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Heckingbottom’s youth development hasn’t lived up to the hype at Leeds

Despite the manager’s reputation for bringing through youth, very little chances have been given to the young players

Aston Villa v Leeds United - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

When Barnsley FC manager Paul Heckingbottom made the switch to rivals Leeds United, one of the reasons given for his appointment was the good job he did with young players at Barnsley. However, since taking over for the sacked Thomas Christiansen, Heckingbottom has not shown a desire or a willingness to play the youth at the club.

Heckingbottom’s appointment was a surprise to many, given Barnsley’s position in the table and the lack of perceived success for Heckingbottom at Oakwell. When he was hired by Leeds, Barnsley had 27 points and were 20th in the table, one point above the relegation zone. Conversely, Leeds were 10th and only four points off of the playoffs. Leeds had suffered a few ugly, high-profile losses featuring a maddening lack of discipline, and Christiansen’s position had more or less become untenable.

The brass at Leeds were quick to point out the success that Heckingbottom had at bringing through youth at Barnsley, as he introduced a number of young players to the first team when first brought in as first team manager, and that Barnsley were promoted from League One with a limited budget and limited resources. Barnsley were even near the playoff places in the Championship in January of 2017, before a number of high-profile players were sold, including Aston Villa’s breakout star Conor Hourihane.

Since taking over at Leeds, however, Heckingbottom has not proven adept at bringing through the youth at the club. The only times that Heckingbottom has turned to youth is when he’s been forced to make a change by a total lack of form by starters and injuries to senior players.

Bailey Peacock-Farrell might be the breakout player of the season for Leeds, but his introduction was more of a lucky accident than planned event. After yet another absolutely awful Felix Wiedwald performance in goal against Middlesbrough, Bailey Peacock-Farrell was brought in as the starter to face Wolverhampton because Andy Lonergan, the typical reserve keeper, was out injured. In fact, Peacock-Farrell had only been in the squad for the previous two matches under Heckingbottom, and hadn’t featured at all this season for Leeds, with only four appearances on the bench back in August before Andy Lonergan was brought back to the club.

Peacock-Farrell also was on the bench for the FA Cup match away at Newport County, but his future was even in doubt after Leeds had brought in another young goalkeeper from Poland, Kamil Miazek, in the autumn. Miazek even signed a profesional contract during the January transfer window after Peacock-Farrell had been recalled from his loan to York City.

Tom Pearce is another young player that has been brought into the first team by Heckingbottom, but again, his introduction had been forced after a number of injuries to first team players. Even after his decent showing against Sheffield Wednesday, Pearce had to wait until Vurnon Anita reminded everyone that he is not a fullback and after Gaetano Berardi was suspended for the remainder of the season and Stuart Dallas, a converted winger, was injured for Pearce to get back into the side. And all of this, of course, after Laurens De Bock, who was brought in to be a solution at left-back, was awful and then out injured.

In fact, despite playing pretty well for a couple matches, including getting his first senior goal for the club in the win against Barnsley, Pearce was singled out for criticism by Heckingbottom after the loss at Norwich City. And while Pearce might have had trouble at times, the whole defence played poorly, including Everton loanee Matthew Pennington, a central defender who was forced into duty at right back, despite having U23 startlet Bryce Hosannah available.

And what has to be possibly the most baffling decision of all, was the dropping of Paudie O’Connor for yesterday’s match against Norwich. O’Connor was drafted into the starting lineup after Liam Cooper and Matthew Pennington had both gone down injured and had played extremely well. He also partnered with Pennington against Aston Villa and dramatically outplayed Pennington in central defence. O’Connor had also been used as a right-back during preseason, making the decision to keep Pennington in the line-up agasint Norwich even the more strange, even with the decision to re-introduce Cooper to the lineup in a match that means absolutely nothing in the standings at this point in the season.

The Norwich City match also saw young Ryan Edmondson travel with the team, but he failed to even make the bench while Hamburger SV loanee Pierre-Michel Lasogga made the bench. Lasogga even played for 10 minutes and did his level best to avoid touching the ball in a match that would have been perfect for Edmondson to play in, as there was absolutely no pressure on the squad for any sort of results yesterday.

It would almost have been tolerable for Leeds to keep on this terrible run of form since Boxing Day if some of the promising young players had been brought into the side and blooded in the first team, but Heckingbottom hasn’t even done that. He’s been content to play senior players who haven’t proven themselves and even loanees that are almost certainly on their way back to their parent club over young players at the club. He said when he was introduced that he wanted young players to earn their chance and playing time, but even when the young players have done enough to justify a run in the first team, only Baily Peacock-Farrell has been able to nail down a full-time spot in the starting XI, and that was practically by accident. Heckingbottom has only the final match of the season against Queens Park Rangers at Elland Road in which to see how the young players might play, but chances are they probably won’t even make the bench.