Leeds Under-21s - A Glimpse Into The Future
On a mid-week afternoon in a bleak corner of South London, Leeds United send out a youthful and experimental under-21 side to play for their professional futures against Crystal Palace's under-21s. Many of those on display are a product of the club's Academy but are on contracts that run out in a matter of weeks when the season comes to a close. With time ticking away, they are all looking to catch the coach's eye in the hope they can secure a further deal and keep their dream of a career in professional football alive.
The Leeds Utd Academy is currently enjoying a moment in the sun as no less than four of their graduates are shining in the first team and being hotly tipped for golden futures.
The Under-21s Development League is a vital stepping stone between the Under-18s and the grown-ups game, where aspiring first teamers get to audition for the land of Sky TV and sky's-the-limit wages. As up to three overage outfield players can be selected this is where the lines between peer group football and the real thing starts to blur, the first test most young pros will face of competing against older, stronger and quicker opposition. Can they hack it?
While ex-Academy lads Alex Mowatt, Sam Byram, Lewis Cook and Charlie Taylor are hijacking headlines from the senior pros, behind them lies another crop of young talent eager to burst through. Striker Lewis Walters alongside midfielders Chris Dawson and Calvin Phillips have all been stating their case of late and giving manager Neil Redfearn a selection head ache that would have seemed improbable during the first half of this difficult season.
While competition for first team places heat up, attention at the KNK Stadium, home of Isthmian League Tooting and Mitcham United, turns to Leeds next generation of young guns. The 3,500 capacity site also hosts Crystal Palace's Under-21 home fixtures, not that anyone told the Yorkshire club's coach driver who pulled up at a deserted Selhurst Park just a couple of hours before kick-off.
There is no busier month in the Under-21's schedule than March and with three games in the space of eight days for Leeds it's a time for rotation and an important opportunity to assess some of the players who sit just below the first team fringe element. Decisions have to be reached on the future of these players over the next few weeks and for some, fixtures like this represent crucial last chances to impress.
Standing in their way are a strong Crystal Palace side boasting Kwesi Appiah a full Ghanian international who scored in the quarter finals of the African Nations Cup in January; Owen Garvan, returning from injury, with over 250 professional games under his belt and three more who've played for Palace's first team. In contrast, only Zac Thompson and Granddi N'Goyi of the Leeds Under-21s have played first team football and the last of Thompson's 9 games for Leeds coming 3 years ago.
But it's the appearance of 26 year old N'Goyi that has Leeds fans turning to Twitter for reports. Once of Paris Saint Germain and now at Leeds on loan from Italian Serie A side Palermo, with a view to a £2m permanent transfer, N'Goyi has a CV better than most at Elland Road. But having arrived in the January transfer window with an injury, this is the defensive midfielders first public sighting in a Leeds shirt.
Standing well over 6' tall and with a languid style, N'Goyi provides a physical presence in the middle of the park. An early touch uses all that natural advantage as N'Goyi glides into a slide tackle that wins the ball cleanly, stops a fluent Palace attack in its tracks and allows Leeds to regroup in midfield. So, big guy, plays just in front for the back four, must be a bit of a spoiler? Well, while he showed some ball winning capabilities, what really caught the eye was a deftness of touch and close control that has previously been mentioned by the club. No better example of this was seen midway through the second period, turning skilfully away from an opponent to create a bit of space, N'Goyi clipped a beautifully weighted diagonal ball into the path of Luke Parkin. It was the most obvious piece of play from a Leeds player that said 'pick me for the first team' all afternoon. Taken off after 88 minutes, N'Goyi seemed to come through the match unscathed and I would expect to see him on the Leeds first team bench pretty soon.
Elsewhere, the defence were kept on their toes by a lively Palace front line, both centre halves Killock and Coker had to produce good recovery tackles and keeper Eric Grimes leapt acrobatically to his right to save a late penalty. Goals in each half from Jake Skelton's close range header and Parkin's run and finish, weren't enough to prevent a 4-2 reverse.
So it's a good test for the young Leeds lads and the result featuring a hat trick for Appiah, is probably a fair reflection of the game.
But have they done enough to win another contract? The pressure is on for these young lads to go one better than Monty Gimpel.