Youth Team Season Preview: Part One – Breaking Down Group A

It’s baaaack.

Okay, it might ‘only’ be academy football, but for some (read: yours truly), the start of the FA Premier Academy Season is as exciting as the big kickoff at the top levels.

Another eight months of action is ready and waiting to unfold on Saturday mornings as the stars of tomorrow take the next steps in their fledgling careers.

Chelsea’s Under-18 team has a new manager in Adrian Viveash and a group of over a dozen new first year scholars, but whilst things may appear to have undergone an overhaul, things will largely remain the same.

More on Chelsea later in the week though. We begin our traditional three-part preview of the youth football campaign by looking at Chelsea’s nine opponents in Academy Group A. Tomorrow sees the remaining ten opponents go under the microscope, and on Friday it’s Chelsea’s turn as we gear up for the big kickoff.

Click on the ‘last meeting’ scoreline to view further details of the match on TheChels.info.

Arsenal

Last Season: 5th in Group A
Last Meeting: 2010-11, lost 1-4

Last season was a strange one for Arsenal. A club used to competing in the upper echelons at this level, they finished decidedly mid-table in the league and were knocked out of the FA Youth Cup by Chelsea in Round Four. This was almost certainly due to a staggeringly high intake of sixteen players, resulting in a steep learning curve with considerably less experience in the line-up, but it should stand many of them in good stead for their second years. The majority of their intake this time around has been sourced from overseas, including Barcelona duo Hector Bellerin and Jon Toral.

Key Man: Alban Bunjaku – the attacking midfielder was at the centre of much of Arsenal’s best play last season and he showed that he is equally capable scoring as he is creating. Tall, languid but extremely classy, he’ll be looking to secure himself a professional deal, which surprisingly didn’t come his way over the summer.

Charlton Athletic

Last Season: 8th in Group A
Last Meeting: 2010-11, lost 1-2

The academy down at Sparrow’s Lane has undergone a restructuring over the summer, with Paul Hart bringing his vast experience to the club. He has a fine foundation to work with as the club continues to make strides at youth level. A number of players graduated to their first team last season, whilst Carl Jenkinson moved to Arsenal and is staking a claim for a spot in their first team after an impressive pre-season.

Key Man: Diego Poyet – the son of former Chelsea midfielder Gustavo Poyet, England Under-16 international Diego is a wise head on young shoulders and possesses an elegant calm in his game. Has already excelled at academy level and whilst he should continue there for a while, it won’t be long until he’s on the fast track to the top.

Crystal Palace

Last Season: 6th in Group A
Last Meeting: 2010-11, lost 1-4

Palace keep doing what they’ve been doing for years. Their work developing young, gifted athletes into capable footballers has been consistently good for a number of years and their formula continues to provide first team squad players, with at least ten in their plans for the coming season. Take Ibra Sekajja as a perfect example; the forward scored against the Blues at Cobham midway through last season and ended the campaign with a maiden goal in senior football.

Key Man: Ryan Inniss – The giant defender impressed on England Under-16 duty and is one of the brightest lights amongst a very strong generation at the club. A natural leader and competitor, he’ll lead from the back and be the base of a very strong team.

Fulham

Last Season: Runners-Up (lost Final to Everton)
Last Meeting: 2010-11, lost 1-5

It was a mark of Fulham’s continuing progress in youth development that they finished as eventual runners-up in last season’s academy league, going down at home to Everton in the national final. The whites even changed their manager midway through the season, with Kit Symons replacing long-time boss Gary Brazil. Their mix of raw local talent and players sourced from elsewhere (both imports and English ‘castoffs’ such as Josh Pritchard, once of Man Utd) ensures a squad with depth and motivation, and they are always exceptionally tough to face.

Key Man: Cauley Woodrow – Another England Under-16 international, but one with a difference. Woodrow has already made his senior debut, coming last season for Luton Town, and decided to join Fulham ahead of reported interest from Liverpool in a deal considerably rewarding for the non-league outfit.

Ipswich Town

Last Season: 7th in Group A
Last Meeting: 2010-11, won 3-0

Ipswich finished in mid-table last season, which represented an improvement from the campaign before that, and despite lukewarm results at Under-18 level they are still productive in getting players through to the first team. Josh Carson was last season’s big breakthrough, whilst Connor Wickham departed to Sunderland for a cool £8m. As long as the academy is the foundation of first team success, they’re doing just fine.

Key Man: Cody Cropper – the American goalie is a loud and vibrant character but also highly rated and a part of the United States Under-18 setup.

Norwich City

Last Season: 4th in Group A
Last Meeting: 2010-11, won 1-0

Norwich took advantage of one or two ‘bigger’ names having poor seasons in terms of results and finished a very credible third in Group A last season, and go into the new season as a Premier League club at all levels. They have suffered a blow over the summer though, losing highly rated England Under-16 goalkeeper Angus Gunn to Manchester City, but former Chelsea schoolboy Cameron McGeehan is now amongst their first year ranks.

Key Man: Sam Kelly – the second year scholar will be the senior figure in a young team and after a full campaign last time out will be looking to take the next step himself as well as help the new intake develop at the same time.

Portsmouth

Last Season: 10th in Group A
Last Meeting: 2010-11, won 3-0

The real impact of the financial strife Portsmouth have suffered in the last few years is being felt at every level of the club, particularly in the previously well-funded academy. Their class of 2008 was expensively assembled and talked up by the club but as of this summer not a single one remains on the books at Fratton Park. With just four wins last season, they continue to struggle but are remaining positive and make the best of what they’ve now got to work with.

Key Man: Sam Magri – by far and away the best prospect at the club, Sam was an ever-present alongside Nathaniel Chalobah in England’s Under-17 World Cup campaign this past summer and scored a penalty in their Quarter Final elimination. Not 18 until the final weeks of the season, he’ll remain in the academy team for a while yet and will be a welcome presence.

Southampton

Last Season: 2nd in Group A
Last Meeting: 2010-11, lost 1-3

Southampton were usurped atop Group A by Fulham in the final weeks of last season but are as consistent as they come at this level and are still developing prospects by the bucket load. Luke Shaw and James Ward-Prowse are amongst those who have represented England at Under-16 level in the past twelve months and both have signed scholarship terms this summer.

Key Man: Jake Sinclair – the younger brother of former Chelsea man Scott Sinclair is another new first year but saw plenty of action as a schoolboy and possesses his brother’s electric pace and eye for goal. Touted by some as the better of the two siblings at the same age.

West Ham United

Last Season: 3rd in Group A
Last Meeting: 2010-11, lost 1-4

With a few more draws last season, West Ham could’ve been in business. As it was, they either won or lost their fixtures at almost an even split, and that proved good enough for a 4th placed finish. Their relegation from the Premier League will likely see some of their talented youngsters push for a place in the first team squad, which in turn opens the doors for the next age group down to seize the opportunity to make an impression of their own.

Key Man: Leo Chambers – a defender capable of playing at right-back or centre-back, he oozes class and is as composed as any player of his age. An England Under-16 regular with a physique already well ahead of many, he may be as close to Rio Ferdinand as anyone else the club has produced since the Man Utd defender.

Chelsea face each team in Group A both home and away, making up 18 of their 28 scheduled outings. The remaining ten are drawn from the 30 other academy teams, with five making the trip to Cobham and five others hosting the Blues in matches that bookend the fixture list.

We’ll look at those ten teams in Part Two tomorrow.

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