Leeds United: Tom Lees interview

Leeds United can give no definite answer to the question of which player will supersede Aidan White as the last academy footballer to debut for their first team.

But the odds are stacked in favour of Tom Lees after his award of a new contract.

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The defender might have worried, at the age of 20, that the door at Elland Road was in danger of closing, but the extension of his deal by two-and-a-half years said otherwise. Last week's announcement by Leeds made it clear that he has not been forgotten since joining Bury on loan in August.

Lees had heard "rumblings" about the possibility of a longer contract with Leeds and intended to sign any offer they produced. It came as a surprise nevertheless, allowing him to think that the senior debut which has eluded him at Elland Road still has a serious chance of materialising.

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United instigated a sweeping review of their academy in October, in part because of a dearth of players in their first-team squad between the ages of 18 and 22.

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Lees is one of the exceptions to that rule and a player who might yet prove that United's youth-team programme can fashion footballers with enough schooling and talent to contribute to more than reserve fixtures.

He played in enough of those before moving to Accrington Stanley on loan last season and a four-month stint at Bury has spared him from a return to that comfort zone.

His reward was an improved deal that will take him towards his 23rd birthday and offer a wider time frame in which to persuade United's manager, Simon Grayson, that he would serve a purpose in the mix of players at Thorp Arch.

"At my age it's a really good commitment from the club," Lees said. "I've obviously made a commitment to them too but I wanted to put pen to paper as soon as I could.

"I'd heard a few rumblings about a new contract and I think a couple of clubs had enquired about me, to see what was happening. But if the club want to protect their young players then that's what they're going to do.

"It seemed right for both parties and I'd like to think that it's partly down to what I've been doing at Bury.

"I want to be a Leeds player in the future and I want to play for their first team but I don't see this as a guarantee of anything.

"It's a longer deal but I still have to prove that I'm worth a chance there. You don't do that by signing contracts and I've made a point this season of getting my head down, concentrating on individual games and hoping that my performances get better because of it.

"If you're focused in the short-term then the long-term looks after itself and this deal proves it.

"At the moment, I'm not going to think about what might happen six months or a year down the line."

United were at least in no doubt that the player they were tying down until the summer of 2013 represented more than raw potential or an untried teenager.

Lees made his 58th Football League appearance in Bury's 1-0 defeat to Wycombe Wanderers on Saturday and, between spells at Accrington and Gigg Lane, has started 70 senior matches in the past 18 months.

A clearer sign of Leeds' opinion of him was the fact that last week's extension was agreed less than a year after Lees accepted his last contract, a two-year deal offered to him in February.

It cannot have harmed his reputation to be part of a Bury squad who are third in League Two and comfortably in contention for automatic promotion.

Speaking recently, Bury manager Alan Knill said: "I'm hopeful that his time with us and Accrington will stand him in good stead to play

higher. Then somebody needs to give him a chance.

"His game isn't perfect but for somebody so young he is doing really well."

How often or by whom Lees has been assessed is something he prefers not to think about. The range of personalities and scouts sent to Gigg Lane never fails to amaze him.

He took the view that Grayson or one of his staff could conceivably attend every one of Bury's fixtures, unlikely though that weight of attention was.

"You never know who'll be watching," Lees said.

"The manager could be in the crowd for the biggest game or the smallest game. It doesn't really matter and you can't pick and choose when you look to impress. I try to block that sort of thing out.

"You wouldn't believe some of the people who turn up to our games – high-profile people who you'd never expect to be there.

"It goes to show that the better you play and the more consistent you are, the more of an impact you'll make. I've tried to be more single-minded this season and make sure I play to the same level game after game."

Grayson may not be in a position to blood Lees before the end of this season and the centre of defence is an area of United's team which their manager can scarcely afford to gamble with.

Sources in Lancashire say Bolton Wanderers will be co-operative when it comes to discussing a longer-term deal with Andy O'Brien in the January transfer window, potentially releasing a defender who is presently on loan at Elland Road and carries the experience of 11 seasons in the Premier League.

Lees, in any case, would not object to a deal which keeps him at Gigg Lane until the end of the League Two season and gives him the chance of adding promotion to his CV. His time in Bury has served him well, in United's eyes as much as his, and an extension to his half-season loan is likely to be agreed when the transfer window opens.

"I feel like I've been away from Thorp Arch (United's training ground) for ages," he said. "Whenever I go back, I'll get my head around the situation and throw myself into it. I know I'm going to have to fight hard. Getting a new contract doesn't change that."