Academy Season Preview: Part Two – The Opposition

In the second of our three-part academy season preview, we take a look at the 21 other clubs who have achieved Category One status under the Elite Player Performance Plan and are therefore set to face Chelsea at Under-21 and Under-18 levels this year.

A welcome return to the fixture list after a season without a game against the Gunners, it’s been an interesting couple of years at the Arsenal academy. Considerable changes have been made and will continue as Liam Brady heads into his final season in control, and whilst they are still capable of producing top-level talent, the overall depth of quality has diminished somewhat. In an attempt to remedy things, they pushed a number of schoolboys up the age groups last season and have continued to supplement the squad with signings from both home and abroad.

U21 One to Watch: Daniel Crowley – A high-profile yet controversial signing from Aston Villa, the diminutive Crowley is a sensationally gifted playmaker who is set to bypass Under-18 football in search of the fast track to the big time. An absolute gem of a footballer.

U18 One to Watch: Julio Plegezuelo – One of a number of Barcelona kids who upped and left for the richest of England this summer, Plegezuelo will likely anchor Carl Laraman’s Under-18 team either in defence or in a holding midfield role.

Twitter: @rlewisafc, @jeorgebird, @AFC_93, @DeanAFC1989

Aston Villa
Boasting an immensely productive and highly-respected academy setup, Aston Villa can claim to be youth champions of Europe after defeating Chelsea in the NextGen Series Final back in April. They’re a known commodity; producing players of technical excellent and tactical intelligence, and they know how to keep a good thing going, with a growing number of Paul Lambert’s first team squad being of the homegrown variety.

U21 One to Watch: Jack Grealish – A silky-smooth dribbler who likes to cut inside off the flank, Grealish has been on the scene for a lot longer than his age suggests, and whilst he will still harbour hopes of a first-team call-up, the Under-21s will lean on him to become a productive, consistent threat as he develops into a professional.

U18 One to Watch: Jerell Sellars – The former Lincoln forward took a little while to acclimatise to his new surroundings last season but there was no more productive forward in Under-18 football during the second half of last season. A flurry of late-season hat-tricks saw him finish with 16 youth team goals and there’s plenty more where that came from.

Blackburn Rovers
Blackburn have often found themselves at the business end of things in youth football in recent seasons with an FA Youth Cup Final, Barclays Reserve League Final and an Under-18 National Final to their name in the last five years. Despite the comical state of first-team affairs they have a manager in Gary Bowyer who, having worked his way through the age groups, is inclined to offer youngsters like Grant Hanley and Adam Henley a regular berth in the side if they prove themselves capable. Given their recent record, there’s more where that came from.

U21 One to Watch: John O’Sullivan – The Irish attacking midfielder has made considerable strides since joining the club as a 16 year-old and began to work his way into the first team picture late last season. He prefers to play through the middle, where he can dictate attacking play and bring an influence to proceedings.

U18 One to Watch: Jordan Preston – A strong and powerful centre-forward, Preston scored six goals for the Under-18s last season and will be targeting at least as many in 2013-14 in a bid to move up to Under-21 level.

Bolton Wanderers
Bolton began last season’s Under-18 competition with a bang by beating Arsenal 5-1, and went on to be one of the best teams in the country for the first half of the campaign. They struggled a bit post-Christmas when exposed to the ‘Elite’ group of competition (and when their small squad started to become stretched), but they showed enough to assuage any doubts that they deserve their Category One status. Many of those responsible for their good season in 12-13 will be looking to push on at Under-21 level, whilst the incoming Under-18s will be keen to keep up appearances from a year ago.

U21 One to Watch: Zach Clough – One of the Trotters’ key U18 men last time around, the attacking midfielder has proven himself adept at converting chances in and around the edge of the penalty area and began his ascent to Under-21 level late last season. Part of a group of very intriguing forwards which also includes Tom Walker and Tom Youngs.

U18 One to Watch:Saul Hamer – A tall and broad centre-foward, Hamer pushed on well late last season as a number of the more experienced Under-18s moved onto bigger things. He’ll be looking to follow suit himself.

