This is the City Academy’s sixth season and, as they play in a league which tends to feature the same teams every season, that’s long enough to get a good idea of the merits of each of the academies that our kids face year in, year out. For example, defending champions Leicester are at the top of the table again and, off the top of my head, I am struggling to remember us ever having beaten them at Under 18 level in those six seasons – despite their relative lack of success at first team level, Leicester are always strong in terms of youth football.
On the other hand, I have seen us beat Spurs’ Under 18’s two or three times and we have already won at their ground this season. Spurs don’t tend to punch their weight in terms of results in the Under 18 league and the same could be said of Birmingham. Conversely, despite their recent money problems, Watford are another club who always seem to have good youngsters and today City’s kids faced another team who tend to often get the better of us in Reading.
As I have tended to do this season, I watched the Under 16’s for the first half and then the Under 18’s for the second and I’m afraid Reading had all put pulled off a pretty conclusive double by the time I had to leave the Under 18 match with about ten minutes to go. The Under 16’s were beaten 3-0 and the writing was on the wall for them in what was a pretty desperate first half which contained virtually no goalmouth action until the visitors carved the City defence apart five minutes before the break only for a very presentable chance to be hit into the side netting. Two minutes later though Reading took the lead when their number eight let fly with a well struck shot from twenty yards which bounced just in front of City’s keeper and then seemed to fly over him as he dived – it did look like the ball bounced a little higher than it should really have, but I think it still had to go down as a goalkeeping error.
The Under 18’s were 2-0 down when I started watching their match with a few minutes of the first half left, but City came out quite strongly after the break and most of the play I saw had Reading playing on the counter attack. City’s Under 18’s looked a lot more threatening than their Under 16 counterparts had and Nat Jarvis’ cross clipped the crossbar while one of our centrebacks’ (think it was Alex Evans) shot from six yards did the same when he probably should have done better. The impression I got though was that despite a lot of effort, City didn’t really have the quality to get back into the game and Reading were holding on to their 2-0 lead pretty comfortably when I left.
I’ve noticed that Reading use the offside trap more than any other Championship side I know. They did under Steve Coppell and they still do under Brian McDermott – the first goal in the only two games they have lost when they have visited Cardiff in recent years came when their offside trap went wrong. Watching Reading’s Under 18’s today, it seems this philosophy extends down into their youth teams as well as they caught City’s forwards out four or five times by pushing up looking for the linesman’s flag - I must admit to being a bit dismayed to see an Under 18 team playing in this way, but I suppose I am being naive there.
So to finish, where do City tend to rank amongst the ten teams that contest their Under 18 league every season? The table before today’s matches had them in sixth place and in general I would say that is a little high based on previous seasons. It has to be said of course, that the club would argue (with some merit) that it’s the number of first team players that are produced which is important and not league tables – despite their relatively low finishes year in, year out, City have had some very good youngsters come through in the past six years. In general though I would argue that there are three current Championship clubs in our Under 18 section whose academies have been more successful than ours – is that down to those clubs giving youth development a higher priority than City do? I rather think it might be.