The Square Ball Week: 23 Into 11

In 2017-18, Free, Leeds United, The Square Ball Week by Moscowhite • Daniel Chapman

One of the curiosities of last week’s crestaggedon was how it managed to grip the Leeds United supporting public in a way that nothing done to or by the club has in years.

Years that included, for example, the relegation of Leeds United to the third tier of football for the first time in the club’s history. Brilliant young players have been sold for a pittance, money has drained out of the club through malice or mismanagement, game after game has been lost in front of crowds optimistically counted at 18,000, cash-strapped fans have been charged five extra pounds to support their club on an owner’s whim, and the media has been given reason after reason to talk about the disaster area that has been Leeds United, dating back to the last millennium. But no. It was a crap badge that finally got people angry.

That’s because it was blatant, visible, and crap; the salute crest stared you in the face and dared you to have an opinion. In a visual age, of Instagram and Twitter videos, rather than a source of pride, it was visualised pain, transmitted to every device with a screen everywhere, devices with functions to reply built in. Has there ever been anything easier to get angry about?

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It’s being run a close second, at the moment, by Leeds United’s apparently new policy of signing young players for its Under 23 and development squads. Six signed in January, two from English clubs, two that were playing without permanent contracts in the U23 team already, one from HJK Helsinki and one from Ajax Amsterdam; the youngest is 17, the eldest 21. Rather than being welcomed to the club, though, each has been greeted in quarters of social media like robbers, stealing money and attention away from the first team’s need for a left-back and a striker. The first team got both of those, and a midfielder too, for a combined down payment of £7m, but when Jordan Stevens signed late on deadline night from Forest Green Rovers, the response was the same: he can’t play centre-back for the first team on Saturday, so what’s the point?

The point has been lost, somewhere, or never communicated in the first place. The goings on in the Under 23s have been worthy of comment, as the above six followed eight others brought into the system at Thorp Arch in the summer, all but two from overseas, who have gone into a side coached by Carlos Corberán that has, until recently, been losing a lot of matches. Other moves haven’t helped; the Aspire-inspired acquisition, loan and return of Ouasim Bouy was followed by the purchase of Yosuke Ideguchi, sent straight to Cultural Leonesa in Bouy’s place. The link to Aspire Academy has us braced for an influx of the nationalised Qataris filling the squads at Leonesa and KAS Eupen, although that’s yet to present itself here. Players in the first team squad, like Jay-Roy Grot and Pawel Cibicki, have been described as players for the future, but we’ve had to watch them struggling now. Has the club been concentrating too much on the future, while not dealing adequately with its present?

Perhaps. But it has to deal with its future, otherwise the present will come to nothing. And while many fans have been getting increasingly irate with the announcement of each new youth signing, that’s because they’re visible: broadcast on Twitter and Instagram, where it’s easy to tell them and the club they’re signing for to fuck off. But the reason they’re signing now has to do with something that remained opaque in the years of maltreatment, passing without much anger because it wasn’t much visible. The decimation of the club’s academy took place out of sight, and out of fury’s way.

The modish term for all this is ‘optics’, and at Leeds United, everything from the outside looked okay enough to wonder why anyone would be concerned. It was difficult to communicate that what was happening at Thorp Arch during Massimo Cellino’s ownership was storing up trouble for the future while he was here, because the Academy’s latest and greatest were all here too. Try telling someone that the pipeline of quality was becoming as dry as Thorp Arch’s empty pool, and they’d point to a first team containing Sam Byram, Charlie Taylor, Alex Mowatt, Lewis Cook, Kalvin Phillips and Ronaldo Vieira. When one left another took their place, as they’ve seemed to do ever since Leeds won the FA Youth Cup with Noel Whelan and Jamie Forrester in 1993.

Unless you went to Thorp Arch and smelt the damp air of negligence for yourself, it wasn’t easy to believe that such a potent source of, once, players, and, later, transfer fees, might be malfunctioning through maltreatment. But think back to the stories of welfare officer Lucy Ward’s duties expanding to bringing food in for the players from home; at least, until her husband and her were dismissed. Imagine that was the tip of the iceberg at a part of Leeds United that had its budget cut to the core, that since the days of Ken Bates had allowed its scouting network within the city to dwindle away, that was losing coaches and losing players. When I visited there, in the days of Darko Milanic, it was lunchtime, and Billy Sharp seemed to be the only person in a dark, dead building where if you were good you signed yourself in at reception because there wasn’t a receptionist. Billy wasn’t happy, and it didn’t feel like a happy place.

One of the concerns about the mass importing of youngsters to our Academy sides is that they’ll block the pathways of good, young, local players. Most good, young, local players, though, will be just fine whatever Leeds United do, because they’re all playing for Manchester City, who have always had a pool with water in, have always treated young players well, and who have had an active presence in Leeds looking for players that Leeds United didn’t seem interested in finding. Ask around about who might follow Ronaldo Vieira from Thorp Arch to the first team at Leeds, and for two seasons now, the answer has been the same: Jamie Shackleton. That’s been about it. He broke through to the U23s aged just sixteen, but then again, there weren’t many players in front of him.

There have been other names around, but more in hope than excitement; Mallik Wilks, Bailey Peacock-Farrell and Lewie Coyle, all of whom have been out on loan this season to get first team experience. Wilks is 19, and has time on his side; but Peacock-Farrell is 21 and Coyle is 22, and as Coyle said himself this season, “I don’t see myself as young anymore. I look around football and there are kids of 16, 17, 18 coming through at all levels. Saying ‘I’m still young’ — it’s true in a way, but you can’t say that forever.” That has caught up with Eoghan Stokes; aged 21, he’s just been released from his contract, with one distinctly underwhelming League Cup appearance against Newport County to his name.

