Dicking around

The kids are keeping it light

Written by: Rob Conlon
Leeds U21s midfielder Charlie Crew playing for Wales U17s and wearing the captain's armband. He's got a big sweepy fringe 'cos he's young

Like Pat Bamford attempting a header, a member of Leeds United’s marketing team missed the target on Monday morning. While I was trying my best to move on from the weekend and forget as much of the defeat to Blackburn as possible, I checked my emails to find three emails from the club. One contained a digital edition of the matchday programme; another provided me with ‘supporter information ahead of tomorrow’s game against Blackburn’, two days after Saturday’s game against Blackburn; and the last advertised the LUTV match pass in case I fancied travelling through space and time to pay a tenner to watch the game on my phone live from mainland Europe or the Americas. Spoiler alert: I did not. And even if I did, I’d have stayed at home and used a VPN instead.

For an honest mistake, it could have been better timed. A nine-day gap between Leeds fixtures presents plenty of opportunity to cleanse ourselves from events at Elland Road and freshen up ahead of the final three games, so some spam forcing me to look back on a gloomy loss wasn’t particularly welcome. I’ve considered going to watch Farsley Celtic on the upcoming Leeds-free weekend, hoping some earthy non-league football only a five-minute walk from my house might help me appreciate the excitement of a promotion battle to the Premier League. But it’s their last game of the season and results must go their way for them to have any chance of avoiding relegation to the seventh tier. The last thing they need is a newbie rocking up on the terrace bringing some Leeds United luck, like a black cat strolling around the centre circle.

So it was left to Leeds’ Under-21s to lift the mood at the start of the week in their Premier League 2 fixture against Derby on Monday afternoon. The U21s haven’t been the best place to search for some respite this season. Heading into the game, they were bottom of the division, without a league win in twelve games since winning three of their opening four — all three of which came against teams who’d had a player sent off. The only silver lining was that Derby were second bottom, having played two games more than Leeds. But even their head coach, Jake Buxton, was a haunting reminder of bittersweet pasts: the scorer of the goal that got Neil Warnock sacked as Leeds manager on another otherwise unhappy Easter.

It’s not the kids’ fault. Of the team that started the U21s’ win over Brighton in their first match of the season, only three remained in the side that faced Derby. Despite the returning ‘stalwart’ Charlie Allen, who has been playing at this level for four years and is back at Leeds after a short loan spell at York, the average age of the team is now younger than when the season began. A crop of U18s have been tasked with stepping up, juggling their run to the FA Youth Cup final with learning how to play against bigger boys.

Charlie Crew has made it look easier than others. Still only seventeen, his ascent to Leeds’ U21s has been matched at international level, where he’s risen through the Wales age groups and has rejected approaches from England. He captained the U21s against Derby, and given he’s already sat on the first-team bench, he might not have to wait too much longer before he graduates to senior football. It’s a cliche that teams need legs in midfield — if Crew’s neat feet are the brains of the team, then in Joe Snowdon, Sam Chambers, and Rhys Chadwick he’s supplemented by the lungs, an energetic trio of midfield middle-distance runners.

After Dani van den Heuvel made a sharp save from a deflected shot to keep the game goalless and striker Luca Thomas tried to lob the Derby goalkeeper from his own half, it was Snowdon who finally gave a Leeds team something to celebrate as he latched onto Thomas’ pass on the break and finished emphatically in a goal jarringly similar to Sammy Szmodics’ for Blackburn at Elland Road. Two minutes later, Crew won the ball in midfield, allowing Chambers to free Allen on the right wing. His ball across the box was destined for the unmarked Snowdon at the back post, whose only obstacles were Crew on the penalty spot standing in the way of the pass, and Thomas on the goalline standing in the way of his shot, both players helpfully hopping over the ball on its journey into the back of the net.

If the kids were righting the wrongs of the grown-ups, they completed the job with their third goal within the space of eight minutes, Thomas’ free-kick whipped in from the right and met by centre-half Reuben Lopata-White’s flicked header into the far corner. Yes, they do scoring from set-pieces too!

The 3-0 win lifted Leeds above Derby and into 25th in the league. The top sixteen teams qualify for the PL2 play-offs, and while it’s not mathematically impossible for Leeds to still get there, the sums remain too complicated for me to even bother trying to work them out. It’s not worth worrying about. In reaching a Youth Cup final and keeping the U21s off the bottom of the PL2, the kids have done their bit. I’m sure we can all agree that nobody at Leeds needs to be dicking around with the play-offs this season. ⬢

(Photograph by Lewis Mitchell, via Alamy)

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