Leeds United blast from the past central to cup plans Archie Gray would have loved joining

Archie Gray has been in the stands watching Leeds United's under-18s as they march through the FA Youth Cup -Credit:George Wood/Getty Images
Archie Gray has been in the stands watching Leeds United's under-18s as they march through the FA Youth Cup -Credit:George Wood/Getty Images

Inspiring FA Youth Cup success of the past has come from a familiar place for Leeds United’s current under-18s ahead of Friday’s final at Manchester City. Andy Wright came on as a substitute in 1997’s victory at Selhurst Park and more than 20 years later he was helping the club’s next finalists through their Thorp Arch development.

Now 45, Wright was reunited with Rob Etherington’s under-18s this week after coaching them a few years ago as an academy coach with United. Etherington was delighted with the impact made by Wright, who he describes as a humble man these youngsters would never have assumed had such success as a junior.

“Andy Wright is a previous academy coach here, who won it in ‘97,” said Etherington. “He was in with us this week, spending a bit of time with the players, talking about his experience, which is invaluable really.

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“He coached a lot of the players previously, when they were maybe 13 or 14, so the players know him well. He's a very humble coach, he's very humble person, so they might not have known he was part of the last group that won the Youth Cup.

“People like that are brilliant to connect the players with the history of the competition and that goes a long way.”

The Whites will play at Etihad Stadium in a 7pm kick-off on Friday, taking on the might of Man City, who are coached, ironically, by Howard Wilkinson’s son Ben. The competition remains a prestigious trophy in English youth football and has launched countless careers at the highest level of the senior game.

Paul Robinson and Jonathan Woodgate are just two examples from Wright’s 1997 winners who went on to play for England. Archie Gray, the United academy’s crown jewels, will not play, despite being young enough.

First-team duties, as we know, take precedence and he will be applying the finishing touches to his Norwich City preparation on Friday. This is a team made up of his peers, however, friends he has played with for 10 years.

“A lot of the players who will walk out at the Etihad tomorrow night have played with Archie since they were nine years old,” said Etherington. “That connection is really special. Seeing one of their peers or one of their best friends going out and living that experience, it motivates them no end.

“It shows, with hard work and talent, anything's possible in football, particularly our football club because of the pathway and the opportunities for our young players.”

There could be up to 6,500 Leeds fans inside the Manchester stadium tomorrow night, such is the prestige of the competition and the passion of the supporter base. It’s a game the under-18s are relishing, according to Etherington, who expects Gray would have wanted to play his part if he could.

“The FA Youth Cup is such a big competition everybody wants to be involved,” he said. “I know Archie would want to be involved. Archie has come all the way through with some of these players, for the last 10 years they’ve played together.

“His journey has moved off slightly. The players left over within that group have competed and represented the football club so tremendously.

“Every under-18 deserves the opportunity to play in an FA Youth Cup final and that’s a really important message to the players.”