This season, Leeds United’s U23s are competing in Premier League 2 Division 1 – the pinnacle of U23 football in England.
Four years ago, the academy at Thorp Arch had not yet been awarded Category One status, and the U23 side had just finished bottom of the Professional Development League’s North Division.
Crewe Alexandra, Barnsley, Hull City, Huddersfield Town and Bolton Wanderers’ U23 teams finished higher than the junior Whites during 2016/17.
In a few short weeks, Leeds United’s best and brightest youngsters will take to the field against some of this country’s premier academy products – the U23 elites.
Chelsea’s Cobham academy is one of the most prestigious in Europe, in terms of its funding, scale and the sheer volume of players it produces.
Manchester United’s senior starting XI has boasted an academy graduate in it for over 4,000 successive matches.
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Arsenal’s Hale End academy setup meanwhile, helped produce this coming season’s new No. 7 Bukayo Saka, and No. 10 Emile Smith Rowe.
Manchester City’s Etihad campus, Tottenham Hotspur’s state-of-the-art facilities and Liverpool’s training complex will all play host to Leeds United’s U23s this season, crucially as equals.
To compete with the best, Leeds must assemble a team capable of matching their new elite level rivals – a process which has been in the works for some time.
Amari Miller, Sean McGurk and Lewis Bate have already been added to the Leeds U23 ranks this summer, and are anticipated to play a key role under Mark Jackson.
They will join the likes of captain Charlie Cresswell, Joe Gelhardt, Sam Greenwood, Cody Drameh, Crysencio Summerville, Jack Jenkins and Stuart McKinstry – all of whom excelled in the U23s’ title win of last season.
The junior squad boasts quite a spread of talent, scouted from various corners of the United Kingdom, and in Summerville’s case, Europe.
McKinstry was an addition from Motherwell’s academy setup based just outside Glasgow – and Leeds United could well return to Scotland’s largest city for two more emerging talents, as per The Athletic.
Leo Hjelde and Matthew Anderson are names who have been mentioned in passing over the last few months.
The duo are Celtic youngsters, who have no doubt attracted interest from the country’s top scouts.
At just 17 years old, Hjelde spent the second half of 2020/21 on loan at fellow Scottish Premiership side Ross County.
The Norway U-18 international featured 12 times across all competitions, mainly as a left-sided centre-back and left-back.
Leo Hjelde has been linked with Leeds United.
“Other names are on the radar too, including Celtic defenders Matthew Anderson and Leo Hjelde, and Leeds are persisting in forming a junior pool who, in a number of positions, might realistically succeed members of Bielsa’s current starting line-up,” writes Phil Hay of The Athletic.
Five months younger than his Norwegian teammate, Matthew Anderson is yet to taste senior football, but at 17 there is little hurry.
He too is a name that has been mentioned in Leeds United circles.
Should Leeds push on and sign the pair, their recruitment will reflect one of the most targeted and unique approaches to U23 football in this country.
In actual fact, Leeds’ U23 buys have been more deliberate and particular than many teams’ senior recruitment operations.
Building a ‘junior pool’ gives Leeds United an insurance policy of sorts, too.
Even if three out of four fail to become first-team regulars in future, the one who does will have trained and played the Leeds United way alongside, and against, the best players U23 football can offer.
This represents the closest any youth footballer will get to the real thing: competitive first-team action – without having to go out on risky loans in order to find it.
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