Tom O’Connor ponders what Leeds United would now look like if they had held onto their biggest stars.
On May 8th 2001 Leeds United played Valencia in the Champion’s League semi finals.
Fourteen years later they are a mid table Championship team existing in a sea of turbulence off the pitch. On the field, major restructuring needs to take place if there are to even dream of the play-off positions next season.
At the nucleus of the team for next year should be four academy graduates who have proved themselves more loyal, committed and capable footballers than most of the current squad. Lewis Cook, Charlie Taylor, Sam Byram and Alex Mowatt were the heartbeat of the side last season and it made this author think, what if we hadn’t tried to buy success? What if we had trusted the Academy players who graduated from Thorp Arch- the envy of most Premier League teams at the time?
Title winning manager Howard Wilkinson made the academy a key component of the club, and when he left Leeds United he worked in the FA with an emphasis on youth football.
Leeds United were an average Premier League team in the late 1990s with a promising crop of youth players coming through. What kind of a team could they have now if administration hadn’t forced the sale of some of their brightest talents?
Goalkeeper: Paul Robinson
Robinson is now in his mid thirties and fighting for his place at Blackburn Rovers following a life threatening injury. He left Leeds, after starring in Europe and the Premier League, for Spurs in 2004 and has won 41 international caps for England. Still a capable keeper.
Left Back: Danny Rose
Rose is currently occupying the left back berth at White Hart Lane having left Leeds United as a teenager in 2007. Other options at left back include Ian Harte, who signed for Levante on a free transfer in 2004 and has helped Bournemouth to the Premier League, or Everton’s reserve left back and England youth international Luke Garbutt who joined The Toffees from the Leeds Academy as a 16 year old in 2009.
Centre Back: Jonathan Woodgate and Matt Kilgallon
Options here include ex Real Madrid and Newcastle United player Jonathan Woodgate, who signed for Magpies in January 2003 for £9 million. The current Middlesbrough defender has a long injury record but was a classy stopper.
Alongside Woodgate could be Tom Lees, who moved for Sheffield Wednesday in 2014, or Matt Kilgallon, currently at Blackburn Rovers having left Leeds to go to Sheffield United for around £2 million sterling in 2007. Both players were talented young players but never made the progress expected. If they had remained at Elland Road could they have fulfilled their potential?
Right Back: Sam Byram
Remember the name Sam Byram. After an outstanding debut season there were rumours abound that Manchester City were prepared to offer £10 million. He had an injury plagued 2013/14 but was a revelation this year playing in a more advanced right wing position. Will be a star at the top level in years to come.
Centre Midfield: Fabien Delph, James Milner, and Lewis Cook
This is probably the most gut wrenching area for Leeds fans with two of the most consistent English midfield performers this season having commenced their footballing education in Yorkshire. Aston Villa’s Fabian Delph who left Leeds in 2009 for £6 million, and has curbed his aggressive streak, being rewarded with international recognition.
James Milner has been one of Manchester City’s top performers this season despite playing out of position. Milner signed for Newcastle in 2004 for £3.6 million.
The other central midfielder is a current Leeds player, Lewis Cook. Cook is a England U19 international and was named as The Football League Apprentice of the Year this season having been outstanding in the engine room for The Whites throughout the league.
Right Midfield: Aaron Lennon
Diminutive Spurs winger Lennon played on loan at Evertonthis season but has spent 10 years terrorising Premier League defenders, since signing for Spurs in 2005 for the paltry sum of £1 million.
Left Midfield: Alex Mowatt
Another current Leeds player here in Alex Mowatt. The 20 year old from Doncaster was recently voted as Leeds United’s Player of the Season following an excellent goalscoring term from midfield. His left foot is incredible and will grace the Premier League before too long.
Centre Forward: Alan Smith
Smith was the darling of the Leeds fans until his move to Old Trafford in 2004 for £7 million. ‘Smudger’ had a decent goalscoring record while at Elland Road and his career stalled at Old Trafford following a nasty injury. Eventually he was sold to Newcastle and finished up as a midfielder.
This team may still be playing in the mid to lower reaches of the Championship given that some of the players are past their peak and some have yet to fully bloom but this is a team any Leeds fan would be proud of – something very few can say regarding the current team.
Read More About: aaron lennon, alan smith, alex mowatt, danny rose, fabien delph, james milner, jonathan woodgate., leeds united, matt kilgallon, paul robinson, Sam Byram, Top Story, what might have been