Youth Leeds the way at Elland Road

Leeds boss, Simon GraysonMay 8th 2011 marks the ten year anniversary of Leeds United’s semi-final second leg defeat to Valencia, the last time that the Yorkshire club ate at the top table of European football, and a poignant moment when it comes to tracing the club’s dramatic fall from grace.

As fate would have it, May 8th 2011 is likely to be another crucial day in the history of the football club, as the current incarnation of Leeds United travel to Loftus Road to play current league leaders QPR in a game that could well define the division the Whites are playing in next term.

For a club playing League One football last season, Leeds’ achievements this campaign are highly commendable. Manager Simon Grayson has already marked himself out a candidate for the manager of the year award, and the club’s showing in two games against Arsenal in this season’s FA Cup has underlined the quality at Elland Road.

Grayson has done a brilliant job in maintaining his squad, despite the attention of highly interested suitors. Since taking over in 2008, he has supplemented a core of youngsters with more seasoned campaigners; Andy O’Brien, a Republic of Ireland international, Alex Bruce and former Manchester City keeper Kasper Schmeichel joining the likes of Robert Snodgrass, Jonny Howson, Jermaine Beckford and Luciano Becchio.

Beckford was snapped up by Everton during the summer, and should further progress up the football pyramid be delayed beyond the end of this season, Grayson will do very well to hang on to many of his leading lights. Arsenal loanee, Sanchez Watt will presumably return to his parent club at the conclusion of his spell at Elland Road, regardless of which league his current team mates are plying their trade in next term.

David O’Leary’s tenure in charge at Leeds was synonymous with the development of young players, however it was blighted by the financial struggles that stripped the club of their finest talents. Grayson will be aware that any club outside of the Premier League will be susceptible to losing key players to bigger fish – that is simply the nature of professional football.

Recent performances suggest the Yorkshire club can hold firm and gain entry back to the top flight, a division they have not frequented since 2004. However, Grayson will know from his time at Blackpool the difficulty in securing back to back promotions.

The side have dropped a series of points in draws to mid-table clubs in recent fixtures, and with Leeds only currently enjoying a three point cushion over Watford in seventh, there is plenty of opportunity for more battle hardened Championship clubs to steal in and grab their play-off place.

A place in the Premier League may, ironically, be a case of too much too soon for a side whose supporters have longed for a return to the top flight since relegation from the Premier League was confirmed by a 4-1 defeat to Bolton in May 2004. Chairman Ken Bates will have hoped for survival in the Championship this season, and will not have envisaged a potential return to the Promised Land at the first time of asking.

Finances at Elland Road remain dicey, and it would be hard to see significant sums being spent on the squad should promotion be achieved. This would test Grayson’s team ethic to the limit – could he convince his top players to remain if there was no further squad enhancement?

Leeds fans have been used to false dawns over the last ten years, and will want to cross that bridge when they come to it. Whilst the club are sitting in the play-off positions at the time of writing, it would be foolhardy to suggest a berth in the top flight is a forgone conclusion. The Championship has historically been a notoriously difficult division to escape from, the play-offs in particular can be a total lottery.

Come the ten year anniversary of that night in Spain, the Whites may well know their destiny. Do not be surprised, however, if their promotion is settled by that clash with QPR – the way things have gone for the club over the last ten years a Premier League return was never going to be straightforward.