Legacy of academy can still be a lifeline for the future

The case for Paul Hart
Click to follow

According to the bookmakers at least, the odds are that Leeds United will be getting an old Hart to pump some new life into their ailing body. Despite his midweek non-denial denial, Paul Hart remains the 5-4 favourite to become the fourth manager in 17 months at Elland Road. Whoever does get the job, major surgery will be required. Leeds are £78m in debt and stand at the bottom of the Premiership. The good news, though, is that the lifeblood of the club is still flowing.

It was Hart himself who established Leeds' thriving youth academy. Appointed director of youth by Howard Wilkinson in 1992, the former Leeds centre-half proceeded to produce a stream of talent. With Eddie Gray, the present caretaker-manager, working as Hart's coach, Leeds won the FA Youth Cup in 1993 and 1997. Their discoveries included Harry Kewell, Jonathan Woodgate, Alan Smith and Paul Robinson.

Hart moved to Nottingham Forest in 1997, but six years on the first-class graduates are still rolling off the academy production line at Elland Road. As Peter Reid observed before his departure: "If we can get through this difficult time, with the young players we've got, the future can only be bright." Three academy players are in the first-team squad the old manager has left behind: midfielders Aaron Lennon and James Milner, 16 and 17 respectively, and Scott Carson, Robinson's 18-year-old goalkeeping understudy.

"It's difficult to make comparisons to the Paul Hart era," Clive Richards, the acting director of the Leeds academy, pondered, "but to have three boys closely involved in the first-team squad is not a bad achievement. We've also got a lot of young boys playing regularly in the reserves, which bodes well for the future too. And, whatever happens to the club, in terms of the financial situation and Premiership status, we're going to need the academy more than ever.

"I would like to feel that we will achieve the heights of developing players to the standard of Paul Hart's era. The likes of Harry Kewell, Paul Robinson, Jonathan Woodgate: they're all outstanding professionals, top-drawer players. I'd like to think we can mirror what was done then. And we've started on the path, with the three kids in the first-team environment.

"That's a great shout nowadays, because it's a massive step up. It's a massive enough step up for 20- to 21-year-olds to cope with the jump from the reserves. So we're fortunate to have 16-17-18-year-olds in there - hopefully with more to follow. It has to be a conveyor belt."

The conveyor belt has kept working despite a tightening of the financial belt at Elland Road. Richards has stepped up from assistant director to acting director because the Leeds board could not afford to keep Andy Ritchie as director of their academy. Two other members of staff were released, but Richards and his team of coaches have continued to keep the standards of the highest order, working with their 27 young charges at the club's state-of-the-art training complex at Thorp Arch, near Wetherby.

"In fairness, the club have shown a big commitment," Richards said. "It would have been easy for them to have culled a lot more. They've backed the academy. Whether it's been Peter Ridsdale or John McKenzie or the managers, we've had excellent support in our aim to produce players. That's reflected with the three lads we've got in the first-team squad.

"It is vital we keep the conveyor belt going. For me, the youth systems are the lifeblood at all clubs. And I would expect, with money getting tighter - which it certainly has here - that reliance upon good academies and good people within the academies will become even greater."

Richards, a genial 49-year-old native of the Black Country, was head-hunted to work under Brian Kidd at the Leeds academy three years ago. Before that, he worked for three years as head of recruitment at the Blackburn academy that produced Damien Duff and David Dunn. He was also assistant chief scout at Wolves during Graham Taylor's tenure.

In his playing days, he was a striker, mainly for Stourbridge in the old Southern League. Richards had an extended trial with Birmingham City's youth team when he left school in 1970. "I played a few games, against Wolves, Coventry, West Brom, but basically I wasn't good enough," he reflected.

It is to be hoped it will be different for Richards in his extended trial as academy director at Leeds. Like Eddie Gray, he is another Elland Road caretaker hoping to get his hands on a broom in a full-time capacity. "I've got to prove to people that I can make the step up," he said, "that I can manage the academy to the levels they're looking for."