Jamie Shackleton is an example of why football clubs build squads and players from the youngest possible age. Neil Redfearn, in his time at Leeds United’s academy head, took limitless pleasure from the emergence of Sam Byram, Charlie Taylor, Lewis Cook and others but always promised that more was coming, from the Under-16 team as it was back then.
No conversation about it passed without mention of Shackleton, a tenacious centre-mid whose skill set was so complete that coaching staff at Thorp Arch considered a first-team debut to be a formality. Shackleton crossed that threshold in August, at the age of 18, but this close season has the potential to propel him far beyond a fringe role at Leeds.
Shackleton came onto England’s junior radar last month and was named in their Under-20 squad on Thursday, one of two Leeds players taken to the Toulon Tournament in France. The other, Tom Pearce, started a 2-1 defeat to Japan on Saturday while Shackleton sat on the bench but Shackleton could get his first run in England colours against Portugal this afternoon.
The Under-20s’ opening game was a poor start to a competition they have won three times in a row.
Pearce’s future, despite his more prominent international career to date, is in question at Elland Road after his loan to League One and Scunthorpe United this season.
Leeds fought hard to retain him last summer, agreeing a three-year contract on the back of his senior breakthrough under Paul Heckingbottom, but the negotiations were a last-minute display of urgency from a club who had originally planned to release him. Marcelo Bielsa found no space for Pearce and the club are likely to listen to offers for him if interest arises in this window.
Shackleton is a different case, the most rounded and ready of the academy players who Bielsa blooded in his first year as head coach.
United’s head coach was sparing with him, partly because the attempt to restyle Shackleton as a right-back lodged him behind a proven campaigner in Luke Ayling, but Shackleton’s midfield nous showed itself in the Championship play-offs and changed Bielsa’s perception of how he should be used.
The 19-year-old’s pace and strength makes him box-to-box material but he possesses an attacking brain and Leeds have had scope for more of that thinking in their midfield since Samuel Saiz gave up on the club in December. Saiz departed on loan overnight and has no intention of coming back, regardless of his involvement in a match-fixing investigation launched by Spanish police, and Bielsa’s attempts to find a suitable number 10 were slightly experimental: Tyler Roberts dropping back from his preferred position, Mateusz Klich moving forward from his and a brief attempt to play Kemar Roofe in behind Patrick Bamford.
Izzy Brown found no way of convincing Bielsa that he was capable of contributing more.
Signings like Brown, whose minutes on the pitch required three hands to count, were a reason why Bielsa relied so heavily on academy footballers this season, in the absence of more experienced cover. A better summer in the transfer market would reduce the call for the development squad to plug so many gaps but Shackleton, on the strength of his performances in Leeds’ semi-final defeat to Derby County, will be earmarked for more involvement irrespective of the players United bring in.
His time at the Toulon Tournament, which ends on June 15, should bring him back to Thorp Arch for pre-season in match-fit shape.
Shackleton’s running and energy is in tune with Bielsa’s idea of what he needs from players in his system, the prerequisites Bielsa demands. The Argentinian took note, too, of the respect which Shackleton was afforded by those in the dressing room with far more senior football behind them.
“A detail that’s very important to me is how a player is accepted by his team-mates,” Bielsa said last month. “When all the players accept a new young player it means they like to have this player on their side.
“From the point of view of team spirit, the only way you accept the arrival of a young player is when they make the team better.
“For me this happened very clearly with Jamie Shackleton.”
Leeds were onto Shackleton’s contract quickly this season, agreeing a new three-year deal with him shortly after his debut.
Scouts crawl all over events like the Toulon Tournament but Shackleton’s pedigree will not be a surprise to any recruitment team worth their salt and big things are coming his way, in Leeds and abroad. It was what Redfearn expected of Shackleton when dispatches from Thorp Arch first began mentioning his name.