This week at Leeds United they were reminiscing about the afternoon in 2019 when crowds queued around the block to see their under-23s win the Professional Development League. Youth football has that effect in Leeds, a city that has been bitten by the bug ever since Don Revie himself caught it.
The interest was there again on Friday night when 21,321 descended on Elland Road for Leeds’ final home game of the Premier League 2 season, against Manchester City’s perceived under-23 power. It was a more regular match unlike the domestic final three years ago, but the attendance set a new record for the development division, surpassing the crowd of 17,525 set by Everton and Liverpool in 2017. The chippy above the road was flooded before of the kick-off. , an unusually busy Friday.
Leeds give season ticket holders and club members free access to under-23 games and a concerted push over the last fortnight to publicize that the game had the desired impact, but the club managed to make events of the academy competitions they organize on Elland Road. Earlier this season they recorded attendances of close to 10,000 against Manchester United and almost 9,000 against Arsenal and Liverpool. These are nights when the voices on the sidelines could echo in the empty stands.
The occasion deserved a good audience. Manchester City were going for the title, which they closed with a wobbly 3-1 victory. Leeds were looking for a result that would avoid relegation from the top flight of PL2, having achieved better form since Christmas. “It’s huge for the whole academy,” Charlie Cresswell, the U-23 captain, said earlier. “We want to stay in the first division.” It’s been 12 short months since Leeds were promoted and based on the spells they bullied City on, it was hard to feel they deserved a lesser stage.
Andrew Taylor, caretaker coach of the Leeds development team, tried not to stir up the anticipating crowd too much with his players, but there’s no denying that few under-23 fixtures take place in front of anything like this. “You probably don’t get any closer to a Premier League game at this level,” Taylor said. “There are 20,000 at home against Manchester City, they are going for the title and we need to stay in the league.” Football as it should be, or as the youngsters at Leeds expect it to be. “ANEvery boy here wants a Leeds first-team career,” Taylor said, “and every Saturday you’re going to have this, or 10 times more. You have to accept the pressure.”
The Leeds U-23s have had the same experience this season as the first team: after three years on the rise, forced to make an effort and fight for their league status. There are mitigating factors for his worst results, the biggest being the injury crisis at the senior level that forced Marcelo Bielsa to strip the development team of his most trusted players. With Derby County already relegated, penultimate Chelsea are the only team that can topple Leeds. Although the results may be secondary in the academy psyche, the game against Manchester City played out with lasting intensity.
For Leeds, the under-23s remain a central part of their football strategy, their focus on him undiminished by the recent performance of their first team or the overwhelming view that the club was too short and short on established players. to thrive in the Premier League. for the second time. But there have been changes in the academy since the dismissal of Bielsa and the appointment of Jesse Marsch as head coach and the Under-23s will again evolve this summer in the way the squad is managed and maintained.
Taylor, the former Middlesbrough and Cardiff City defender, has been coaching the development team for the past two months after switching from his role as Leeds loan manager. Marsch’s arrival saw previous under-23 coach Mark Jackson promoted to the first-team coaching staff.
Marsch is expected to make more changes to his backroom team in the summer and one of the candidates for a permanent job under him is Chris Armas, Ralf Rangnick’s assistant at Manchester United. However, Marsch has been pleased with Jackson’s input and he’s likely open to him continuing in his current job.
Taylor was manager at Sunderland before joining Leeds to manage their loan strategy last August and admitted this week that his work with the under-23s made the idea of an extended spell in charge tempting. “I was only out of top-flight football for seven or eight months (after leaving Sunderland), so it was easy to get back into the routine of being on the pitch and preparing for games,” said Taylor. “But my main goal is to finish the season and stay in the division. Once that’s done, I’ll sit down with Adam (Underwood, Leeds academy director) and Victor (Orta, Leeds director of football).”
However, Leeds could see more value in returning Taylor to a loan manager job that is likely to be busier in the year ahead. Bielsa resisted sending 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 playing elsewhere and only because he went against Bielsa’s wishes by insisting on accepting an offer from Cardiff City. Leeds turned down numerous other inquiries, 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 further consider loan offers for their under-23s, with the aim of having them play as much senior football as Drameh has at Cardiff. Bielsa liked to mix the first team and development teams, regularly creating large training groups from the two, but the club has 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 returned to an academic program. Marsch intends to be more independent than Bielsa when it comes to choosing lineups and dictating how the academy ranks for day-to-day training, though they will stick to a uniform tactical plan.
“People here have been receptive to my philosophy,” Marsch said, “but I’ve encouraged them to think of it as their team. Each team must have its own identity, but think within the construction of how we are playing football as a club.
In general, there is a good level of patience and understanding amongst the players on the Leeds development team. Bielsa gave Cresswell his Premier League debut in September, but the 19-year-old said this week that he only qualify as a first-team player “when he has played about 50 games. I wouldn’t say I’m a first-team player now.” The England Under-21 international he has played fewer than 1,000 minutes at club level this season, the equivalent of 10 90-minute appearances. Leeds see him as a future starter in central defence, but they will want him to play more next season, either with them or on loan at another club.
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 shadowing Aberdeen defender Calvin Ramsey, a teenager who has racked up 31 domestic and Europa Conference League appearances 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 remain steadfast in investing in players with potential, although the pressure to marry academy deals with a significant upgrade for Marsch’s side is more intense than ever after a long fight against relegation.
That fight is not yet won and as a result there was no Gelhardt or Greenwood with the Under-23s last night, both saved by Marsch for Monday’s Premier League match at Crystal Palace. “From a selfish standpoint, I love all the guys every week,” Taylor said. “But the reality is that success for us is not having any of them because it means they are with the first team instead.” Mateo Joseph drew first blood after six minutes, but Leeds got stuck in an early pattern of allowing City to come in behind their full-backs, too easy to undo. Kayky took one chance and Cole Palmer took another, two nearly identical finishes inside the same post.
City would have liked it to flow like this all night, but Leeds were spirited, full of energy and, from the champions’ point of view, a relentless headache. Aided by referee Andrew Miller dealing with two manic fouls by City goalkeeper Cieran Slicker with a lone yellow card, the score remained at 2-1 until Liam Delap struck a deflection from the third in the 89th minute.
“We’ve been neck-and-neck with the champions and if you’re a neutral who doesn’t know who’s who, I don’t think you would have known who’s on top and who’s near the bottom,” Taylor. saying. City manager Brian Barry-Murphy told Taylor he was taken aback by the attendance, but there is devotion behind Leeds’ under-23s, inside the club and on the streets, and nothing from last night will quench. that interest.
(Top photo: Lynne Cameron – Manchester City/Manchester City FC via Getty Images)