Always extremely capable at youth level, Everton are one of those clubs always associated with a strong youth identity and a consistent route into the first team. Towards the end of the David Moyes era, though, that was harder to argue than usual, with the likes of Jack Rodwell sold and Ross Barkley and Shane Duffy struggling to get a game despite deserving a look. New boss Roberto Martinez hardly dipped into the well at Wigan but may argue that it was running dry long before he arrived, and with a veritable slew of riches at his disposal at Finch Farm, may be more inclined than the man who has recently departed for Old Trafford.

U21 One to Watch: Ryan Ledson – The England Under-16 captain enters the season as a first-year scholar but will be one of a number of gifted 16 year-olds across the country to make the jump into Under-21 football well ahead of time. A midfielder or occasional defender of great size, skill, leadership and awareness, he has a wise head on young shoulders and can safely be put in the top bracket alongside Rooney, Rodwell, Barkley and other recent high hopes at Goodison Park.

U18 One to Watch: Calum Dyson – One of a huge intake of first-year scholars, Dyson was a regular goalscorer last season and even made his way into Under-18 football last season. A versatile performer in the attacking half of the pitch, he brings a well-rounded game and makes an impact more often than not.
Twitter: @mikeleecahill

Whilst Martin Jol continues on a relentless collection of foreign talent, the Fulham youth team are set to embark upon a season in which they will be chasing a third straight national Under-18 title. The setup at Motspur Park is terrific, headed by former Premier League youth director Huw Jennings and drawing on the nous of Steve Wigley and Kit Symons amongst a cast of many. Some of those who drove the Whites to recent U18 glory will be seeking the same at Under-21 level, and with goals aplenty from Muamer Tankovic, Moussa Dembele and Cauley Woodrow, they’re a team to watch.

U21 One to Watch: Patrick Roberts – A winger blessed with two excellent feet, great skill and pace, Roberts caught the eye early for the England Under-16 team and wasted no time in taking advantage of his increased profile. In the eighteen months since he’s established himself as a force for club and country and under a more youth-friendly first-team manager might have been afforded a first-team go, at least in pre-season.

U18 One to Watch: Foday Nabay – Having taken him in on trial last summer, Fulham finally got their man this time around when they acquired the big, powerful central midfielder from Birmingham City. Keen for a move to London, Nabay will hope to hit the ground running at Fulham, where he will be counted on to bring presence and energy to the midfield.

Twitter: @elgreeniouk

Leicester City
The Foxes are newcomers to Category One football, having attained that status this summer. They won the Category Two League last season and now begin the push to assert themselves amongst the elite. Their record of youth production is spotty at best but the emergence of Jeffrey Schlupp and Liam Moore in recent times – along with long-term stalwart and former Chelsea schoolboy Andy King – gives hope for the coming generations.

U21 One to Watch: Harry Panayiotou – The 18 year-old forward made an instant impact in his professional debut at the end of the 2011-12 season when he scored a goal against Leeds United, and whilst further playing opportunities have yet to arrive, he has every chance of breaking into Nigel Pearson’s plans this year. Quick, slippery and clinical in front of goal, he is eligible for both England and Cyprus.

U18 One to Watch: Brandon Fox – Fox is one of a group of emerging young Leicester players to have been involved in England Under-16 football in the last twelve months or so. Keenan King and Kyle Bailey have joined the powerful forward in Kenny Swain’s plans, but it’s Fox who has caught the eye and has much promise.

Twitter: @FoxesYouth

Investment throughout their Melwood academy has made Liverpool a threat at home and in Europe again, and with a manager in Brendan Rodgers who is eager to blood younger players, there has scarcely been a better time to be a youngster at Anfield in the last ten years. Chelsea met them six times in all competitions last season, winning four of the outings and losing just one, but the depth of the Reds’ squad will make them contenders for success again this season.

U21 One to Watch: Jordon Ibe – The teenage winger signed from Wycombe made his Premier League debut last season and has been firmly involved with the first team this summer. Very much in the mould of Raheem Sterling, Ibe has arguably more poise and intelligence to his game and can make just as much of an impact.

U18 One to Watch: Sheyi Ojo – Another of many brought in from elsewhere, the one-time Chelsea target Ojo has flourished into a powerhouse of a midfielder, yet one who possesses the deftness of touch and skill to be a deceptive playmaker. Struggled with injury at times in 12-13 and will hope to make more of an impact now.

