By George and Tom Chellis
Despite former boss Neil Warnock describing it as ‘a cancer in the club’, it is without doubt that the Academy set up at Leeds United is becoming an increasingly important tool in rebuilding the infrastructure of the club. The Academy, fronted by the passionate and likeable Neil Redfearn, is achieving some very pleasing results including first place for the U18s and third for the Development Squad in their respective leagues. With this in mind, we thought that it was worth praising the set up that was so publicly condemned by our former boss, highlighting the success of the Academy coaches as a group as well as illustrating their various successes in developing the individuals who have gone on to perform well under the intense scrutiny of Championship football.
The surprise package of last season, Sam Byram’s unprecedented success took the Championship by storm. Byram quickly became a prized asset in the first team set up, making 53 appearances in League and Cup, whilst finding the net on 4 occasions. Much like Lees, Byram is incredibly versatile, showing strength going forward as well as adept defensive positioning, and it seems that both the player and the club are unaware of his best position. With the hunt for a wide player still ongoing, it is possible that Byram could be fielded as a winger this season, making the ‘Bale-like’ transition from full back to winger. Byram’s flawless first season in the first team earned him the accolades he deserved, winning the Player of the Year Award, Young Player of the Year Award, Player’s Player of the Year Award and the Supporters Club Player of the Year Award - a staggering feat. His recognition was not limited to internal honours as he also highlighted as one of the Sky Sports Football League Players to Watch, a notable achievement. As perhaps his greatest achievement to date however, Byram was selected in the England U20 World Cup squad, only to be forced to pull out through injury. The aforementioned injury greatly restricted Byram’s pre-season preparation, having only just returned to play 90 minutes at first team level in the spirited 2-0 defeat at the hands of Newcastle in the Cup this week. Should he stay fit, Byram is crucial to the promotion hunt, and another massive season is expected by the fans.
Turning professional in 2009, Lees has proven to be one of the academy’s biggest triumphs in recent seasons. His flexibility makes him a valuable asset to the club, and his ability to play at right back as well as his preferred centre back has attracted attention from the international set-up. The now former England U21 boss Stuart Pearce made no secret of his admiration for Lees, selecting him for the U21 European Championship squad as well as publicly praising his work ethic and professionalism. As for this season, the arrival of Scott Wootton has provided a healthy competitive element at centre back, which will only contribute to his development. Between himself, Wootton and the resurgence in form of Jason Pearce, it is nice to see such strength in depth at centre back. Furthermore, at only 22, Lees can expect another ten years of high level competitions at the top levels of English football. A bright future is in store.
After playing youth football at Chelsea and Southend, Poleon swapped the bright lights of London for Leeds United in 2010. After 2 years developing in the academy alongside our other prospects, Poleon signed his first professional contract in July 2012. An extremely promising pre-season followed and many expected Poleon to burst on the scene at Leeds in his first competitive season. Warnock, however, saw him surplus to requirements after a couple of appearances and sent him out on loan to Bury and Sheffield United. This proved to be highly beneficial, and Poleon was able to raise his game thanks to regular first team football, eventually resulting in being recalled. Scoring in the final game of the season in controversial fashion against Watford to help deny them automatic promotion, Brian McDermott clearly sees something in the Newham-born striker. Poleon adds that much needed element of pace in the forward line, and he is only continuing to get better. With goals seeming to be a rare commodity at Leeds this season, there is a real opportunity for Poleon to make his mark and secure a regular spot in the starting eleven this season.
Following regular scouting excursions to watch him play for his local team Bentley Tigers, Mowatt was recruited into the Leeds academy set up aged 9. Progressing through the ranks with relative ease, Mowatt was given the captain’s armband at U18 level, guiding them to the title in the 2012/13 season. Impressing throughout the campaign, Mowatt signed a professional contract and he has continued to impress in Neil Redfearn’s development squad. This season brought about his debut at first team level, shining in the Carling Cup victory away at boyhood club Doncaster Rovers. He also continued to show his class and potential in last week’s defeat at St James’ Park, a performance which will do him no harm in helping him to achieve the ultimate aim of breaking into the first team squad on a permanent basis. There is no denying the talents of this young man, and if he continues to develop at this rate, there is no question that he will be a prominent face in the Leeds United starting XI in seasons to come.