Colin Omogbehin wasn’t kidding when he said his Fulham under 18s will be in for ‘a tough game’ at Home Park tonight. The young Whites travel to the south west hoping to reach the quarter finals of the FA Youth Cup but they won’t be taking Plymouth Argyle for granted – after the Pilgrims’ sensational run in the country’s most prestigious youth competition.
Argyle’s youngsters have been the story of the season producing a succession of eye-catching results that leave them not lacking in confidence for tonight’s clash against Championship opposition. Plymouth have already eliminated Eastleigh, AFC Wimbledon and – quite improbably – Burnley and Manchester City to progress to the fifth round stage. Understandably, there’s quite a feelgood factor surrounding the south coast scholars at the moment.
It says something about the high standards at Plymouth that the club’s academy director Kevin Hodges professed himself disappointed with the way the young Pilgrims started their fourth round tie at Turf Moor – believing they hadn’t reached the high standards set in the previous round against Manchester City. Forward Billy Craske, whose 93rd minute winner knocked out the Clarets, clambered through his car boot to get home after his car doors were frozen shut by the unaccommodating Lancashire weather – but was eventually able to join his beaming team-mates on the Home Park pitch the following day to celebrate their victory at half time during the senior side’s home fixture.
Some of the key performers in Hodges’ side have been handed first team opportunities by Derek Adams and Newton Abbott youngster Cameron Sangster – a pivotal part of Plymouth’s under 18 midfield – has enjoyed an incredible year since he was handed an opportunity during the Plymouth’s pre-season preparations as one of the highly-rated second year apprentices. Sangster, who was handed his senior debut as a substitute in Argyle’s win against Oldham in December, described the penalty shoot-out win over Manchester City as ‘one of the best nights of my life’ and is looking forward to playing in front of another bumper crowd this evening.
Fulham haven’t enjoyed a successful run in this competition since they reached the final back in 2014 – when a side featuring the likes of Emerson Hyndman, Patrick Roberts and Moussa Dembele provided some much needed cheer as the senior team were dropping out of the Premier League. Academy director Huw Jennings told GetWestLondon’s Ryan O’Donovan last month that the run to the final, where they suffered a heartbreaking defeat at the hands of local rivals Chelsea, remains a source of great pride – and the club’s youth set up has certainly gone from strength to strength.
Omogbehin, a promising apprentice being injury ruined his fledgling Fulham career, will be able to call upon some real talent this evening. Goalkeeper Luca Ashby-Hammond, the recent recipient of an England call-up, has already proved his worth with a stunning couple of saves in the decisive penalty shoot-out at Huddersfield Town – where he added a nonchalant winning spot-kick for good measure. Steven Sessegnon, who followed up his World Cup winning exploits with England’s Under 17s by making his senior debut earlier this season, is available to play at right back whilst the likes of talented number ten Sonny Hilton and Nicolas Santa-Clase, who bagged a brace in the fourth round win at Swansea, will supply the service to Timmy Abraham – the younger brother of Tammy – whose impressive start at Motspur Park has already earned him a professional contract.
It should be a fascinating encounter at one of English football’s most nostalgic grounds. Fulham might be considered favourites courtesy of their academy’s headline-earning status in the English game, but plenty of ‘big’ clubs have already made the mistake of expecting to see off Argyle this season.