More loans and constant recruitment: Leeds U23s will evolve again this summer

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They were reminiscing at Leeds United this week about the afternoon in 2019 when crowds queued around the block to watch their under-23s win the Professional Development League. Youth team football has that effect in Leeds, a city bitten by the bug ever since Don Revie caught it himself.

The interest was there again on Friday night as 21,321 streamed into Elland Road for the last home game of Leeds’ Premier League 2 season, against the perceived power of Manchester City’s under-23s. It was a more regular fixture the national final three years ago but the attendance set a new record for the development division, unlike the crowd of 17,525 set by Everton and Liverpool in 2017. The chippy over the road was swamped before kick-off , an unusually hectic Friday.

Leeds give season-ticket holders and club members free access to under-23s games and a concerted push during the past fortnight to publicise the match had the desired impact but the club had managed to make events of the academy contests they stage at Elland Road. Previously this season they posted attendances of close to 10,000 against Manchester United and almost 9,000 against Arsenal and Liverpool. These are evenings when voices on the touchline might otherwise echo around empty stands.

The occasion deserved a good audience. Manchester City were going for the title, which they wrapped up with a wobbly 3-1 win. Leeds were looking for a result which ended off relegation from PL2’s top tier, having pieced together better form since Christmas. “It’s massive for the whole academy,” said Charlie Cresswell, the under-23s captain, beforehand. “We want to stay in division one.” It is 12 short months since Leeds were promoted to it and on the basis of the spells where they bullied City, it was hard to feel that they deserve a lesser stage.

Andrew Taylor, Leeds’ interim development squad coach, tried not to over-egg the anticipated crowd with his players but there was no denying that few under-23s fixtures take place in front of anything like it. “You probably don’t get any closer to a Premier League game at this level,” Taylor said. “It’s 20,000 at home to Manchester City, with them going for the title and us needing to stay in the league.” Football as it should be, or as Leeds’ younger crop hope it will be. “All of the lads here want a career in Leeds’ first team,” Taylor said, “and every Saturday you’re going to have this — or 10 times this. You’ve got to embrace the pressure.”

The under-23s at Leeds have gone through the same experience as the first team this season: after three years on an upward trajectory, forced to dig in and fight hard for their league status. There are mitigating factors for their poorer results, the biggest being the injury crisis at senior level which forced Marcelo Bielsa to strip the development squad of their most dependable players. With Derby County already relegated, second-bottom Chelsea are the only team which can send Leeds down. For all that results can be secondary in the academy psyche, the game against Manchester City played out with lasting intensity.

For Leeds, the under-23s remain a core part of their footballing strategy, their focus on it undiminished by the recent performance of their first team or the overwhelming view that the club were too thin and short on established players to thrive in the Premier League second time around. But changes to the academy have been seen since the sacking of Bielsa and the appointment of Jesse Marsch as head coach and the under-23s will evolve again this summer in the way they are managed and the way the squad is maintained.

Taylor, the former Middlesbrough and Cardiff City defender, has been coaching the development squad for the past two months after switching from his role as Leeds’ loan manager. Marsch’s arrival saw previous under-23s coach Mark Jackson promoted to the first-team staff.

Marsch is expected to make further alterations to his backroom team in the summer and one of the candidates for a permanent post under him is Chris Armas, Ralf Rangnick’s assistant at Manchester United. Marsch has been pleased with Jackson’s input, though, and is likely to be open to him continuing in his current job.


Armas (left, with Rangnick) is a candidate to join Marsch’s backroom staff this summer (Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images)

Taylor was a coach at Sunderland before joining Leeds to manage their loan strategy last August and he was admitted this week that his work with the under-23s made the idea of ​​an extended in spell charge tempting. “I was only out of front-line football for seven or eight months (after leaving Sunderland) so it was easy to slip back into the routine of being on the grass and preparing for games,” Taylor said. “But my main focus is on getting the season finished and keeping us in the division. Once that’s done I’ll sit down with Adam (Underwood, Leeds’ academy manager) and Victor (Orta, Leeds’ director of football).”

