'They probably don’t realise what they’ve done' - why fans will miss Leeds United Under 23s this summer
For a side with such a winning habit, Leeds United Under-23s have left the club’s supporters with a sense of loss going into the summer.
Mark Jackson’s youngsters galloped to the Premier League 2 Division Two title and ended a truly impressive campaign on Monday against Burnley.
The 5-2 win was followed by scenes of youthful exuberance as captain Charlie Cresswell hoisted the league trophy and then, just like that, it was all over for the season.
As Cresswell explained, there is still a job to do for the 23s, given the role they occupy in training with Marcelo Bielsa’s first team and the potential reward of Premier League football in the final four senior outings.
But even if the players haven’t suffered a hint of after the Lord Mayor’s show syndrome at Thorp Arch this week, fans are suffering from it.
Thomas Hill has been the voice of the 23s, commentating on behind-closed-doors games for Leeds United TV.
For many, watching them roll out the same brand of high intensity football that has wowed Premier League audiences became a much-needed distraction. It’s not quite Patrick Bamford slamming a hat-trick past Aston Villa but watching Joe Gelhardt and Sam Greenwood bang in goal after goal has been a midweek tonic in tough times, a bridge between hits of Premier League action.
“The players probably don’t realise what they’ve done for the fans,” Hill told the YEP.
“People have said how much they’re going to miss it now the season is over, it kept them going during lockdowns. It’s been a special part of the week to distract you from the outside world.”
In normal circumstances, the 23s would have played their games in front of a loyal band of supporters and graced a bumper crowd for their trophy presentation.
“They deserved a bit of a fanfare for what they’ve achieved,” he said.
“They’ve been exceptional, too good for the rest of the league, they’ve waltzed it. For the last few weeks I’ve been saying on commentary that we’re privileged, getting to commentate on the future of our club. The journey they’ve been on has been great to follow. I like to think next season they’ll get a taste of what they deserve in front of a crowd.”
What has made the season special, for Hill, is the way Jackson’s team has matured after a rough start in a 4-0 defeat at Stoke.
“I remember being pretty shell-shocked,” he said.
“They were playing quite well but every time Stoke went down the other end of the pitch they’d score. They hadn’t really struggled in the Professional Development League but after Stoke they were 2-0 up against Wolves and drew 2-2, so you thought it would be really hard work.
“But the progression, the way they’ve matured, shows they’ve learned lessons. They’ve been playing with such confidence it almost borders on arrogance, even though they’re very humble and respectful, you can see how much they believe in themselves.”
Former Leeds full-back Ben Parker joined Hill to commentate on the games and has been equally impressed with their recovery from that day at Stoke.
“They didn’t get off to a great start and you’re thinking, first time at this level, a new Category 1 academy, is this just going to be a learning curve season?” he told the YEP.
“But the way they’ve gone from strength to strength has been a joy to witness.”
Home-grown players like Charlie Cresswell, Oliver Casey, Jack Jenkins and Niall Huggins have blended seamlessly with new faces, players signed last summer like Greenwood, Gelhardt, Crysencio Summerville and Cody Drameh.
“The new boys took us by surprise,” said Parker.
“We know how hard it can be for new signings to get a grasp of our training. We’ve seen new signings at first-team level take weeks or months to bed in but they’ve hit the ground running from the word go, their attitude and dedication has been great to see.”
Next for the 23s will be a step up in competition in the Premier League 2 top tier but players in Jackson’s squad should already be looking beyond that says Parker, who made his first-team debut as a 19-year-old.
“It’s difficult because the jump from 23s to Premier League football is huge,” he said.
“But they’ve got to be looking at first-team involvement. They’ve got the talent, they’re at the best club in the country because the manager trusts and uses young players, he involves them in training every single day and knows their strengths so it boils down to opportunities. When they get it they’ve got to grasp it with both hands, the way Pascal Struijk has this season, the way Jamie Shackleton and the shining example Kalvin Phillips have. These are players to look up to, they’re proof of the pathway and the progression you can make.”
After the high of the celebrations, the work continued at Thorp Arch this week, work that Leeds hope will lead to joyous scenes at Elland Road in the future.
Parker believes it’s a future in good hands.
“I’m delighted for Jacko,” he said.
“He puts so much hard work in, he loves his coaching and loves improving young players. They must learn so much from him. He’s excellent out on the grass, the sessions he puts on, the way he interacts with people and communicates is a massive part of it.
“What he did with the Under-18s was fantastic and stepping up with the 23s during a pandemic, in a new league, and winning it with this brand of football is such a credit to him. He’ll be the first to say it’s a team effort, with his staff.”
Fans will miss their fix of 23s football until next season but the excitement of what could be, for this group of youngsters, will linger through the long summer months.
“As a fanbase Leeds fans have had it tough for years,” said Hill.
“When I was growing up the best players we produced played for a season and were sold or they were snapped up before that. It should be a proud thing for the fanbase that so many have been on the bench this year.
“There’s a huge leap from playing against a Crystal Palace 17-year-old to a Mo Salah but I think they’ve got a good spine, four or five who could hold their own and do themselves proud at senior level. The future looks bright.”