They were remembered at Leeds United this week in the afternoon of 2019 when crowds lined up around the block to watch their Under-23s win the Professional Development League. Youth team football has that effect in Leeds, a city that has been bitten by the virus since Don Revie caught it himself.
Interest was high again on Friday night as 21,321 turned out for Elland Road for Leeds’ final home game of Premier League 2 season against perceived under-23 powerhouse Manchester City. It was a more regular fixture unlike the domestic final three years ago, but the attendance set a new record for the development division, topping the crowd of 17,525 set by Everton and Liverpool in 2017. The chippy on the road was submerged before kick-off. , an unusually eventful Friday.
Leeds are giving season ticket holders and club members free access to Under-23 games and a concerted push over the past fortnight to publicize the game has had the desired impact, but the club have managed to organize events of the academy competitions which they organize in Elland Road. Earlier this season, they posted nearly 10,000 attendances against Manchester United and nearly 9,000 against Arsenal and Liverpool. These are nights where the voices on the sideline might otherwise echo around the empty stands.
The occasion deserved a good audience. Manchester City were aiming for the title, which they concluded with a wobbly 3-1 win. Leeds were looking for a result that pushed back relegation from the top tier of PL2, having restored to better form since Christmas. “It’s huge for the whole academy,” Under-23 captain Charlie Cresswell said beforehand. “We want to stay in the first division.” It’s been a short 12 months since Leeds were promoted there and based on the spells they bullied City, it was hard to feel they deserved a lesser step.
Leeds development side caretaker manager Andrew Taylor tried not to overwhelm the expected crowd with his players, but there’s no denying that few Under-23 games take place in front of something like this. “You probably don’t come close to a Premier League game at this level,” Taylor said. “It’s 20,000 at home against Manchester City, with them for the title and we have to stay in the league.” Football as it should be, or as the younger generation of Leeds hope. “AAll the guys here want a career in the Leeds first team,” Taylor said, “and every Saturday you’re going to have this – or 10 times that. You have to accept the pressure.
The Leeds Under-23s have had the same experience as the first team this season: after three years on an upward trajectory, forced to dig 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 its most reliable players. With Derby County already relegated, second-bottom Chelsea are the only team that can bring down Leeds. For whatever results may be secondary to the academy’s psyche, the match against Manchester City was played out with enduring intensity.
For Leeds, the Under-23s remain a central part of their football strategy, their focus on it has not been diminished by recent first-team performances or the overwhelming view that the club were too thin. and short of established players to thrive in the Premier League. the second time. But changes at the academy have been seen since the sacking of Bielsa and the appointment of Jesse Marsch as head coach and the Under-23s will further evolve this summer in the way they are managed and the squad is maintained .
Taylor, the former Middlesbrough and Cardiff City defender, has coached the development squad for the past two months after leaving his role as Leeds loan manager. Marsch’s arrival saw former Under-23 manager Mark Jackson promoted to the first team.
Marsch is expected to make further changes to his backroom team this summer and one of the candidates for a permanent position under him is Chris Armas, Ralf Rangnick’s assistant at Manchester United. Marsch was pleased with Jackson’s contribution, however, and is likely to be open to him continuing in his current job.
Taylor was a coach at Sunderland before joining Leeds to manage their loan strategy last August and he admitted this week that his work with the Under-23s made the idea of an extended tenure tempting. “I was only out of frontline football for seven or eight months (after leaving Sunderland) so it was easy to get back to the routine of being on the grass and getting ready for games,” said Taylor said. “But my main objective is to finish the season and keep us in the division. Once that’s done, I’ll sit down with Adam (Underwood, Leeds academy manager) and Victor (Orta, director of football at Leeds). Leeds).
Leeds, however, could see more value in sending Taylor back to a loan manager position which is likely to be busier in the coming year. Bielsa was reluctant to send development players on temporary deals, preferring to keep them at Thorp Arch regardless of how much first-team football they played. Cody Drameh is an isolated example of an under-23 player playing elsewhere and only then because he went against Bielsa’s wishes by insisting on accepting an offer from Cardiff City. Leeds have turned down numerous other requests, including more than one for Crysencio Summerville and an approach from Wigan Athletic for midfielder Sean McGurk. Lewis Bate and Cresswell have also been the subject of outside interest.
In the next transfer window, Leeds will pay more attention to loan offers for their Under-23s, with the aim that they play as much senior football as Drameh at Cardiff. Bielsa liked to mix first-team and development squads, regularly creating large training groups from the two, but the club reverted to a more conventional setup under Marsch, with clearer lines drawn between them.
The number of academy players who make the first team – players like Cresswell, Summerville, Joe Gelhardt and Sam Greenwood – is smaller. Some, like 16-year-old Archie Gray, have taken up an academy program. Marsch intends to be freer than Bielsa when it comes to choosing rosters and dictating how the academy ranks train on a day-to-day basis, though they will stick to a uniform tactical plan.
“People here have been receptive to my philosophy,” Marsch said, “but I encouraged them to think it’s their team. Each team should have its own identity, but think about how we play football in as a club.
There is generally a good level of patience and understanding among the players in Leeds’ development squad. Bielsa gave Cresswell his Premier League debut in September but the 19-year-old said this week he would only rank as a first-team player “even though I’ve played around 50 games. I wouldn’t say I’m a first-team player now.” The England Under-21 international played less than 1,000 club minutes this season, the equivalent of 10 90-minute matches. Leeds see him as a future starter at centre-back but will want him to play more next season, either with them or at another club on loan.
In the meantime, academy recruitment will continue as it has for the past four years, at a steady pace. Leeds are one of the teams following Aberdeen defender Calvin Ramsey, a teenager who has racked up 31 domestic and Europa Conference League appearances and would soon break into the first team. Liverpool are also planning to make a bid for the 18-year-old, a rising star north of the border. Leeds are sticking to their guns investing in players with potential, although the pressure to marry academy deals with a significant improvement in 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 neither Gelhardt nor Greenwood with the Under-23s last night, both saved by Marsch for Monday’s Premier League game at Crystal Palace. “From a selfish point of view, I want all the guys every week,” Taylor said. “But the reality is that success for us is having none because that means they’re with the first team instead.” Mateo Joseph drew first blood after six minutes, but Leeds found themselves stuck in an early pattern of leaving City behind their full-backs, too easy to untick. Kayky took one chance and Cole Palmer took another, two almost identical finishes headed inside the same post.
City would have liked it to flow like this all night, but Leeds were fiery, full of energy and, from the champions’ perspective, a relentless pain in their necks. Aided by referee Andrew Miller in the face of two manic fouls from City goalkeeper Cieran Slicker with a single yellow card, the scoreline stood at 2-1 until Liam Delap struck in a deflected third in the 89th minute.
“We went up against the champions and if you’re a neutral who doesn’t know who’s who, I don’t think you’d know who’s up and who’s near the bottom,” Taylor mentioned. City manager Brian Barry-Murphy told Taylor he was baffled by the attendance, but there is a devotion behind the Leeds Under-23s, inside the club and on the streets, and nothing about last night will quench that interest.
(Top photo: Lynne Cameron – Manchester City/Manchester City FC via Getty Images)