Man City
Largesse at first-team level has made it considerably harder for a once-productive academy to maintain those high standards, but things are not as well as they might seem at Manchester City. The departure of long-term academy director Jim Cassel a few years ago has seen a dip in quality, and after the coaching staff publicly questioned the mentality of some players this season, there was a complete overhaul of personnel this summer. Patrick Vieira now heads up the U21 ranks, with Jason Wilcox earning a promotion from the U13s to take over at U18 level.

U21 One to Watch: Marcos Lopes – A Portuguese midfielder who made his first team bow last season in the FA Cup and found the back of the net to boot. With Denis Suarez apparently heading to Barcelona, he will become even more important for the Under-21s, where he will likely be forced to end up for most of the year with a succession of expensively-acquired players ahead of him in the pecking order. For Vieira, that can only be good news.

U18 One to Watch: Kean Bryan – A versatile and athletic midfielder, Kean is experienced for club and country and is now a full-time scholar. A capable influence with and without the ball, he will stand out as a leader of a young team very early on.


Man Utd
Last season, Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverley became the latest Manchester United youth products to graduate to full international level for England. The most prolific club in terms of production in the country continue to go about their business in a tried, tested and measured manner, and whilst their Under-18s had an up and down season in 2012-13, their Under-21s were crowned national champions after beating Tottenham 3-2 in the Final at Old Trafford. The target for 2013-14 will be to repeat that success.

U21 One to Watch: Jesse Lingard – Whereas Larnell Cole was the key man en route to glory in April, Lingard threatens to be the man to watch going forward. He grabbed his first team pre-season opportunity with both hands and scored a few goals in their tour of Asia, shooting his name into lights in the process. Casual observers may not have recognised the name but United fans will be quick to tell you that this dynamic attacking midfielder could have a role to play for David Moyes.

U18 One to Watch: Demetre Mitchell – A scorer of a spectacular goal for England Under-16s in last season’s Victory Shield, forward Mitchell has all of the flair and trickery you might expect of a youngster in his position. He has confidence and can vary his approach, and is a regular source of goals both scoring and creating.

Twitter: @ManUnitedYouth, @DoronSalomon, @manutdreserves, @MrMujac

Middlesbrough were one of the chief beneficiaries of the new Category-based approach to youth competition as their Under-21s were able to ascend from regional fixtures against sometimes non-league outfits to playing against the best the country has to offer. They handled themselves appropriately and picked up some big scalps along the way, whilst maintaining their excellent record of handing out first team debuts to those deserving of it. Sixteen year-olds Bryn Morris and Jordan Jones were just two who made their bows under Tony Mowbray in 12-13 and there’s more to come.

U21 One to Watch: Ryan Brobbel – A quick wide player who settled well at Under-21 level, his later development has been impressive and as he goes into the last year of his contract he’ll be keen to make further strides in hope of earning an extended stay and a breakthrough into the first team.

U18 One to Watch: Junior Mondal – The forward begins his scholarship with a growing reputation after a series of good Under-16 performances which earned England consideration. His positional awareness and knack of being in the right place at the right time catch the eye.

Twitter: @BoroYouths

Every so often, Newcastle will come along and produce a home-grown star who becomes revered by their fans and establishes himself in the first team. The problem they’ve had, however, is that Steven Taylor and Andy Carroll are the highlights of a youth system which hasn’t really been able to bring through consistent numbers. There are some hopefuls on the fringes, but whilst their transfer policy continues to be based largely in France, the youngsters at St. James’ Park may find it hard to break through.

U21 One to Watch: Rolando Aarons – A quick forward of Jamaican descent, Aarons joined Newcastle from Bristol City a year ago and after a bedding in period, looked handy towards the end of his debut season. Able to play on both sides, he’s the prototypical modern-day forward who can play wide or central and has plenty of pace and skill.

U18 One to Watch: Freddie Woodman – Having followed his father Andy to Newcastle from Crystal Palace as a schoolboy, England international goalkeeper Freddie is looking to become the second member of his family to establish himself as a professional shot stopper. Having been exposed to the art of goalkeeping from a young age because of his bloodlines, he understands the subtler arts of his craft well for someone of his age, and combined with good size and great leadership, the Toon have another fine young potential number one on their books.

