The truth about Leeds United’s senior squad was summed up pretty succinctly by our 1-0 loss to QPR. Leeds won’t go be in a relegation scrap by any means, but we don’t have the best squad in the division, or even the fourth best. This is not a criticism of our players’ commitment, or even our style of play, just an acceptance of reality. Paul Green is not as good as Joey Barton and Luke Varney is not Troy Deeney. However, Leeds do have one thing that sets us apart from every other Championship Club, and even some in the Premier League, which is the quality of our youth setup.
It’s been said on many occasions that while the rest of the club was in free fall, Leeds’ Thorpe Arch academy stayed productive, spawning future England Internationals Aaron Lennon and James Milner, and Premier League regulars like Jonny Howson and Fabian Delph. The current crop however, is probably the best we’ve had since the Ridsdale era, with Richard Naylor leading the U18 team to a league title last year and securing it in style by defeating Nottingham Forest 7-2 in March. This was an incredible achievement whichever way you spin it, but it was made all the more impressive by the fact that youngsters Byram and Poleon were in the first team and out on loan respectively, and did not feature.
Byram is still the outstanding player of his age group of course, and Mcdermott was quoted in a recent BBC interview as saying the player can play any position on the pitch, an attribute he said reminded him of Steven Gerrard. Skeptics might suggest that he is being a bit insincere here, given Brian’s job is to big up the players at his disposable (although no one told Colin this). Nonetheless, you would assume that he sees something quite special in the youngster to place such heavy expectations on him.
Byram is by no means the only future star on the books however. Potentially just as good is Alex Mowatt, a creative centre-mid with physical presence who captained the U18 squad during their run to the League title. Mowatt recently made his debut for the first team in a League Cup tie against Doncaster in August, and was arguably the best player on the pitch as Leeds won 3-0 against a fellow Championship club. Like Byram before him, observers noted Mowatt’s maturity and good decision making skills, despite his lack of top level experience.
Another obvious pick from Leeds’ current crop of youngsters is Wales U21 international Chris Dawson, who made his first team League debut at the end of last season. A diminuitive, tricky Attacking Midfielder whose preferred position is behind the striker, Dawson seems tailor made for the modern game. Neil Warnock certainly thought as much, comparing the player to former Leeds favourite ‘Johnny Giles’ in terms of his style of play.
With these three players, and indeed our other talented youngsters however, the worry is simple. Will we be able to hang on to them?
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It’s been highly publicized that Sam Byram was targeted by the likes of Everton and Man City during the summer, and Leeds were in many ways lucky that he got injured when he did to scupper any transfer plans. Dawson and Mowatt are for the time being too young and unproven to be a serious target for any Premier League club, but expect Norwich City and co to be sniffing around should they have a run of good games.
With promotion this season likely to be too much of an ask for Brian Mcdermott’s side, there are additional worries that any players we have that do turn out to be good will be out the door before we can see them playing at their full potential in a white shirt. Expensive mediocrities like Pugh, Norris and Tonge are still clogging up the wage bill, and until we shift them it will be difficult to sign quality in the transfer market as well.
Still, every cloud has a silver lining, and it’s partly because our squad isn’t really that good that players like Dawson and Mowatt might have the opportunity to play first team football in the first place. With a decent manager at the helm we know we’re not going down, and equally, while the playoffs are a semi-realistic ambition there won’t be questions asked if we fail to go up in favour of quality teams like QPR and Watford. As such, Leeds are the perfect pressure-free club for them to develop in.
Furthermore, if they do come through, then suddenly our squad looks young, ambitious and strong. From the academy we already have Lees, Byram, White and Poleon. From other clubs, we have Smith, Wattam and Murphy. All of these players are under 25, and only Smith, Lees and Murphy are over 21. Along with proven quality in the form of Mccormack, Austin and Kenny, this represents the nucleus of a team we can build around over the next 4 or 5 years.
Make no mistake though, this also means that we cannot return to the bad old days of being a selling club. This is not to say we should try to hold on to players at any cost, after all losing a player of Byram’s quality to a top club might be inevitable. However, no one would disagree that the kind of selling that happened under Bates wasn’t done effectively, and eventually crushed what was at one point a very promising team.
GFH seem to have taken note so far, and keeping Byram and Mccormack this summer was a very solid start. They will need even more resolve however, if we are to weather the inevitable pain of the next three transfer windows (provided we don’t get promoted this year) and still come out with a team capable of staying in the Premier League. I’m optimistic that with Brian Mc, and a little bit of savvy investment in players, we can do it. With parachute payments getting bigger and bigger however, Leeds simply can’t afford to stay out of the Premier League game for much longer.
In short, it's now or never.
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