Leeds United’s Stephen Warnock believes young defenders Sam Byram and Tom Lees will be crucial in the club’s promotion hopes this season.
The 31-year-old Warnock – who joined Championship outfit Leeds in January – has been blown away by the talent of Byram and Lees since arriving at Elland Road from Aston Villa.
The likes of Jonathan Woodgate, James Milner, and Aaron Lennon have all progressed through the club’s famed academy system and in more recent years, Fabian Delph and Jonny Howson have been notable graduates.
And the club’s latest young stars are destined for the top, according to Warnock, with 19-year-old Byram having been linked with moves to Manchester City and Liverpool after a stunning debut season.
“Sam’s done very well. He has a bit of everything,” Warnock told PERFORM as Leeds prepare to launch a new club store in the city.
“It’s one of the questions that people ask me all the time when I see other players from other clubs. They ask ‘how good is he’ and ‘what can he do’ and things like that.
“He’s great going forward but he’s also very strong defensively. He’s a typically all-round full-back.
“This year will be a big year for Sam. The first season is always great and things go well but it’s trying to replicate that and improve yourself that is a challenge.
“I’m sure Sam will do that because he’s got more than the ability required to do that. He’s the type who wants to learn and improve all the time so I’m sure he will go on to good things.”
Byram made 53 appearances in all competitions last term at Leeds and swept the board at the club’s end-of-season awards, winning four honours including the Player of the Year accolade.
He is tied to Elland Road until 2016 and is not the only young prospect that Warnock is excited about.
While Lees did not burst onto the scene like Byram, his gradual improvement has seen him rewarded on the international scene.
The 22-year-old featured at this year’s UEFA European Under-21 Championships for England, and has won six caps at that level.
“Tom’s a great player,” Warnock said.
“He’s shown that by playing with the England Under-21s. Tom’s got to show everyone what he is about again this season though.
“There will be plenty of people watching him this year because he is a quality player.”
Leeds have only been able to sign three players in the close-season, with former Crewe captain Luke Murphy the headline arrival at Elland Road.
Manager Brian McDermott is likely to call on more prospects from the club’s academy as a result, including Aidan White and Dominic Poleon, who are already regulars.
With an array of talented young players at the club, Warnock knows promotion to the Premier League – a division Leeds have not played in since 2004 – is vital to keep them at the club.
“Tom and Sam are very important to Leeds this season,” he said.
“There will be clubs who are interested in buying them. We’ve got to prove that we are capable of getting up the league and fighting for promotion to keep hold of them.”
Leeds open their Championship campaign with a home fixture against Brighton and Hove Albion at Elland Road on Saturday.