Having started their season off with a very creditable 1-1 draw against FA Cup finalists Liverpool’s Under 18’s in an away match shown live on that club’s TV channel. City’s Academy side ended it with a 2-2 draw at Treforest against Chelsea’s youngsters on Saturday morning. The first team’s game with Leeds meant that this match against the other Cup Final team was one of only two home fixtures for the Under 18’s that I missed this season, but this report from Chelsea’s official site gives a pretty detailed, if one understandably one eyed, description of what happened. Okay, Chelsea obviously didn’t have their best team out having played in the Youth Cup Final the night before, but for our lads to come back from 2-0 down to get a draw deserves praise and, combined with last week’s 4-2 win at Derby, it represents a decent end to their campaign (for the record, Jesse Darko and Theo Wharton were our scorers on Saturday).
If the beginning and end of City’s season was satisfactory, then it must be admitted that some of what went on in between was not as encouraging. I say that knowing the focus at this level is very much on player development and not team results and when you consider that five second year scholars (Ralls, Darko, Saint-Luce, Nugent and Oshilaja) were offered pro deals by the club (I think I’m right in saying that this is the highest number since we gained Academy status), then, possibly, I’m being harsh in that judgement, but when this year’s team were bad they were very bad. The performances against West Ham and Coventry were as poor as any I’ve seen from a City Academy team over the past eight seasons and, against the latter, there was not even the excuse of a weakened team to fall back on because it saw a City side featuring six players who had been offered professional deals by the club comfortably beaten by a visiting outfit that included many of their Under 16 players.
Perhaps my sense of disappointment is due to the fact that the group of City players which formed more than half of the team that thrashed England 4-0 at Under 16 level last season became first year scholars this season and so I was expecting more from them. Again, I could be guilty of being harsh on those lads there, because you only have to see the difference between Kevin Sainte-Luce and Jesse Darko in their second year at Academy level compared to their first to see that this is a stage where that extra year can make a big difference. As it was, the two players I’ve just mentioned spent a lot of their campaign playing for the new Under 21 Development team (as did Adedeji Oshilaja) and this helped explain why results tended to tail off in the second half of the campaign.
Highspots of the season for me were a 4-0 win over Watford (traditionally a club with a strong Academy) in October and a very entertaining 3-2 victory over Villa later that month. Coming back from 2-0 down to beat Portsmouth in March deserves a mention as well and City also played well in their unlucky 2-1 defeat by Tottenham in the Youth Cup game played at Cardiff City Stadium in front of a crowd of over a thousand.
My nomination of Theo Wharton as my player of the season at this level is both predictable and deserved. Although he played quite often for the Under 18’s last season, Theo can still play at this level next year, but the offer a two year pro deal and a first team debut not long after his seventeenth birthday suggests he probably won’t be doing so. What impresses me most about Theo is the stamina which guarantees he will still be going as strong in the ninetieth minute as he was in the first. Sometimes when a player’s stamina levels get praised, it can be a way of masking a lack of technique, but, on the often difficult Leckwith pitch, Wharton has been able to show that he possesses the requisite skills as well – another good thing is that he doesn’t show a trick or two in a showboating way, but because it’s the best method to achieve his goal.
While some members of the Wales team that I mentioned earlier have found the step up to Academy level a testing one, Tommy O’Sullivan who, like Wharton, has been offered a pro deal as a first year scholar, has increasingly looked at home amongst his elders. Usually one of the smallest players on the pitch, O’Sullivan has been used in a deeper role than the one in which he did so well for his countryWales last season, but he still shows the same cleverness and awareness and it’s easy to see why the club were prepared to offer him a three year contract as Premiership sides began to sniff around. Given his size, I wouldn’t be surprised if Tommy still plays for the Academy team on a regular basis next season when, hopefully, some of the other good players we have in his age group (e.g. Declan John, Josh Yorwerth, Rhys James, Gethyn Hill and Jaye Bowen) will make a bigger impact.
Although two years might seem a long time when you are as young as these lads are, it flies by in terms of the time that they have to make enough of an impact to earn a professional contract. I believe that the number of contracts that have been offered over the course of this season indicates that our current manager is a more sympathetic and trusting judge of young players than his predecessor was, but, even so, some who have shown genuine ability over the past year or two like Mamadou Dialllo, Yannis Drais, Josh Powell, Adam Davies and Jordan Carter have been released within the last few weeks – my best wishes to them, and all of the others who have been told they are being let go, for the future.