Howard Wilkinson smiling

Crafting a future: Wilkinson’s Greenhouse

“It was my dream”. Howard Wilkinson would, on arrival to Elland Road, set out a ten-year plan that would ultimately lead to a significant proportion of the club’s early success in the end of the last and early part of this millennia. Yet how did Wilkinson’s innovation and creation at Thorp Arch almost lead to the crafting of an english academy akin to Barcelona’s famed La Masia? Furthermore, read on to understand how Wilkinson’s sacking would play a significant role in Leeds’ fall from grace.

In 1999/00, David O’Leary, having taken the Leeds job the year preceding, could call upon a series of academy talents as he stormed European Competition with his ‘babies’. Players such as Ian Harte, Jonathan Woodgate and Harry Kewell had all come through the ranks of the Leeds United youth setup. The team was playing the best football many had seen at the club for years, and with minimal investment to the first team, Leeds were regularly outplaying Europe’s elite. Kewell, in particular, was clearly an incredible talent, and his form throughout the next few years would lead to concrete interest from the biggest sides in the world, with Barcelona in particular being rebuffed several times. However, the foundation for this would be laid in Wilkinson’s first season at the club, when Leeds United were a struggling second division side with minimal financial capacity.

In an interview last year with Leeds United fanzine The Square Ball, Howard Wilkinson revealed that from as early as his initial meetings, he had laid out plans with Leslie Silver and Bill Fotherby, chairman and director respectively, that would lead to the creation of the Leeds youth system. Silver, underwriting the team at the time, pledged his support to the plan with the understanding that within time, this would come to fruition and the club could capitalize heavily. Therefore, plans began to be laid that would allow the innovatory establishment of the Leeds Youth Academy, based at Thorp Arch, on the outskirts of the city.

Where today the media still focusses on the idea of an English La Masia, and there is constant bureaucratic struggle within the Football Association when attempting to establish academies that can compete with Spain’s best, this struggling second division side would create a “football greenhouse”, in the words of Wilkinson. Under the command of Paul Hart (erstwhile Nottingham Forest, QPR, Crystal Palace and Swindon Town manager), and Dick Bate, the academy would begin to implement the process Wilkinson had conceived of whilst managing Notts County.

Believing there was a four-step plan to the training of youth, Wilkinson would have his men find the players, and then have talented coaches teach them the game. Most imperatively, in his view, was the manner in which Leeds United created provision for the players to live on-site, essentially allowing them to train before school, after school, during the weekends and school holidays. Furthermore, it would allow the coaching staff to experiment with players – Ian Harte, an integral part of the Leeds side that would reach the semi-finals of the Champions League, began his career as a striker, before experimenting at left-back and eventually making a career from playing there. This all took place before he had even appeared in the youth team. Finally, Wilkinson believed that these players needed to be provided with an opportunity to actually play in the side, as a key facet of their development. This led to the integration of Kewell, Harte, Alan Smith, etc., into the Leeds team at an early age.

Whilst Leeds fans will immediately point to the success of the team under O’Leary as evidence of Wilkinson’s plan, many do not realise there were signs that Leeds would become a force to be reckoned with even before this. The players who grew up in Wilkinson’s greenhouse would win the youth cup in 96/97, and then the reserves league the following year. By 98/99, the first team would become littered with academy prospects, exactly ten years after Wilkinson had initially met with Silver and Fotherby, and his ten-year plan had been put into practice.

The talent pool would slowly dry up, and it is clear that Simon Johnson and Harpal Singh cannot be mentioned in the same breath as the results of Thorp Arch’s initial ten years. This failing is evidence of the flaws with creating this sort of establishment in a country ruled by financial results. Caspian Group would take over Leeds United in 1996, and with them bring a replacement to Wilkinson in the form of George Graham. Graham would fall out with Paul Hart over the promise of Jonathan Woodgate, with suggestions that Graham said he would rather purchase a new player than give the untested youngster a place in the starting eleven. This flew completely contrary to the methods Wilkinson had established at the club. This lack of interest in the academy from the new regime would destabilise the production line and lead to the aforementioned lack of results, ripping much of the innovation out of Thorp Arch even as it led to so much success on the pitch. Financial mismanagement would occur as great outlays on players occurred to make up for the sudden drop in youngsters entering the first team set-up.

Wilkinson, therefore, can be seen as immensely responsible for the success of Leeds United over a decade ago. Had the academy, in that form, remained in place, Leeds would most certainly not have found themselves in the various difficult positions they have in the years since. From this, it reveals truths that all clubs should take heed from, that no matter the size, the correct innovation can craft an impeccable future. The only true shame of the entire period is that Wilkinson was removed before he could manage the team he was so incredibly responsible for.

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What baffled us about the Superbowl

There was a point, in the early hours of Monday morning, sometime after my last wing and just before the broadcast finished, that I began laughing. I began to imagine the next ridiculous moment that could occur, completely contrary to my previous experiences of sporting events, and lo and behold, the television would provide. From ridiculous endorsements to the unbelievable manner in which the trophy was handed over, the Superbowl was a series of baffling experiences. Sharing my thoughts with fellow writer Philip Buckingham, it soon became clear as the match progressed that watching this match was akin to watching a Martian broadcast for the two of us. Comparisons with the FA Cup final became prevalent. Two young men talking about our fears for the future of football. What follows is a comprehensive list of the more ridiculous features of the Superbowl.