Norwich City
Few would have touted Norwich City as FA Youth Cup contenders last season, even when they booked their place in the final against Chelsea, but the Canaries upset the odds to lift the trophy for the first time in thirty years and kick off a feel-good summer at Carrow Road. A number of players took their opportunity to shine in the limelight and the additional exposure could be just the tonic to get some of them into the first team frame.

U21 One to Watch: Josh and Jacob Murphy – Impossible to separate, the Murphy twins were intoxicating at times last season and had a big role to play in overturning Chelsea. Both are rapid across the ground and love to run at defenders, but are arguably better together than without each other. How that plays out in future will be interesting to watch.

U18 One to Watch: Roderick Young – He might have caught the eye for the wrong reasons in the Youth Cup Final for a startling ‘dive’ but Young is, at his best, a driving force from central areas whilst still having enough about him to play wider, where he can use his pace and hard running to worry defenders.
Twitter: @pinkun

Led by 28-goal forward Uche Ikpeazu, a very good Reading Under-18 team finished runners-up to Fulham last season after a campaign in which several of their young pros caught the eye. Ikpeazu upped and left for Watford in early July, however, and leaves a considerable void to be filled both on the pitch and on the stats sheet. The Royals do however have a strong core to their squad and with a first team manager in Nigel Adkins who has always favoured the introduction of youth, the mood is positive at the club.

U21 One to Watch: Craig Tanner – A busy creative attacking sort, Tanner took Chelsea apart in a late-season youth team outing at Cobham in April after doing the same to countless opponents throughout the 2012-13 season. He has two very good feet and is clinical in front of goal.

U18 One to Watch: Conor Shaughnessy – A big Irish lad who was amongst the youngest of their Under-18 squad last season, he’s in line to kick on and nail down a regular spot in the side after a year settling in to English football.

When you can list Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott as the two highlights of a very productive youth setup, you can argue your place as the best in the country. Southampton were, for a while at least, top of the EPPP grading class last season, and further investment to their training and youth facilities will see the club take the next step. Luke Shaw and James Ward-Prowse made the step up last season; look out for Lloyd Isgrove and Jake Sinclair, younger brother of Scott, to be the next off the production line.

U21 One to Watch: Harrison Reed – A small flame-haired central midfielder who has earned obvious comparisons to Paul Scholes, Reed has a confident, controlled style about his game which meshes perfectly with his position. He keeps things moving in the right direction and at a good tempo, and has enough about him to get involved at both ends of the pitch.

U18 One to Watch: George Mells – A former Chelsea schoolboy, Australian youth international Mells becomes a first-year scholar at Staplewood this season and will be looking to weigh in with his fair share of goals from an attacking midfield role.

Stoke City
There were complaints in and around Stoke when Tony Pulis departed in May that the former manager effectively ignored the club’s academy entirely; marginalising the staff and completely ruling out the idea of development from within. For a club which has impressively achieved Category One status, that simply wouldn’t do, and it likely played a part in the cap-clad boss leaving. His replacement, Mark Hughes, may not offer a marked increase in activity but has at least acknowledged the existence of youngsters in pre-season. The only way is up.

U21 One to Watch: Nando Quesada – One of two players to make the curious move from Barcelona to Stoke this summer, the 19 year-old midfielder featured in the NextGen Series last season and provides leadership and intelligence alongside the standard Barcelona technical grounding. If Hughes truly implements a change in approach at The Brittania Stadium, he could be one to keep an eye on.

U18 One to Watch: Nathan Ricketts-Hopkinson – The former Manchester City schoolboy made a decent impression in his first season as a scholar and has had an impressive pre-season going into the coming campaign. A versatile forward with an eye for goal, he will ideally replace Derice Richards, who is now set for Under-21 football.

Twitter: @StokeAcademy

It’s all change at Sunderland this summer and with Paolo Di Canio seemingly open to considering anybody and everybody as he seeks to reshape his squad, a talented academy could benefit. The Black Cats were Under-21 league Semi Finalists last season and a number of their squad found their way into Di Canio’s late-season plans in April and May; all they have to do now is continue impressing and to give the manager a reason to integrate them properly.

