Sheffield Wednesday: Development boss drove deal for Tom Lees

Sheffield Wednesday development squad coach Neil Thompson
Sheffield Wednesday development squad coach Neil Thompson

Youth boss Neil Thompson has revealed he persuaded former Owls boss Stuart Gray to sign Tom Lees.

Centre-half Lees has missed just two matches since ending his long association with Leeds United and moving to Hillsborough.

Now the 24-year-old, a lynchpin of the Owls’ defence, is attracting the interest of several Premier League clubs, including Newcastle United and Norwich City. Sunderland and Aston Villa are also said to be monitoring his situation.

Lees agreed a new contract extension in July, tying him down to the club until 2019. Wednesday boss Carlos Carvalhal believes Lees is the heartbeat of the team and is confident he will retain his top performers when the transfer window reopens in January.

Thompson, who is now coaching the Owls’ Under-21s following Lee Bullen’s promotion to the first-team, knows Lees well from their days together at Elland Road. Before joining the Owls four years ago, Thompson was the Whites’ academy manager.

“We had Tom Lees at Leeds and he had a fantastic mentality,” Thompson told The Star. “He was totally committed to what we were trying to do.

“I remember when Stuart had the possibility of signing him and I told him what I thought. I just said it was a no-brainer and said go sign him.

“He had a decent time at Leeds and then a bit of a tough spell, as you do at football clubs. But he is totally committed to what he does and goes about his business in the right manner. It is great to see him doing so well.”

While at Leeds, Thompson played a big part in overseeing Manchester City and England midfielder Fabian Delph’s development.

Thompson admitted: “As a young kid, Fabian was tiny and we always played him a year down. He was playing with bigger kids and they just outmuscled him.

“But what Fabian did is have a real belief in his ability. He suddenly took off at 17 and went with the first-team and was able to cope with it.”

Leeds’ youth system continues to churn out top talent. Lewis Cook, Sam Byram, Charlie Taylor and Alex Mowatt have all established themselves at senior level.

“They have all came through but what you have got to do with young players is give them time,” said Thompson.

“It is not a quick fix. It is not something that is going to happen in a year.

“They are going to have a bad four or five months where they are growing so sometimes that saps their strength so sometimes we have got to be mindful of that and give the players time.”

Recruitment is vitally important in the younger age groups, according to Thompson.

“Dean Ramsdale (academy manager) and myself have to trust our eye and experience,” he said. “You’re not always right and other people have different opinions.

“It is what works for you. We always say work on your weaknesses, but the thing that will get them places is working on their strengths.

“It could be an incredible mentality and desire to do well when they on the pitch like a Jose Semedo.

“You might look at someone who is technically brilliant, can manipulate the ball and make things happen in the final third. You have got to be able to effect a match.

“Sometimes I will just look at a player, see them doing something and go ‘I like that’ and then you see how they develop.”

What are the qualities Thompson looks for in young players?

“Attitude is absolutely key,” he stressed. “They have to want to do the work.

“You have got to have people who can play and handle the football. They have got have the strength of character to accept the highs and lows. You have got to have physicality and be able to get about the pitch.

“What we have seen this year is that the Under-18s are doing really well and doing what we asked of them. They have got a great attitude, work ethic and can handle a football. There are some who are developing quicker than others.

“You have got to wait for the little technicians to grow and get stronger. The little ones tend to find a way of dealing with it but it might be two years down the road for a 16-year-old to physically develop.

“You have got to be patient as they all develop at different rates.

“It’s handling the mentality of being a pro footballer. We have got to try and produce a player who can player 40-50 games a season and it’s not easy.”

Along with Matt Penney and Connor Kirby, Wednesday’s academy have high hopes for George Hirst, the son of club legend David.

“I remember watching George play in a game when he was 13,” said Thompson. “He is now six foot four and one of those players who is a bit gangly.

“But he is finding his body and it will connect in a year or two when everything feels comfortable.”

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