While maintaining a certain air of modesty, I think it's safe to say that, over the last 20 years or so, Thorp Arch has been the home of one of the most successful and productive youth academies in the country. Over the two decades that have seen Leeds fall from Champions League Semi-Finals against Valencia, to League 1 Play-Off losses to Doncaster Rovers and Millwall, the academy has maintained its output at a surprising rate, churning out a good dozen internationals, and many more successful professionals.
Of course, not all who head for pastures new have gone on to reach the heights attained by the James Milners or Aaron Lennons of the game, but enough have found some form of success in order for Thorp Arch to be seen as a bastion of modern youth development. Time and time again, the club has looked to those it should be nurturing carefully and patiently, for the kind of service that it would expect from the most seasoned professionals. Time and time again, those talents have come good for the club.
Yet, for all the kids that have come and gone in the past 20 years, only a select few have been out-and-out goalscorers. For every Alan Smith or Noel Whelan that has come through the ranks, there have been dozens of midfielders, defenders and goalkeepers. In fact, I would argue that in terms of the club itself, only Dom Poleon has come anywhere close to matching the achievements of Smith since his departure in 2004. Even then, Poleon only ever vaguely pushed for the first team before moving to Oldham, his performance at Vicarage Road in 2013 a particular highlight.
Away from Elland Road, Caleb Folan had a brief foray in the Premiership after achieving promotion with Hull City, but couldn't hold his place down in the top flight, and was moved on soon after. After leaving Leeds for Scunthorpe in 2005, Andy Keogh forged a solid career in the Championship and League 1, making 30 appearances for Ireland in the process, and winning promotion to the Premiership with Wolves. In a similar vein to Folan, however, he was never able to make a real impact in the top flight. He would eventually return to Elland Road on loan, but only managed 2 goals in his short spell. Depressingly, Keogh (who know plies his trade in Australia) is about as good as it gets...
In fact, look at the English game as a whole, and you'll see a distinct lack of top quality strikers coming through the academies. Harry Kane's explosive season at Spurs shocked the nation, sparking immediate calls for the 22 year old to be called up to the England squad and talks of a huge-money move to Man Utd in the summer. So desperate are we for home-grown goal-scoring prodigies, that one good season from an English striker will seemingly result in near-enough £40 million bids for their services. Saido Berahino is in a similar position, the England U21 international scored 14 goals in the league last season, leading to a flurry of summer transfer rumours, all of which stated he was set to leave West Brom for a top-6 club. It seems that there just aren't enough options out there, so big teams in need of home-grown option up front will pay out of the nose for players who are still developing.
So why is it that so few strikers make it in the game after coming through our academy? Of course, sheer luck plays its part, as hundreds of young footballers fall through the cracks every year, but there seems to be a significant lack of traditional forwards when you look at the history of the Leeds youth system.
My initial inclination was that, somewhat coincidentally, many of the more prominent academy bosses from years gone by have been former defenders and midfielders. Neil Thompson, for example, was head of the academy from 2004-2010, and made nearly 600 career appearances as a defender. A hugely successful director, Thompson oversaw the development of players like Johnny Howson, Fabian Delph and Danny Rose, all now plying their trade in the Premiership. Daral Pugh, who became U18s manager in 2007 before stepping up to the director role, was a midfielder, as was his successor, Neil Redfearn, who was so passionate in his belief in the academy and its products, and used them to such good effect last season.
Perhaps then, it was in the nature of these coaches to divert focus away from the more attack-minded players. Not deliberately, of course, but it seems reasonable to think that midfielders and defenders-turned-coaches would have an easier time spotting potential in midfielders and defenders than they would in strikers. In the same vein, it could be argued that the acting management team could have an impact in the kind of players brought through to the first team, and looking back over the past decade or so, most of our managers/head coaches have come from the same school of defenders and midfielders.
O'Leary, Grayson, McAllister, McDermott, Redfearn. All responsible for the integration of youngsters into the first team over the years, and all ex-pros, but not one of them ever played as a striker. In their respective tenures, players like Fabian Delph, Johnny Howson, Sam Byram and more were brought through to become important members of the first team, but the goalscorers always came from elsewhere; the Beckfords, Becchios and McCormacks, all brought in from other clubs. In fairness, it must be noted that, while none of these past managers managed to find a regular goalscorer in the academy, the options available to them at the time were clearly limited. The aforementioned Andy Keogh is really the only one who left the club and made a name for himself elsewhere, so clearly the standard of strikers at Thorp Arch over the years just hasn't been up to scratch. It's been over a decade since he walked away to join them, and we still haven't found another Alan Smith.
Looking forward, however, perhaps it won't be too much longer before another is found. In Uwe Rosler, we have a manager who is well versed in goal scoring. The former Man City striker knows exactly what it's like to be a young forward breaking through into a senior side, and can hopefully help to unearth some goals from the academy in the near future. His faith in the current pool of academy graduates is clear to see, with so much responsibility put on the shoulders of Byram, Taylor, Cook and Mowatt. As such, it wouldn't be out of line to think that Rosler would be willing to dip into Thorp Arch in order to find us a few more goals in the upcoming campaign. Indeed, if he does decide to take a look, he'll find that he isn't exactly short on options.
Lucy Ward, a long serving member of the Leeds Academy (although the less said about her current position the better, I think you'll agree) was recently asked on Twitter if the club had any up and coming strikers waiting on the sidelines. Lucy has always, in my opinion, been a fantastic judge of talent (she was lauding Lewis Cook long before he made his senior debut) and gave a short list in response:
Lucy also mentioned Northern Ireland youth-international Robbie McDaid (who has just been called up to the N.I. U21s squad) later on, claiming that any one of these youngsters could eventually find their way into the senior squad. Of course, Lewis Walters had already made the bench a few times before an injury kept him out of action for a full year, but many think that he could find himself featured this season if Rosler feels he is ready. Frank Mulhern has been impressing for the U21s recently, scoring in the opening fixture this season as Leeds lost 2-1 to Ipswich, and has made 4 appearances for Ireland at youth-level. Eoghan Stokes is another Ireland international, scoring 4 goals in 9 appearances for the U19s. Luke Parkin has just turned 20, and will no doubt want to start following Lewis Walters' example in pushing for the first team, while Malik Wilks is a much younger prodigy, but already has a fair amount of buzz around him, scoring both goals in a 2-0 win for the U18s this week.
The departures of Billy Sharp and Steve Morison in the summer, as well as Nicky Ajose's expected transfer, means that Leeds will be light on attacking options if no further activity occurs. Currently, Mirco Antenucci, Chris Wood, Souleymane Doukara and Lee Erwin make up Rosler's options up top, with Stuart Dallas and Sam Byram acting as wingers/inside forwards in support. One or two untimely injuries could leave the club in the lurch, which means that Walters, Parkin, and the rest, should be prepared for a surprise call up. If they can grab the opportunity when it arises, who knows how far they could go? It's certainly not in Rosler's nature to ignore a positive contribution, no matter how old you are.
Score some goals, and you're bound to be adored. It seems at times that we, as fans, reserve a special place in our hearts for those lads that make the step up from Thorp Arch, and with good reason too. Who better understands the passion of the fans than those players that have spent their formative years at the club, learning how it works and what is expected from them? No matter where they end up, those players are still "Leeds", and they know there are. James Milner, Johnny Howson, Fabian Delph.. they may pull on red, green, or blue shirts, but they're still Leeds. It doesn't go away easily.
Just, for the love of God, don't move to Man Utd.