A glance through the chapters of Leeds United’s chequered history will throw out four definitive eras. From Don Revie putting Leeds on the map of English football to Wilkinson’s resolute bunch to the white revolution instigated by Ridsdale and O’Leary and to the present, Leeds have endured the up and downs of the beautiful game. But a common feature in all has been the talent produced by the Leeds United’s youth system, often forming the core around which a team was built in the club’s push towards glory.
The Revie revolution saw the academy churn out the likes of White’s icon Billy Bremner, John Charles, Jack Charlton and Norman Hunter that formed the core leading Leeds to two titles and a host of cups. The late 80’s saw John Sheridan, the late Gary Speed and John Stiles come under the guidance of Wilkinson. The White’s most exciting bunch of youngsters came in the Ridsdale-O’Leary era. Kewell, Smith, Woodgate, Robinson, Harte, Kelly and McPhail were brought into the Premier League at a very young age and they enthralled everyone with their exhilarating style of football. The factory continued the production into the new millennium, but Leeds’ relegations saw most of that talent leave their parent club for greener pastures.
Premier league attracted the likes of Smith, Kewell, Woodgate, Milner, and Lennon and those who stuck with the club in the Championship left them on account of failure to secure promotion and further relegation.
But the production continues and under the guidance of ex-boss Simon Grayson and current manager Neil Warnock, a new crop has emerged and is ready to take their places in the first team and push towards the Premier League.
The Young Guns
Starting out as a left back, White found himself playing for Leeds at the tender age of 16. Gifted with lightning pace and good technical ability, Grayson pushed White to play as a left winger when needed. His loan-spell at Oldham Athletic during the 2010-2011 campaign helped the returning Aidan cement a place in Leeds’ playing eleven as well as earning him an U-19 England call up. Choosing to play for Ireland at the U-21 level, White is still eligible to play for both nations at the senior international level. White’s versatility on the left makes him a vital member of the playing eleven though after the arrival of Luke Varney, he’s more often used in the left back position. Despite interests from top flight clubs from England, France and Germany, young White has decided to stick to his hometown club until 2015.
Widely regarded as England’s future center-back, 6 ft 1 in Lees joined Leeds as an eight year old idolizing his boyhood club’s defender Lucas Radebe. Starting out as a right back, Lees has grown into the center back role ever since his return from loans spells at Accrington Stanley and Bury. The 21 year old has notched up over 50 appearances for Leeds and made his England U-21 debut this month against Norway in the Euro U-21 qualifications. England U-21 manager Stuart Pearce praised Lees for his no-nonsense defending and versatility after the game. Lees since the 2011-2012 campaign has cemented his place as first choice center-back partnering either Pearce or Peltier in the current season. His leadership abilities and focus will urge Leeds’ management to hold on to their protégé.
19 year old Byram is the mirror image of his teammate White in terms of his versatility on the right flank. Starting out as a right back, Byram has also played at right wing when required. Penning down a contract that will keep him at the club until 2015, Leeds’ new number 25 made his senior debut for The Whites in the League cup in August. Blessed with good ball control and blistering pace, Byram’s play can be said to be fashioned in the style of England’s current right-back Glen Johnson. The recruitment of El Hadji Diouf and Green might restrict Byram’s first team chances to right-back, but expect him to play a bigger role in his team in the future and an England U-21 call might not be far away.
An Everton academy scholar, Thompson joined Leeds’ reserves in 2011 after failing to land a contact at Mersyside. A central midfielder by trade, he can also play right-back. Thompson impressed the Elland road crowd with his spirited displays in his very first season as a professional in the 2010-2011 season under manager Simon Grayson. Injuries, influx of talent and experience in midfield and the development of Byram have limited Thompson’s first team opportunities in the side leading to his loan at Bury . Thompson brings in a Lee Bowyer or a Gary Speed style of play to Leeds’ midfield and under the guidance of Austin and Brown should develop into the player he was foreseen to become. Thompson has a contract running until 2014 and should become a key member in the squad.
A left back by trade, 19 year old Taylor impressed the bosses with his performances for Leeds’ reserves during the 2010-2011 season. But stiff competition in the form of White and Bessone restricted his first team opportunities in 2011 resulting in him getting loaned out to Bradford City and then York City. Known for his crossing and calmness during one-on-one situations, the young left back also loves to join in the attack when invited. His impressive performance earned a call-up to the England U-19 squad, making his debut against Portugal in 2011. Another Ian Harte in the making?
19 year old Dominic Poleon plays as a second striker or attacking midfielder for Leeds. After coming through the youth academies of Chelsea and Southend, the 16 year old Poleon joined The White’s youth team at 16. Given the number 26 by Neil Warnock, Poleon has made six appearances for Leeds scoring his first senior goal against Nottingham Forrest in his very first start. Since then Poleon has been loaned out to Bury to join teammate Thompson for more first team action.
Young defenders Monty Gimpel and Ross Killock have been offered a year’s professional contract along with midfielders Sanchez Payne. Talented twins Lewis and Nathan Turner also remain on the brink of breaking into the first team.
The Leeds United youth center have been producing talents for decades now. The class of 1969 was the most successful while that of 1999-2000 was probably considered the most attractive . Home groomed players in the past have always kept the engine running when the going was tough and have even added an extra gear to take Leeds to the top. This talented bunch of new graduates can be expected to follow the footsteps of their alumni. Factors such as the club’s vision and progress will come into the picture, but good management and planning can prevent the buds being picked again. The dream of “Marching on Together” is very much alive.