Leeds United and Barnsley favourite Neil Redfearn on the battle between 'his boys' Kalvin Phillips and Alex Mowatt
Neil Redfearn's bond with Leeds United and Barnsley runs deep – and the sight of two of ‘his boys’ in Kalvin Phillips and Alex Mowatt holding court for their respective clubs this year yields a further justifiable swell of pride.
Work commitments dictate that Redfearn, who is Newcastle United’s under-23 coach, will miss Sunday’s Oakwell derby.
Should he have been in attendance, his attention is likely to have gravitated towards the anticipated battle for midfield hegemony between Phillips, 23, and Mowatt, 24, two players who Redfearn nurtured with due care and attention in his time at Elland Road.
Two players of differing skill-sets, but the imprint of defined quality.
“They have both done great. I knew they would, they are talented kids,” the former Whites head coach said.
“I am chuffed for Kalvin and Leeds that he is staying with them and has got a five-year deal. He is someone they have got to build a side around – his improvement has been that good.
“Leeds want to put a marker down and try and get promoted and Kalvin is their number one asset and they have done the sensible thing and shown a bit of foresight and it has to be applauded.
“Kalvin was in a really good group and it comes in cycles. You had (Lewis) Cook, Mowatt, (Sam) Byram and (Charlie) Taylor; they were all good players capable of going on.
“Kalvin had a lot of natural ability and a great physique, even at a young age. He was a powerful boy who could get around the pitch and his range of passing was brilliant.
“The thing that I was always impressed about him was that he was not frightened of trying things. He was prepared to make his passes and put the ball at risk at times; even at a young age.
“For young players to work with Marcelo Bielsa is fantastic with his knowledge of the game. The players feel that freedom and you can see that with Kalvin and some of the young boys.
“The role Kalvin is in suits him. He can play at the back and in midfield and when Bielsa creates the overloads all over the pitch, he drops in at the back and then he will push into midfield and create an overload. He is clever with a depth of pass and he will revel in all that.”
Redfearn’s joy at Phillips making the most of the footballing gifts bestowed upon him to become one of the Championship’s leading midfield protagonists is shared by his pleasure in seeing Mowatt reacquaint himself with the swagger and poise that he displayed in bursting onto the scene at Leeds as a teenager.
After a difficult introduction to his career at Oakwell, Mowatt has returned to the Championship stage which most observers believe is befitting of his talent –something that Redfearn wholeheartedly concurs with.
“Alex was someone who I would have relished working with longer term at Leeds – someone who gets double figures from midfield at a young age,” added Redfearn.
“I know how hard it is and those sort of midfielders are like gold dust because they can turn average seasons into a promotion one.
“He has that game craft. I don’t think it was a case of him losing his way, but he always had that ability – it is just the ability to apply himself.
“Once he has his mojo back and gets his head around it, he has always been a player.
“People will have opinions on him, but I will back mine against most people.”
While Leeds’s supplementing of young talents with more senior Championship operators suggests they have the wherewithal to be a major force in the second-tier for the second successive season, Barnsley have placed their faith in young and unproven rookies, almost en masse.
Aside from perhaps Mowatt, the hosts’ lack of hardened Championship nous has been obvious in the early throes of the season.
Redfearn acknowledges the gamble is a very risky one, but adds the caveat that should the Reds stay up this season, it could well be the making of their kindergarten class.
He observed: “It is invaluable experience and if Barnsley can weather this season and stay up, it is success, even if they will probably want better. If they stay up, they can go again.
“When we got promoted, we were peppered with young kids with Andy Liddell, Morgs (Chris Morgan), Dave Watson and Nicky Eaden. But we had good experienced players like myself, Paul Wilkinson, John Hendrie and Neil Thompson.
"You need a balance and from Barnsley’s point of view, there’s probably an imbalance. They are probably aware of that.
“For Leeds, this season is a big one. I think a lot of their players are going to hit their peak. Bielsa is so football-bright and Leeds are in a good place.”