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the square ball week: the night of the hunter

the square ball week: the night of the hunter

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“It’s a hard world for little things,” says kindly Rachel Cooper, as she shelters two runaway children from a hell-bent priest in Charles Laughton’s 1955 film The Night of the Hunter. “You’d think the world’d be ashamed.”

There’s not much shelter to be found in the Football League Championship, but the world is taking it easy on the little things so far at Leeds United this season. Alex Mowatt, Lewis Cook and Sam Byram, on a pitch together; Chris Dawson and Charlie Taylor on the bench; imported, but no older, Adryan Tavares, Brian Montenegro and Dario Del Fabro flit around the team and the squad.

Against Charlton, Leeds used five players aged 21 or under; this week, without any first team action, all eyes have been on the Academy and Kalvin Phillips’ two goals against Nottingham Forest, one an overhead kick, the other a free kick that swerved into the top corner. Adam Pope revealed he’d been close to making the trip to Cardiff with the first team, and the excitement surged. Can we start him against Blackburn next week?

Can we start all of them? While only Adryan of the young foreign players has really impressed so far – and he has impressed a lot – none of the Academy graduates to have played this season have looked out of place in the Championship. Could we put out a team with Byram, Cook, Dawson, Mowatt and Tavares all together – five players all 21 or under? Could we drop Phillips into the mix and make it six?

It’s those numbers that are driving the relentless optimism that is keeping the fact we’re 15th in the league after 17 games – four points from the relegation places – stashed like an unwanted picture at the back of a cupboard. We’re just looking for the perfect spot to hang that. We were going to put it up the other day but we haven’t got any nails.

Half a team of youngsters is half a team to hope for, half a team worth making exciting plans around; where in recent seasons half the team have been more like candidates for retirement plans. It recalls those heady days of 1999; Harte, Jones, Kewell, McPhail, Smith, Woodgate home grown; Bakke, Bowyer, Bridges, Huckerby bought young; from August to October Leeds won ten in a row, were unbeaten in thirteen. If we can have half a team of young players like that again…

Numbers alone won’t cut it, though. “It’s a hard world for little things,” remember. 1999 wasn’t only memorable for the players who were taking the team to third in the Premier League. The hype around O’Learys ‘babies’ began to die down when they began to establish themselves, and if there’s one thing hype never likes to do, it’s die down; while the first crop were still taking a deep breath and readying themselves for the Champions League, the light was already being shone into the darkest corners of Thorp Arch, looking for any more who might be ready to join in the fun, any more who might be set to follow.

The list of names became dizzying. Tommy Knarvik. Shane Cansdell-Sherriff. Jamie McMaster. Tony Hackworth. Alan Maybury. Wesley Boyle. Warren Feeney. Lee Matthews. They were all ready to break through. Lee Matthews in particular had drawn attention for spectacular feats in the 1995/96 youth team – 17 goals in 16 league starts, 19 in 21 overall; if Alan Smith was in the team, where was he?

While Lee Matthews was scoring at a rapid rate in the youth team, the first team was, like now, stocked with home grown players. Starting against PSV in Eindhoven: Noel Whelan and Rob Bowman. Coming off the bench were Kevin Sharp and Mark Ford. In the previous round against Monaco, Andy Couzens and Mark Tinkler had appeared. Ford and Andy Gray both played in the awfulness of the League Cup Final against Aston Villa; Gray had made his debut from the bench in the competition in the first round against Notts County, when the reserve goalkeeper had been Paul Pettinger.

All played parts in the league that season, along with brief glimpses of Jason Blunt, Mark Jackson, Alan Maybury; and the first sights of Ian Harte and Harry Kewell. The core seven – Bowman, Couzens, Ford, Pettinger, Sharp, Tinkler and Whelan – were all FA Youth Cup winners in 1993, when they were all the next big thing; by 1996, though, their status had changed.

The season between the two cup finals – the FA Youth Cup in 1993, and the League Cup final in 1996 – were not kind to Leeds’ young players. Gary Kelly established himself as one of the best right-backs in the world for a few years, but had been a winger in the reserves when the class of ’93 were doing their thing. Their thing, in the years after lifting the cup, became progressively tougher to take as one by one they made a claim in the first team, and had their claims overturned.

