With Wednesday’s humbling of the previously unbeaten Chelsea side, the first stage of the under 18’s season came to a close. And with the elite group not to be picked up until January, what better time to recap how the first stage has gone for Steve Wigley’s boys than right now.
Turn the clocks back to the 12th of May, and to the team that comprehensively defeated Blackburn to be crowned academy champions. A side then ignited by Mesca, Minkwitz, Williams, Altman, Kavanagh, Brister, Pritchard, Banya, Grimmer and Vigen as well as masterminded by Kit Symons. All those now ply their trade in the under 21 level of the game, though still intact were some of our defensive metal in Arthurworrey, Passley, O’Reilly, Sambou and leading the way up top Cauley Woodrow who this year took on the captaincy.
On reflection the season couldn’t have started any better, Steve Wigley coming in and grappling the philosophy of the club straight away with bright passing football against a Wolves side who had no answers to a young American who shone on debut with a hat-trick. Emerson Hyndman outscoring his captain on the day as the away side conceded 7. The new coach certainly had a thing for hat-tricks as both Dembele and Woodrow secured themselves a matchball each in the next two games which both produced 3 points, away to neighbours Crystal Palace and on Teeside against Middlesbrough.
Still riding on the crest of a wave and the fresh impetus of new partnerships being formed there was a win against Manchester City. Woodrow and Tankovic up top, the dogged Williams backed up by the peach of a left foot possessed by Jordan Evans down the left. The forceful and consistent Donnelly down the right with Patrick Roberts being given increasingly more exposure in front of him.
On the back of that and heading into October the cracks were beginning to show as form hit a rough patch and our unbeaten run was ended at the hands of Liverpool. Though we took the lead on the day and showed encouraging signs early on, Liverpool were indebted to Yalany Baio who dominated the rest of the day and dragged Liverpool to press high and force our passing game to be put to the test. On that day it unfortunately crumbled, with Liverpool having success down the right with Peterson and Sinclair against Jordan Evans who was still settling to a role he had never played previously to this season, having come to the club as an out and out winger. It could have been even more crushing had Oberschmidt not performed 3 world class saves.
That game signalled the start of a run of 4 matches without victory, though there’s no tougher place to go after a defeat than to Cobham and a Chelsea side that still had a 100% record. The tightest of games was settled by a last gasp own goal from Dean O’Halloran. The footballing gods were definitely with the blue half of SW6 that day and they weren’t about to let up. For the visit of Crystal Palace to Motspur Park was one of the darkest days of the season as of yet, and not the most glittering of debuts for Cameron Burgess. 1-0 up through Woodrow early on and with plenty of chances to double the lead squandered, the inevitable second half resurgence from the away side saw us buckle again and allow the visitors to leave with all 3 points. There was a definite change in attitudes from that point as we secured a good away point at Wolves, Woodrow from the spot and Evans with his first for the club, and followed that up with a comprehensive victory at Manchester City, 4-1 the score. Back to old ways and those hat-tricks flowing again, Woodrow this time as City were completely unravelled.
Things apparently come in three’s this season, with the side securing their first win in three games on the road, and coming home to gain maximum points on the third attempt at home, in one of the most one sided games you’ll see. Middlesbrough were on the wrong end of a thumping, six goals scored this time and at the tenth time of asking, a clean sheet. Tankovic bagged himself the hat-trick as Woodrow moved up to play in the under 21’s, no more than he deserved. Patrick Roberts managed to find the net twice and formally announce himself to domestic football after the delight of taking his bow on the international stage in the Victory Shield.
The one piece of cake that was missing from this side was an ugly win, they’d had thumping wins, disappointing defeats, unlucky defeats, hat-tricks galore, a clean sheet but that ugly win that eluded them was not far off. The visit to Melwood in November brought that. A bitterly cold day on a pitch that had been played on 24 hours previous by the under 21’s started with an early Sinclair tap-in. But Fulham were dogged and managed to get themselves level on half time after the linesman called for a foul inside the box. In fairness it was a ridiculous challenge brought about by a woeful pass and deserved a penalty, the referee for whatever reason did not see it that way. Tankovic coolly dispatched and the turnaround was on. The winner came late on after a second half of not so much by the way of beautiful football, Evans finding himself just outside the box and slotting home with his chocolate leg to take the spoils and secure 2nd place in the group and thus qualification to the Elite stage in the new year. Fair play to the team who stood strong against the onslaught that came after that goal, where a Williams nosebleed meant we were down to 10 men for more than 5 minutes, after the striker had bled through two shirts and only the third was deemed acceptable. We may have ultimately finished with 11 men, but we finished without one coach as Steve Wigley was sent to the “stands” for berating officials over the Williams events. The “stands” just happened to be behind a rail some 2 paces from the dugout and made no difference in reality whatsoever. I’ve certainly never seen that before in academy football and will take it as one of my personal highlights so far.
A 3 week break followed and allowed Moussa Dembele to get himself fit for the start of the onslaught upon the FA Youth Cup, which saw us lose to a strong and well-disciplined Burnley side in the Quarter Final last season. The 3 weeks was extended another 2 days as the original fixture was postponed due to a frozen pitch but the game was more than worth the wait. 10 goals, a sending off, penalties scored and saved, both teams making comebacks. Fulham 3-1 up and Boro down to 10 men having missed a penalty as well, pulled together to claw themselves back level in 90 minutes and even had enough in the tank to go 4-3 up in extra time. Cue Moussa Dembele bringing the scores level and our two top scorers eventually and finally putting the game in our favour once and for all, Woodrow and Tankovic scoring to finish 6-4 on the day. It must be admired the way that Fulham kept going even through Middlesbrough’s continued miraculous efforts, though allowing them to get to extra time in the first place is some cause for concern. At 3-1 up, a man up and Boro fielding two 15 year olds you should expect to hold a lead. Let’s put that down to the magic of the cup and some rustiness and look ahead to what is a tough match away at Arsenal in the next round.
To the final game of the initial group stage and a welcome chance for revenge against Chelsea, but maybe more importantly to become the first team to be victorious against the group winners. Again the game was tight and in the end we nicked the win on the back of a lovely Tankovic effort after the perpetual goalscorer Moussa Dembele had given us the lead. The game finished 2-1 with Fulham holding on well, especially in light of making many changes in this dead rubber of a match. Sheckleford and O’Halloran making their full debuts, with Norman, Leacock-McLeod and Redford getting their first taste of under 18 football from the bench.
That good win sealed what was a promising group stage performance, strong to start and finish but unable to push on from that promising start. The return of natural goalscorer Dembele will be of great encouragement for the elite stage especially now that Woodrow appears to be regularly involved with under 21 action. The Frenchman gives the side a burst of pace that completely changes the outlook and allows for us to play long into the channels when we’re under pressure a la the Liverpool game at home which we ultimately lost. Steve Wigley will have learned a lot about his side in these 6 months and there’s still one more face to learn when Noe Baba joins in the action next year after signing for the club.
The elite group stage will see us face regular foes in Chelsea and Crystal Palace, as well as Everton, Bolton, Reading, Southampton and Manchester United. It will prove to be a massive test to retain our title in the new format but these are sides that we’ve beaten before, and if we show consistency can beat again.
Let’s finish off the year with some stats from the first phase of proceedings :
Highest FFC Goalscorers : Cauley Woodrow (12 goals in 9 games), Muamar Tankovic (8 goals in 12 games)
Total Goals Scored : 38 (Only Reading scored more but they played 14 in their group)
Hat-tricks Scored : 5 in 12 games (Woodrow x2, Tankovic, Hyndman, Dembele)
Penalties : 6 penalties won, 6 scored