At the tender age of eight, Reuben Smith was offered terms by Sheffield United FC – a massive step forward for any young lad who wants a career in professional football. But Reuben – who had dazzled anyone who’d ever watched him play football, almost as soon as he could walk – had other ideas. He’d been going along to Elland Road with his dad since he was a toddler and his heart was set on wearing the famous white shirt of Leeds United. That such a desirable link-up – for Reuben and perhaps for Leeds – never happened raises worrying concerns about the scouting system that can let a diamond slip away right from under the nose of – supposedly – one of the finest youth set-ups anywhere.
What actually happened was a phone call out of the blue from Portuguese giants Benfica, who had obviously heard good things about the lad from Featherstone near Pontefract, just a few miles from Leeds. Benfica’s interest alerted top Spanish club Sevilla and, after completing his GCSE’s at St Wilfrid’s High School (my daughter’s school, so she is partly to blame) Reuben took a plane flight alone to Malaga, made the cross-country coach trip to Sevilla and is now a part of their youth academy. He is being guided by Jesus Rodriguez de Moya Conde, a man who had been instrumental in uncovering the talents of Sergio Ramos of Real Madrid, Antonio Reyes late of Arsenal and recent Man City capture Jesus Navas.
Any young footballer who can earn himself a place in such a talent factory must have quite a lot going for him. His dad talks about the boy having a sense of space, time and rhythm from an early age. It’s no coincidence that he shows talent in other areas too; when he plays the drums it’s apparently “like watching a jazzman from the ’50s”. “Our Reuben has a rhythm that needs to be played out somewhere,” says proud dad Dean, “and he’s playing to a different beat, his boundaries are not limited by where he’s from, just where he’s going.” This sounds like just the sort of combination of gifts and instinctive ability that could flourish in the artistic tempo of la Liga – but it is undeniably frustrating to think that the boy’s real desire was to wow the Gelderd End at Elland Road.
It’s to be hoped that such local promise does not too frequently go un-noticed by the region’s premier professional Football Club. Leeds have shown themselves to be no slouches when it comes to nurturing young talent from raw potential right through to the first team. Sam Byram and Alex Mowatt are testament enough to that. But there’s no such thing as too many talented young players – and particularly those of whom it could truly be said that Leeds United blood courses through their veins. To see a young prospect like Reuben Smith benefiting from top quality coaching in the the best league anywhere makes you pleased for the lad – but also disappointed for Leeds that the Yorkshire giants appear to have missed out on such a chance to polish another diamond of their very own. It could turn out to be an expensive oversight.
Good luck, Reuben Smith, wherever your career takes you – within reason. And don’t anyone be surprised if, in a few years time, their Premier League status firmly re-established and operating once again alongside the country’s top clubs, Leeds United find themselves shelling out a good few million quid on a stellar talent that they could have had for nowt.