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the square ball week: the proving ground

the square ball week: the proving ground

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•• Artwork by Joe Gamble — www.joegamble.co.uk

O’Leary’s babies are the most obvious reference point, but the look of the current Leeds side drills deeper into the strata under Elland Road than that.

Plus, the circumstances are different. When Alan Smith came on as a substitute at Anfield and scored with his first touch, he came into a team that was ready for him. Leeds United weren’t yet the European Champions that could have been that they would soon become, but they were already a team capable of beating Liverpool 3–1; Jimmy Hasselbaink scored the other two goals, and Leeds would soon upgrade on even him.

Things were a bit different for Lewis Cook when he made his debut this season. For one thing, it was the opening day, not a game in November when the momentum was already rolling; for another it was The Den, not Anfield. We had Noel Hunt up front, not Hasselbaink. Far from being a team capable of going to Anfield and winning, this was a team that was barely capable of making the trip to Millwall, let alone losing when it got there.

Despite having a great reputation as a developer of players and a successful spell running Watford’s Academy – and the claim, that I suspect originated with him, that he invented the whole concept of academies in the first place – Dave Hockaday looked useless when it came to using young players at Leeds. He got a decent amount of hunger and hard work out of Dominic Poleon, but this is the manager who, faced with a game against lower-league opposition in a cup competition we didn’t expect to win, used it as an opportunity to blood David Norris.

Where he should perhaps have blooded Norris was at Millwall on the opening day, assuming David didn’t have a presser prior engagement at CostCo that afternoon. Instead he threw Cook in the mix; at 1–0 down, with the team showing none of the hunger, hard work, humility or honesty Hockaday had promised, Dave’s preferred solution was to give a seventeen year old kid the responsibility of saving the first game of the season.

Well, that didn’t work. Lewis Cook, whose last meaningful act on a football pitch had been to win the European U17 Championship with England, gave the ball away with a deadly pass in midfield and then, as he raced to make amends, gave away a penalty with a panicked foul in the penalty area. Welcome to your career, son.

Cook’s debut was proof that football doesn’t happen the way it used to in Roy of the Rovers comics. Leeds at that point were a storyline from some old Boys’ Own comic book; the mysterious and charismatic Italian owner, his surprise choice of a bloke from down the garden centre as coach of the team; they were such an odd couple that the only way it could play out was with the two arm in arm at the end of the season, lifting the Championship trophy aloft after an against-the-odds season of many tears and much joy; helicopters hum through the air, fireworks explode in the sky, Nora Cellino sings ‘Happy Championship Mr President’ and adds a special chorus for The Hock.

When Cellino and Hockaday talked about the four hour meeting of minds that ended with the job offer, I wonder if that’s how the night ended up; not with salt and pepper pots for players on a hotel bar pitch, but with arms round shoulders, singing Marching on Together in advance of a dream they were having together. And I wonder whether, when he threw Lewis Cook against Millwall on the opening day, Hockaday was still pissed.

You sink or swim, though. Things might not have started out easy for Lewis Cook, and might not have been easy since, with the rest of Hockaday’s time to get through, plus Milanic, plus the bleak times before Christmas when the only way looked to be down. But they’ve got better. Compare that to Alan Smith’s career path, and you wonder whether his sudden ascension to poster boy for an entire city after just one goal was its own worst kind of introduction to football.

It’s tempting when you talk about Cook, Mowatt, Byram and Taylor to talk about carefree abandon, about young players playing the game for its own sake, free of pressure and immersed in the first delights of kicking a ball for a living. That’s not really true, though.

Instead they’ve played with a tremendous weight and responsibility on their shoulders. Cook and Byram have stood out not because of the freedom of youth, but because they’re our best players, and in Byram’s case departures have left him as one of our most experienced. Alex Mowatt was impressive last season, but I was never really sure as what; this season he’s impressed as someone willing to step up his game when all around him is chaos, taken on extra responsibility and revealed himself as a matchwinner. Charlie Taylor, replacing the best player of the season in January, only had to keep the defence from falling apart without its left-back lynchpin – no biggie. But in fact Taylor, and Bamba, has improved it.

If Hockaday or Milanic had carried on the way they were going we could have been talking about one of the worst Leeds teams we’d ever seen this season. That we’re not is obviously down to Neil Redfearn, to a large extent, but also down not only to the talent but to the character of the young players he has built his team around. Cook could never have recovered from his opening day nightmare; it’s odd, now, to think it ever happened.

Young players at Leeds tend to come in gangs, at intervals, so much so that it feels like part of what the club is all about, more so than at other clubs; Nottingham Forest come to Leeds this weekend, with a clutch of Premier League loan signings where we have a clutch of young academy graduates. So we don’t have to only look to O’Leary’s era for a comparable bunch of youngsters.

Those players were, arguably, Howard Wilkinson and Eddie Gray’s anyway, and it’s Eddie Gray’s time in charge in the eighties that feels most analogous to today. If anything that era was even grimmer, and yet the players Gray turned to in the club’s darkest hours were from the youth sides: John Sheridan, Scott Sellars, Tommy Wright, Denis Irwin, Andy Linighan, Neil Aspin, Terry Phelan.

When I look at photos of a young Sheridan, Sellars and Wright in the old Division Two, I wonder how they survived; skilful waifs trying to play football on a farmer’s field while unrepentant cloggers twice their size bore down on them in pairs. But survive they did; it wouldn’t have been difficult for the post-Revie Leeds to fall much further than it did, but with precious little money to spend and precious little optimism to fuel them, those young players made sure that Division Three was not something Leeds would have to think about for a long time yet.

It’s a wistful thought now to wonder what might have been had the board kept faith with Eddie Gray and with his young players; the team was consistently in and around what would now be the play-off places, and as the players matured and became successful at new clubs, they showed just how good they could have become together. The board wanted a new approach, however; they couldn’t wait for maturity, they wanted mature players now, and so sold off the youngsters to finance a new direction with older heads under Billy Bremner. That move was successful enough, too, and eventually led us to Wilko – but still. What might have been.

Leeds are at a point of what might be with Cook, Byram, Taylor and Mowatt, plus Walters and Phillips and Dawson and the rest waiting in the wings. We’re just as familiar with what might have been, though, and we know the signs. The old adage is that the Second Division is no place for young developers; you can do to them what Hockaday almost did to Cook at Millwall, and ruin them in a stroke. But if they prove they can handle it here, they prove they have something extra that goes beyond just ability.

What it takes is a manager, and more importantly a board, to recognise it, nurture it, and keep it.

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