A lot of those names don’t mean much to Leeds fans now. When Andy Couzens popped up on Twitter with an opinion on Massimo Cellino recently, the criticism of his views was one thing, but the collective ‘who he?’ from the younger generation of United fans was like a pin to the balloon of my youth’s memories. He’s Andy Couzens. He could play in defence or midfield. He won the Youth Cup for Leeds, captained the reserves for Leeds, played in the UEFA Cup for Leeds. I remember him. I thought he was good.

The ones I really liked were Kevin Sharp and Jamie Forrester. Forrester was the star from the moment when, in the early stages of the Youth Cup final at Elland Road, he scored with an overhead kick from what seemed like an absurd distance. He soon flashed into the first team, too; I remember a spectacular volley in the FA Cup against Crewe, but then we let him go – to Grimsby.

Kevin Sharp had been partly educated abroad with Forrester; both spent a year in the highly regarded youth system at Auxerre in France. He was a left-sided midfielder or full-back, and the LUFC handbook produced for the 1994/95 season reckons it was “an indication of the manager’s confidence about youngsters such as Sharp that led to David Batty’s sale.”

Well, that and the club was temporarily skint. For some reason I always saw Sharp not as Batty’s natural successor, but Gordon Strachan’s; I think he played a few games at right-back, where his overlapping gave Strachan a new lease of life and showed signs that Sharp could fill his boots when he was gone. Instead Sharp left soon after Strachan, and soon after his appearance against PSV, to Wigan.

Between the collapse of the promise of the class of ’93, and the breakthrough of the millennium crop in 1999, there was a collective confusion at Elland Road, a feeling that nobody could quite account for what had gone wrong. The FA Youth Cup win had coincided with the last games of some of the league title win’s elder statesmen, and the production line had offered up seven or eight viable players for us to get excited about, be optimistic about, to confidently rate among the best in the country.

Instead they dropped from view, one by one, and Howard Wilkinson, their mentor, was dropped altogether; George Graham came in to pick up the pieces. He continued picking some of them, but the thrill of seeing home grown players on the park had disappeared by the time Couzens, Ford and Tinkler were spending their fourth season toiling in a team that didn’t look to be going anywhere. George Graham talked up Mark Jackson as another in a long line of potential new Battys, but no.

Most of those players went on to have good careers away from Leeds. Forrester became a deadly striker in Holland and in England’s lower leagues; Sharp returned to the top flight with Wigan; Tinkler became a respect stalwart of Hartlepool United. But the story of the mid-nineties crop shows what a hard world it is for little things; little things who all, when they were Lewis Cook’s age or Alex Mowatt’s age or Chris Dawson’s age, looked ready to make the world do whatever they wanted.

The world hasn’t got any easier since then. When I talk about hype for Rob Bowman, now, I think about articles in football weeklies like 90 Minutes; hype at the turn of the century for McMaster and the like came from our own club magazine, Leeds Leeds Leeds. Nowadays it’s national, and at the top level the England squad can at times resemble the Leeds United first team of 1996/97; players who were hailed as the next big thing after their first few appearances, but who were hyped up so much that, even while we watch them play, we still can’t be sure if they’re living up to their own potential. Should Glen Johnson be better, or is he really as good as he was ever meant to be? Is there more to Tom Cleverley than this, or were we just told to expect too much?

Nowadays it’s Byram, Cook, Dawson, Mowatt, Phillips, Tavares and Taylor who bear the weight of our expectation. “It’s a hard world for little things,” and there are few harder places in that world than the lower reaches of the English second division. We can’t be sure yet if Leeds United are 15th in the table because we have a poor side, or if they’ve just been poorly managed, but the hope in the minds of many fans is that it’s the youngster who will pull the team to the upper reaches again.

In recent weeks Cook and Mowatt “have been arguably our best two players,” Neil Redfearn said this week, as he talked about why he was keeping them at Thorp Arch this week rather than letting them go away with England’s youth teams. And it’s quite true. We can’t expect, though, for that still to be the case in five years, and we can’t be complacent and assume that every young player we see turning it on at Elland Road will turn it on forever.

“It’s a hard world for little things.” The little things, in Night of the Hunter, needed the kindness of a stranger to protect them and deliver them to the day. Neil Redfearn’s not a stranger to our little things, but he – and we – need to treat them just as tenderly.

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