Leeds United: Kevin Sharp interview

When Simon Grayson and Howard Wilkinson last spoke, Leeds United's incumbent manager told his predecessor of a plan to reform the club's youth-team strategy and do justice to an academy built on Wilkinson's watch.

The 67-year-old is regarded as the founding father of the vibrant training programme created at Thorp Arch, and Grayson credits Wilkinson with "leaving a legacy" of youth development at Elland Road. It is something Grayson intends to replicate.

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The success of the 1990s, when Leeds twice won the FA Youth Cup and made an art of academy production, is what the club have attempted to revive with a review of their youth-team system, but Kevin Sharp would not class Wilkinson as the inspiration behind that era. He gives that reputation to Paul Hart.

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Sharp was a member of United's Under-18 squad in 1993 when, with Hart as their coach, they laid their hands on the FA Youth Cup for the first time.

In doing so, Leeds picked apart a Manchester United team who were seen as peerless and are still celebrated as of the finest built by an English club.

The players used by Hart – no fewer than five of whom contributed to England's victory in the European Under-18 Championship later that year – made a modest impression on the first team at Elland Road, far less significant than the side who won the FA Youth Cup in 1997, but many professional careers were spawned nonetheless.

United's recent move to overhaul their academy was aimed at realising both aims – generating more players who are capable not only of carving

out careers in professional football but of doing so with Leeds.

No pleasure is drawn from the fact that the last academy product to debut for their first team did so two-and-a-half years ago.

The club's review began with the sacking of former academy manager Neil Thompson in October, and they are in the process of interviewing prospective replacements after receiving more than 100 applications.

Sharp is adamant that United's remit should be to find a mentor in mould of Hart, a man whose talent as youth-team was exploited by Nottingham Forest after his departure from Leeds in 1997.

"Paul was one of the finest coaches I worked with," said Sharp.

"Howard Wilkinson gets a lot of the credit for the academy but I saw Paul as the man responsible for the FA Youth Cups and the players came through.

"It's pretty clear that there are problems with the academy at the moment – you can tell that by the fact that Leeds felt the need to make changes – and they need to get the appointment (of a new academy manager) right. For me, they should be looking for someone with Paul's attributes.

"Most of the lads who played in the youth team back then would describe him as a brilliant man-manager.

"He made a real effort to get to know you – to learn about your game and work out which position suited you best.

"He had an eye for a player and he seemed to take the attitude that he could get something out of most of the youngsters, so long as he had a clear idea of what your strengths and weaknesses were.

"He was always clear about how he wanted to play and that showed in our success. That Manchester United team (in 1993) were probably better than us man-for-man but the way we played – and the confidence we had in our own style – made us the better team.

"It's one thing having a great first-team manager but the success of an academy really comes down to people who work in it day-to-day.

"The way I feel about Paul Hart is how many people felt about Eddie Gray.

"They both had a natural talent when it came to handling youngsters and

pushing them on.

"Whoever Leeds decide to appoint has to have a track record which clearly shows that ability."

Sharp is schooled in junior football and holds the distinction of having won a youth cup medal in both England and France, where he played with Auxerre before joining Leeds in 1992. More recently he worked with the centre of excellence at Wigan Athletic, the club he represented for six years as a player.

The 36-year-old did not put his name forward for the role of academy manager at Leeds but he hopes that Neil Redfearn has.

Redfearn, United's existing Under-18 coach, retained his post when Thompson and his assistant, Daral Pugh, were sacked on October 29, and he has been given control of the club's reserves on a temporary basis while Leeds decide on a new academy boss.

His claim to the most senior post in the youth-team system at Thorp Arch was enhanced by the 3-0 victory recorded by Leeds against Scunthorpe United on Tuesday night, in the third round of the FA Youth Cup. Despite their fine record in the 1990s, the club have made no serious impression on the competition for several years.

"I know Neil well and he'd be an ideal choice," Sharp said. "His coaching style is excellent but he's only ever had the opportunity to manage non-league sides in the past.

"I'm not sure he's had a good enough standard of player under him to let his true ability shine through but I could see him making a real go of the academy if he gets the chance to run it. He'd make an impression on the most talented kids.

"A few clubs have started paying big money for young players and I know that money talks but even as a Championship club, Leeds United should have no problem persuading youngsters to stay at their academy.

"In my experience, if you're working under a coach who's bringing you on, you'll happily sit tight.

"If someone had asked me to leave Leeds while Paul Hart was there, and I wouldn't have even thought about it There was no chance of that.

"People will say 'yes, but Leeds were a Premier League club back then.' All that means is that I had less chance of getting into the first team than kids have now. But the academy was so well run that I was more than happy to take my chance."

Leeds expect to decide on Thompson's replacement by the end of the month, though the arrival of his successor may take longer if United's preferred option is under contract elsewhere.

The review of the academy has a long-term outlook but it is still the club's intention to relieve at the earliest opportunity the blockage that appears to have developed between their youth-team and their senior squad.

The signing of four teenagers to scholarships last month – among them 16-year-old Elliot Kebbie – will give United's new academy manager additional players to push in that direction.

"An academy that produces one first-team player in almost three years is obviously not working," said Sharp.

"You're not going to produce 10 or 11 each season but you ought to have at least two or three who the manager can seriously think about taking on.

"Some will make it and some won't – that's the way it's always been. But you don't want a situation where you're resigned to the fact that nothing's coming through.

"The youth-team system when I knew it prided itself on being better than that."

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