A Leeds United team made up of players aged between 15 and 18 fought valiantly against an experienced Tranmere Rovers side at Prenton Park yesterday evening, a game in which the hosts ran out comfortable winners.
Boasting players with hundreds of Football League appearances, Tranmere were too street-wise for Leeds United’s U-21s, captained by 18-year-old Nohan Kenneh.
An early goal courtesy of 34-year-old ex-Bristol City, West Ham United, Cardiff City and Aberdeen striker Nicky Maynard set the tone for the first half, as Leeds struggled to get to grips with their vastly experienced opponents.
A straight-forward near post header from Sam Foley – another player aged 34 – extended Tranmere’s lead before Maynard added another just before the break.
Nevertheless, Leeds remained forthright, sticking to their principles of play, never resorting to aimless balls upfield for lone frontman Max Dean to chase.
As Tranmere sat off in the second half, Leeds were allowed to play their brand of football, which was decidedly more entertaining on the eye.
Often the case with under-23 players at Category One academies, their technical level is far superior of their opponents in EFL Trophy fixtures, but their experience, positional know-how and physicality can be found lacking.
That was very much the case for Leeds’ players at Prenton Park on Tuesday night, which begs the question: why were some of the more experienced under-23 players called upon?
Here are the Leeds United talking points from last night’s Papa John’s Trophy defeat.
Missing: The Fantastic Five
Joe Gelhardt, Sam Greenwood, Charlie Cresswell, Cody Drameh and Crysencio Summerville are among the most talented players at Leeds United, particularly in the under-23 setup.
Had a handful of those named above featured at Tranmere, it is probable the match would have been more of an even contest.
Mark Jackson spoke after the game about the need to be adaptable as an under-23s coach, knowing that at any moment his key players may be required in the first-team setup.
That appears to have been the case with this talented quintet, as well as other first-choice under-23 players.
The performances of Sean McGurk, Amari Miller and co do suggest however that if Jackson were to field a stronger team away to Oldham Athletic in the same competition later this month, the Whites would certainly stand a better chance of doing damage to League Two opposition.
Throughout 2021, Nohan Kenneh has predominantly been seen as a centre-back alongside Charlie Cresswell for the under-23 side.
Last night however, he was deployed in a specific man-marking role stationed in front of the defence.
Kenneh’s brief was to keep veteran midfielder Mark Duffy out of the game – something he achieved.
That said, his distribution was a little wayward at times and his positioning was at times too man-focused, leaving gaps for Tranmere’s defensive players to waltz through.
Nevertheless, the Liberian-born teenager took the armband for the match, which demonstrates the faith Mark Jackson has in him as a leader on the pitch.
Liverpudlian Sean McGurk was in inspired form against yesterday’s opponents, showcasing fast feet, an excellent work-rate and genuinely troubling movements between lines.
Tranmere have conceded three goals in seven league matches this season: they are an organised outfit, but McGurk’s weaving runs and close control over the ball and his body gave the Merseysiders’ defence all sorts of problems.
Unfortunate not to get on the scoresheet, McGurk certainly left an impression in what was his first proper test of senior opposition.
Mark Jackson stressed after the match he was keen for McGurk to develop further physically, as well as test himself in a variety of attacking positions, as he emerges as another contender for Leeds’ impressive depth in wide areas.
The merits of a competition in which opposing teams can field a 15-year-old and a 39-year-old on the same pitch are questionable to say the least.
As luck would have it, neither Archie Gray or Peter Clarke – the youngest and oldest players on the field – looked out of place in the tie, but Leeds’ average age of 17 made the contest a serious mismatch from the outset.
Leeds’ youngsters will benefit from exposure to senior opposition, while some of Tranmere’s fringe players managed to get 90 minutes in the tank, but they are the only real benefits from a 90 minutes which looked more like a ‘dads vs lads’ exhibition at times.
While Leeds’ aim was to cause an upset and win the game, the main focus of last night’s exercise will have been development.
Equally, Tranmere will have sought to avoid said upset, but their primary objective was to improve match fitness among the squad.
It does leave you wondering slightly, ‘if nobody is really bothered about winning this, what’s the point?’