Leeds, though, might see more value in returning Taylor to a loan manager job which is likely to be busier in the year ahead. Bielsa was resistant to sending out development players on temporary deals, preferring to keep them at Thorp Arch irrespective of how much first-team football they were playing. Cody Drameh is an isolated example of an under-23 playing elsewhere and only then because he went against Bielsa’s wishes by insisting on taking an offer from Cardiff City. Leeds rejected numerous other inquiries, including more than one for Crysencio Summerville and an approach from Wigan Athletic for Sean McGurk. Lewis Bate and Cresswell have also been the subject of external interest.

In the coming transfer window, Leeds will give more consideration to loan bids for their under-23s, with the aim of them playing as much senior football as Dramah has at Cardiff. Bielsa liked to mix the first team and development squads, regularly creating large training groups out of both, but the club have reverted to a more conventional set-up under Marsch, with clearer lines drawn between them.

The number of academy players who are in with the first team — players like Cresswell, Summerville, Joe Gelhardt and Sam Greenwood — is smaller. Some, like 16-year-old Archie Gray, have gone back to an academy programme. Marsch intends to be more hands-off than Bielsa when it comes to picking line-ups and dictating how the academy ranks train day to day, although they will stick to a uniform tactical plan.

“People here have been receptive to my philosophy,” Marsch said, “but I’ve been encouraging them to think that it’s their team. Each team has to have its own identity but think within the construct of how we’re playing football as a club.”

There is, generally, a good level of patience and understanding among Leeds’ development squad players. Bielsa gave Cresswell his Premier League debut in September but the 19-year-old said this week that he would only class himself as a first-team player “when I’ve played about 50 games. I wouldn’t say I’m a first-team player now.” The England Under-21 international has played less than 1,000 minutes at club level this season, the equivalent of 10 90-minute appearances. Leeds see him as a future starter at center-back but will want him to play more next term, either with them or at another club on loan.

In the meantime, academy recruitment will continue as it has over the past four years, at a constant rate. Leeds are one of the tracking teams Aberdeen defender Calvin Ramsey, a teenager who has built up 31 appearances domestically and in the Europa Conference League and would not take long to move into first-team contention. Liverpool also plan to bid for the 18-year-old, a rising star north of the border. Leeds are sticking to their guns by investing in players with potential, though the pressure to marry academy deals with significant improvement to Marsch’s squad is more intense than ever after a long fight with relegation.

That fight is still not won and as a result, there was no Gelhardt or Greenwood with the under-23s last night, both of them saved by Marsch for Monday’s Premier League match at Crystal Palace. “From a selfish point of view, I want all of the lads every week,” Taylor said. “But the reality is, success for us is having none of them because it means they’re with the first team instead.” Mateo Joseph drew first blood after six minutes but Leeds got stuck in an early pattern of allowing City in behind their full-backs, too easy to unpick. Kayky took one chance and Cole Palmer took another, two near-identical finishes steered inside the same post.

City would have liked it to flow like that all night but Leeds were feisty, energised and, from the champions’ point of view, an unrelenting pain in the neck. Helped by referee Andrew Miller dealing with two manic fouls by City’s goalkeeper, Cieran Slicker, with a solitary yellow card, the scoreline held at 2-1 until Liam Delap banged in a deflected third in the 89th minute.

“We’ve gone toe-to-toe with the champions and if you’re a neutral who doesn’t know who’s who, I don’t think you’d have known who’s at the top and who’s near the bottom,” Taylor said. City’s manager, Brian Barry-Murphy, told Taylor he was bewildered by the attendance but there is devotion behind Leeds’ under-23s, inside the club and on the streets, and nothing about last night will turn that interest off.

(Top photo: Lynne Cameron – Manchester City/Manchester City FC via Getty Images)

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