What to expect for Leeds United's exciting newly-recruited class of 2021 scholars
Leeds United hosted their 2021 intake of scholars with the traditional signing ceremony at Elland Road this week.
The young hopefuls heard words of wisdom in a welcome from the club’s CEO Angus Kinnear, director of football Victor Orta and academy manager Adam Underwood before posing for photographs with their shirts, each of them numbered 21 to mark the year they began their full-time football education in earnest.
Leeds like to make the youngsters feel the part, without making too much of a song and dance about them.
Some have already built something of a profile for themselves - Ronnie McGrath featured in a BBC ‘wonderkids’ video and when he tweeted about signing on Tuesday night it quickly gathered over 1,000 likes.
Similarly, Darryl Ombang, like McGrath an England youth international, has filled column inches in national newspapers this summer ahead of his trip down the road from Bradford City to Elland Road.
Leeds rate them all highly yet don’t want to build too much expectation or hype around them. After all, they are just 16 years old, with the exception of former Watford prospect James Debayo who celebrates his birthday next week.
Premier League status and the club’s stature and history helps attract kids, who were on the radar at many other clubs including top-flight ones, to Elland Road.
Everything that Leeds United represents is part of the package the club sells to players, parents and representatives, yet it’s also part of the reason why they take care not to let the narrative around a young player run wild.
The scholars have much to look forward to, not only in terms of the facilities and Marcelo Bielsa-inspired training available to them, but the backing of a vast fanbase, the love and support of thousands of strangers who will pop up on their social media feeds, willing them to become the next Kalvin Phillips, the next big thing.
The longer they stay at Thorp Arch, the higher they progress and farther down the line the more minutes they play for the Under-23s live on LUTV, the more attention they can expect.
They can also expect to be written off, just like Phillips was. Leeds Twitter, circa 2017/2018, pre Bielsa, makes for interesting reading in light of the England midfielder’s Euro 2020 performances.
For a player condemned to a life of League One football 'at best' by some of his own, his standing as a Premier League player and 15-cap Three Lions star who would command an eye-watering fee is quite the turnaround.
Many saw the talent and the potential, few predicted this, before Bielsa got his hands on him at least.
Herein lies the danger of setting, with absolute certainty, a ceiling on any young player’s future and being made to look foolish.
Phillips is far from alone in the Leeds dressing room in being able to boast that he proved people very wrong - Liam Cooper and Patrick Bamford can wave at their critics from a far loftier perch than the one prophesied for them.
Alfie McCalmont is an example of a player some have now decided will not ‘make it’ because he played in League Two last season and will line up in League One come August, evidently forgetting that their idea of making it is not universally accepted, that a goalscoring midfielder will rarely be shy of work and that Ben White, of the Premier League, England and potentially Arsenal, worked his way up to this point via Leagues Two, One and the Championship.
Similarly, players who were tipped for the top, teenagers who held genuine promise only to fall short of their projected achievements are in abundance among the alumni of clubs all over the world.
Everyone has an opinion and a right to share it yet, even if you can confidently show your working out, football can make you look very silly.
Leeds hope to shield their youngsters, as best they can, from all of that.
People will comment ‘baller’ or ‘your time’ or ‘big future’ on every picture the scholars publish and there’s certainly nothing wrong with encouragement, but natural excitement and enthusiasm over potential should be kept in check.
What the class of 2021 have to get their head around is that strangers, both well meaning and sycophantic, hyping them may well be the same strangers writing them off and firing off apathetic tweets about their ability and prospects. The same media that prefaced their name with ‘highly rated’ will have little hesitation in replacing that with ‘flop’.
The hope is that they, like Phillips, will become attuned only to the views that matter, those of their coaches, of Underwood, of Bielsa and their loved ones and filter out the rest as ‘noise’. The hope is that they once again pose for photos at Elland Road, pen poised over a professional deal.
Whether they prove anyone else right or wrong is irrelevant.