Those cancelled contracts will probably become as numerous as the incomings have been, and about as welcome. There’s always a presumption in favour of the players already in the youth teams, ahead of usurpers coming in, as if there’s no way Kun Temenuzhkov could be as fit for Leeds United as good old Stokes, as if Stokes had no history before Thorp Arch. Of course, he did; he was 16 when he came to Leeds from Ireland, the same age as Ryan Edmondson, a new striker in the U18s squad, signed from York City. One chance ends, another starts; that’s youth football in a nutshell. Whether Temenuzhkov from Bulgaria or Edmondson from York, someone was coming after Stokes’ shirt soon.

Young footballers don’t just appear; they all have to come from somewhere. Jamie Forrester, who as mentioned above applied the memorable overhead kick finish to Noel Whelan’s flick on and set Leeds up to beat Manchester United in the 1993 FA Youth Cup final, had only just signed that season from French side Auxerre, in a £100,000 deal for him and Kevin Sharp. The youth squad that won the FA Youth Cup four years later under Eddie Gray had a decent representation of local lads: Alan Smith, Paul Robinson, Jonathon Woodgate if you stretch the definition to Teeside. But Ian Harte, Stephen McPhail and Alan Maybury had signed from Home Farm in Ireland, as had Gary Kelly before them; Tommy Knarvik was Norwegian; Harry Kewell, the pick of the bunch, came from Australia. More recently Ronaldo Vieira, raised in Portugal, formerly of Benfica’s academy, didn’t join up with Leeds until he was a few months from his 18th birthday. We’re all proud of him now.

If anything, Leeds United haven’t been bringing in enough youngsters from outside Thorp Arch over the past few seasons, and what we’re seeing now are the repairs required to catch up on work that was not being done. Where once there was no scouting network, Leeds are now actively searching Europe for young players, and bringing them to Yorkshire; in Aapo Halme’s case, the consensus in Finland is that Leeds are taking the best young player the league has to offer; Sam Dalby and Jordan Stevens have both been described as good players to get, and had interest from Premier League clubs. Leeds used to do this all the time; Peter Ridsdale was very proud of the £350,000 he spent to sign goalkeeper Shaun Allaway ahead of Spurs, despite already having Nigel Martyn and Paul Robinson at the club. It was a much sounder transfer policy than the mania that gripped Ridsdale a year later.

The rush of players into the Under-23 squad has sped its separation into a distinct entity, a sort of finishing school, stocked with good players so that when a player either emerges from the youth teams — Jamie Shackleton, or this season, Jack Clarke — or is bought as a prospect, they have a team they can slot into where the standard around them will improve them, rather than a scratch side of young players waiting to be released after outgrowing the Academy, and older players recovering from injuries. Random Striker X, signed in the summer, doesn’t have to ever get into the Leeds first team; he was just needed to make better runs to get better through passes from Shackleton, who one day just might; and who won’t have to step aside just because Pablo Hernandez fancies a run out. After raising the standard in a hurry over summer, the signings following are hopefully being made with more care, although it’s a good sign that Oliver Sarkic, one of those random strikers, has impressed enough to have his loan made permanent.

If the principle is sound, then like anything, the proof will be in the execution. There are two risk factors there. One is the extent to which Victor Orta is involved, given his track record at Middlesbrough, and patchy performance with first team signings at Leeds. He can be heard on some of the highlights videos of the U23s, yelling “Vamos!” as the ball hits the back of the net. Orta depends on inputs, though, and part of his job has been to put the scouting and analytics systems in place that will tell him which players Leeds should be looking at; a wider remit than at Middlesbrough, when he was Head of Recruitment only, rather than Director of Football. Over time, that ought to make Leeds’ youth recruitment less dependent on Orta’s judgement, and more dependent on the quality or otherwise of the systems he’s putting in place. By giving Orta a bigger role, Leeds should be ensuring that they’re not as reliant on his influence in the future.

The other risk is patience; or the lack of it, as seen with the sarcastic disdain that has developed around the Under 23s. It reminds me a little of the later years of Howard Wilkinson, when he was signing increasingly aged and bizarre players for the first team. John Pemberton, Nigel Worthington, Paul Beesley and Ian Rush didn’t fit with most fans’ ideal for such a recent title winning club, and yet after signing Beesley, Wilko declared he could now “Sleep soundly at night” and put the chequebook away for the summer. What he wanted was enough affordable experience to keep his side in the upper half of the Premiership until the youth team — where for every Beesley there was a Woodgate, for every Rush a Smith — graduated and gave him a first team to reckon with.

He was right, only it gave David O’Leary a first team, because despite giving Harte, Kewell and Maybury their debuts, Wilkinson had been sacked by the time the rest were ready. When they were ready, they gave Europe something to reckon with, and Leeds United fans their last truly great team. Repeating that will be a big ask for the likes of Aapo Halme, Ryan Edmondson and Sam Dalby, but I can’t be unhappy that someone is bringing them to Leeds and asking them to try. It’s a better question than Leeds United have been asking for a long time. We might not get answers soon, but at the risk of raising a spectre, I’m happier waiting for young players to get better than I was watching Michael Brown get worse. ◉

(feature image by Paul Kent)

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