a year.

Youth development comes into the equation too. United’s academy has been under severe pressure for years, constrained by falling budgets, but something is working. Cellino was asked whether quitting Thorp Arch might weaken a decent production line. “The academy could do better,” he replied. Of course it could. By definition, a category-two academy could be better. But gaining a superior classification is, again, as much about money as it is a case of improving productivity.

The Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) is already so ingrained in English football that Leeds cannot attempt to work outside it. Their reputation, their attractiveness and their output will be maximised by acquiring category one status. But EPPP is not an Ofsted report. It’s not purely an analysis of working practices or coaching ability.

Category One academies need an operational budget of at least £2.5m. They need a minimum of 18 full-time staff and a certain standard of facilities. Last season, United’s bid for category two status was disrupted by a delay in installing a 3G astroturf pitch at Thorp Arch. The project was one of many things that ran out of cash towards the end of Gulf Finance House’s ownership. Cellino effectively footed the bill and the club passed the EPPP audit but that example demonstrates the tight framework that academies work within. Left to its own devices, United’s seems to cover the bases. That’s proven by the players who are streaming out of it. Something will give with Thorp Arch eventually. Cellino, quite reasonably, is bewildered by an agreement where Leeds pay rent through the nose forever and a day (or until 2029). But there’s risk involved with decamping at haste, whatever the motivation. Certain things have let Leeds down. Thorp Arch isn’t one of them.

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Gulf Finance House, Leeds United’s former owner and existing minority shareholder, rebranded itself on Monday. The Bahraini bank is now called GFH. That should make the world of difference.

Meanwhile, over in Dubai, GFH Capital – the private equity arm which arranged GFH’s takeover of Leeds in 2012 – was undergoing a more bizarre rebranding of its own. On Tuesday morning the company’s website began redirecting Internet users towards a newspaper report alleging that GFH’s buy-out of United was paid for in part by money from Iran, potentially in breach of UN sanctions. At the time of publication, GFH denied the suggestion and said it was “deeply defamatory.”

Later that day the website changed tack and instead displayed a tweet referring to unflattering reports about Esam Janahi, the main man at GFH when the bank bought Leeds.

By Wednesday morning a new link had appeared – this time showing the homepage of Naftiran Intertrade Company, a Swiss-based subsidiary of the National Iranian Oil Company. There was also a redirection to the complaints section of the Dubai Financial Services Authority’s website. GFH Capital was asked to comment on the significance of it all and explain what was happening with its homepage. Before a reply came, GFH Capital’s twitter feed joined in the fun yesterday by tweeting and retweeting messages openly attacking the company. Contact details for GFH employees Hisham Alrayes, left, and Jinesh Patel were also published.

The domain name for GFH Capital’s website is controlled by David Haigh, pictured right, the firm’s former deputy chief executive and United’s one-time managing director.

Haigh is presently under arrest in a Dubai police station, as he has been since May 18 when authorities there locked him up over allegations of financial wrongdoing made against him by GFH. As has been widely reported, the bank alleges that Haigh falsified invoices during his time as GFH Capital’s deputy CEO and defrauded the company of more than £3m.

Haigh denies the claims and has not been charged with any criminal offence, despite his long incarceration.

He is making counter-claims against GFH and says his arrest was designed to stop him levelling accusations of wrongdoing at the bank. Tuesday marked six months to the day since Haigh was detained. At the same time as GFH Capital’s website began going haywire, the 37-year-old’s Twitter account tweeted: “Everything starting to fall into place about the real wrongdoing and wrongdoers. Reports made to law enforcements agencies.”

That message was followed by an excerpt of the poem ‘Invictus’, written by William Ernest Henley as he recovered from the amputation of one foot following the onset of tuberculosis.

Invictus is best known as the poem read by Nelson Mandela to fellow inmates during his years of imprisonment on Robben Island.

Weirder and weirder.

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