Under the stewardship of former club captain Richard Naylor, the Leeds United under-18s have blossomed into one of the most promising youth teams in the country. Despite Thursday night’s 3-1 defeat at Anfield bringing an impressive 12-game winning streak to an end, the performance and attitude shown by the Leeds youngsters on one of English football’s biggest stages suggested that the not too distant future could be very bright for the Whites.
In spite of the troubles the club has faced in recent years, the Leeds United academy has still managed to maintain it’s reputation as one of the country’s best youth set-ups, consistently producing players who have made the step up to the first team and beyond. This year the emergence of Sam Byram has once again earned plaudits for the academy, with the 19-year old establishing himself as one of the first names on Neil Warnock’s team sheet. Byram has been a regular in a back four which has often consisted of fellow academy graduates Tom Lees and Aidy White, both of whom have gone on to earn caps at under-21 level for England and the Republic of Ireland respectively.
Having watched the development squad and under-18s on a number of occasions this season, I’ve decided to take a look a couple of players who I believe could be an integral part of the future of Leeds United.
The 18-year old midfielder signed professional terms with the club back in October and after a number of eye-catching performances for both the under-18s and the development squad this season, he earned himself a call up to the Wales under-21 squad despite being yet to make a first team appearance for Leeds. At only 5’6 he’ll always be one of the smallest players on the pitch, as he was against Burton Albion in the previous round of the Youth Cup at Elland Road, but this doesn’t seem to affect his game and he bagged a hat-trick that night, putting his name on the lips of every Leeds fan. Most effective playing just behind the strikers, Dawson has a natural eye for goal and his performances of late have shown maturity beyond his years, giving United fans glimpses of the creative playmaker they are crying out for.
Liverpool had clearly done their homework ahead of the game and with Dawson closely marked all night, captain Alex Mowatt was arguably the Whites’ best player at Anfield last week. The 18-year old was played on the right side of midfield but he is equally at home in a more central role. He showed his creative side when he picked out Lewis Cook for Leeds’ only goal of the night, but never afraid to pull out of a challenge, it’s his tough tackling that will really endear him to the Leeds fans. He’s made the step up the development squad in recent weeks and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in and around the first team in the not too distant future.
Unlike Dawson and Mowatt, 19-year old striker Dominic Poleon has had a taste of first team action and he grabbed his first senior goal in September’s 2-1 win over Nottingham Forest. After making a handful of appearances in the first half of the season, he was then farmed out to Kevin Blackwell’s Bury where he impressed whilst on loan before joining Sheffield United until the end of the season after a couple of months back at Elland Road. He’s made four appearances for the Blades so far and after showing glimpses of his raw pace and attacking threat before he joined Bury, he’ll be hoping to force his way back into the first team plans over the summer.
If these three keep progressing like they are doing, I would be shocked if they aren’t pushing for a place in the first team next season, but nobody really predicted Sam Byram to play as prominent of a part as he has this year and with the proven track record of the Leeds United academy, don’t be surprised if the next player to make the step up comes completely out of the blue.