The Constant Endorsements and Advertising

You’re watching the half-time show sponsored by Bridgestone tires. You’re watching the punditry sponsored by the Whopper. Finally, the match ends, and you’re watching the MVP presentation, sponsored, endorsed and with prize provided by Chevrolet. Already following the first fit of laughter, the manner in which the camera panned slowly to the Chevrolet as Eli Manning was announced as Most Valuable Player was shocking enough. I then made a mocking comment as to how they could announce the Chevrolet sponsored MVP award, but what occurred was even better. Without missing a beat, the interviewer told Manning that despite the fact he had flown to the game, he was going home in a brand-new Chevy, provided kindly by ‘The Chevrolet Corporation’. It was not enough to feature the logo of this brand in one of the closing shots of the presentation, but also to point out that, intrinsically, the game’s best player is Chevrolet related. This is worthy of mockery, but there are clearly reasonable fears that the same issues can occur in football. Simply looking at a website like The State of the Game can reveal the ridiculous endorsements that have cropped up in the ‘beautiful game’. In the realm of cars alone, Alex Ferguson, staunch socialist, and his ringing endorsement of Audi is a sign of things to come.

The Trophy Presentation

“They’re not going to hand the trophy over to the old woman”. But they did. Then they asked the owners gathered on the platform how they managed to achieve this victory. All the while, the players who had just performed in the match and won the trophy got a fleeting glimpse and touch as it passed them by. To top the entire incident off, they asked the ownership group how they achieved the spectacular victory, and they had the gall to respond in any manner other than “we sat and watched the people we appointed”.

This is akin to Manchester United winning the FA Cup, and the trophy bypassing the entire team, including the winning goalscorer, in order to be handed to the Glazer family. Gabriel Clarke then saunters over to them, and asks them how they achieved this victory.

“Well, what we did is took one of the world’s most profitable football clubs, and plunged them into hundreds of millions of pounds of debt,” reply the Glazers, beaming all the while, “and following this, we signed endorsement deals with all and sundry, allowing us to turn a profit whilst simultaneously servicing the mountain of interest that needs to be dealt with annually. Then, incidentally, we had a decent manager and some players, but they aren’t important.”

The day when a chairman gets handed the League Cup after a their team’s victory, rather than just placing a medal around the manager’s neck, is the day that football dies.

American Football is a series of set-pieces

People often mock Stoke City by saying they play a particularly attractive brand of rugby. The reality is they do not, but parachute that team out to America, double it, and they may just be able to play the national sport. It is odd to have that much downtime in a sporting event, and you come to realise, when watching it, that the entire matter is built around well-practiced runs and plays that involve little or no personal ingenuity. That is not to say that these men should not be considered impressive athletes, but it does explain why the sport is impenetrable for many in the UK. If a player does not follow the paths laid out for him, he will find himself unreachable by the Quarterback. It is hard to imagine all of Gareth Bale’s runs being plotted by Redknapp in advance and it may just be this contrast we find most baffling of all.

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Forget Mariappa, the signature Newcastle must now secure is Captain Coloccini

With the January transfer window meandering to a close last night, Newcastle fans are today breathing a sigh of relief at making it through without losing any of their major assets. However, the failure to bring in much needed defensive cover is, for some fans, a cause for concern. With the club unable to reach an agreement with Watford on the valuation of central defender Adrian Mariappa, the centre back position looks worryingly threadbare should the likes of Williamson and Coloccini join Steven Taylor on the sidelines for an extended period of time. James Perch, many people’s man of the match in the FA Cup defeat to Brighton, is of course able to fill in at the centre of defence for a few games, but over a prolonged period of matches it is surely essential to have a natural centre half, someone who knows the position and is not learning it as they play. These concerns are certainly valid, and should not be dismissed lightly.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that, second half capitulation against Fulham notwithstanding, Newcastle’s centre half pairing of Williamson and Coloccini is up there with the best in the league, an effective combination of aerial prowess and guile. Against Bolton, QPR, and most notably Manchester United, they have looked almost impenetrable. It is Coloccini, though, a leader on and off the field, who has impressed most this season. Before injury ruled Steven Taylor out for the rest of the season, and brought to an end his partnership with the curly-haired Argentine, Newcastle had one of the tightest defences in the league, conceding only 8 goals in 11 unbeaten league games. Coloccini was at the centre of everything good defensively. Imperious against Everton, undaunted under the usual aerial bombardment away to Stoke and even faultless in a 3-1 defeat to Manchester City – with 2 of City’s 3 goals coming from the penalty spot, after a clumsy challenge from Hatem Ben Arfa and a handball from Ryan Taylor, whose earlier mistake also led to City’s first.

Coloccini has been one of the league's most impressive defenders so far this season

What has also sometimes gone unnoticed is the way in which other players’ performances seem to have been raised when playing alongside Coloccini. Ryan Taylor is the perfect example of this, having excelled at left back early in the season, despite openly admitting to not being a natural in the position. This showed at times, with the versatile midfielder often caught out of position or making silly mistakes. These rarely proved costly, however, as Coloccini’s excellent reading of the game meant he was almost always there to snuff out danger when it arose. The Newcastle captain’s excellent communication and leading of the line must also have made it easier for Taylor to cope defensively in a position he was learning as he went along.

It is of great concern to fans, therefore, that Coloccini’s contract expires at the end of next season, something which calls to mind a similar situation last year with Newcastle’s star defensive performer from last season, Jose Enrique. A refusal to enter contract negotiations and the opportunity to join a club seemingly on the rise in Liverpool led to his departure in the summer, an outcome that fans will be hoping doesn’t repeat itself this time round. The signs this time, it would appear, are positive. Stories in this morning’s Journal suggest that Coloccini’s agent is due in Tyneside to discuss the terms of a new five and a half year deal. A long contract for a 30 year old, but one that is a just reward for one of Newcastle’s star performers this season, as well as one that offers a potentially high resale value – something that will not be lost on the owner. If such reports prove to be true, and Coloccini signs on for the long term, then Newcastle may have made their shrewdest signing yet.