U21 One to Watch: Mickael Mandron – The Scottish youth international of French extraction was one of those who got a brief look under Di Canio after scoring in plentiful numbers throughout last year. More of a ‘number ten’ than a ‘number nine’ in style, he nevertheless combines finesse with a directness in front of goal and has something about him on which to build.

U18 One to Watch: Ethan Robson – A homegrown lad who has been with Sunderland his entire career, Robson came on strong towards the end of his first year as a scholar and having been watched by England scouts, will be as determined as ever to continue making progress in a bid to ascend up the ranks for club and country.

Tottenham Hotspur
With world-class facilities and a number of top-end prospects, things look pretty good for the Tottenham Hotspur academy, at least on the face of things. Their Under-21 team finished national runners-up last season after dominating the regular league phase, but the defection of Alex Inglethorpe to Liverpool harmed the consistency of their Under-18 team. And, whilst Andre Villas-Boas gave Tom Carroll a handful of first team minutes, he hardly showed himself to be happy using youngsters at Chelsea, even ejecting the Under-21s from the club’s first team building. An intriguing twelve months lie ahead.

U21 One to Watch: Kenneth McEvoy – Best known for a remarkably uncanny resemblance to Gareth Bale, this winger is on the verge of making a name for himself in his own right. He doesn’t have Bale’s raw power or directness, but shares his dribbling and fleetness of foot down either flank, with a desire to drive inside and cause problems in and around the goalmouth.

U18 One to Watch: Joshua Onomah – A confident playmaker, England youth international Onomah has an array of weapons with which he can beat a team. His passing is crisp, he has good vision, and he can dribble with great success as well. As he grows into an adult frame he will become an even bigger threat, literally and figuratively.

Twitter: @WindyCOYS

West Bromwich Albion
It’s not been a great summer for the West Brom academy. Having already lost Jerome Sinclair to Liverpool in 2012, Under-16 forward Yan Dhanda made the same trip to the North West this time around, whilst Isaiah Brown completed his move to Chelsea a few weeks later. The club have been very vocal in criticism of a system they claim leaves them powerless to prevent the departure of quality players for little compensation, and whatever the rights and wrongs of every argument, you can sympathise with them. They have been extremely progressive in their approach at every level and are defending Premier League Futsal Champions as well as finding themselves involved in the business end of junior age group competitions.

U21 One to Watch: Adil Nabi – Something of a slow-burner, local forward Nabi signed a new deal this summer after coming along very well in Under-21 football last season. He still has some work to do, which a loan or a higher quality development league might help accelerate, but with the attacking positions at The Hawthorns rather thin at the time of writing, there’s an opportunity there to be seized.

U18 One to Watch: Kyle Howkins – Howkins is a young centre-back with modern-day ball-playing traits and will be hoping to impress on his step up into Under-18 football. The Baggies’ schoolboy teams play some exceptional stuff and he has been a part of a team and generation the club rate very highly.

West Ham United
‘The Academy of Football’ has lost its way a little in the last five years or so. Faced with ever-increasing competition for youngsters in their catchment area, and without the budgetary freedom that some of their rivals enjoy, they’ve found themselves left behind a bit and have struggled to bring young lads through as they did so famously for generations. Sam Allardyce has scarcely facilitated the approach throughout his managerial career and thus far young Dan Potts is the only player of note to even get a notable look.

U21 One to Watch: Elliot Lee – Lee stands out as something of a rarity in modern youth football; he’s simply an old-school goalscorer. He doesn’t stand out athletically, he doesn’t have great trickery or versatility, but he does know where the goal is and how to find it. That’s a trait that transcends levels of ability, and if the Hammers find themselves lacking in the striking department this coming Premier League season, there are worse things they could do than turn to him.

U18 One to Watch: Jordan Brown – The decision to reject a scholarship at Arsenal in search of a quicker route to the top at West Ham is one which may define Jordan Brown’s career, even at this stage. An England Under-16 international of some distinction, he was highly rated by the Gunners and touted as ‘the next one’ (as are many there…) but was amongst three or four players who chose to seek their fortune elsewhere. West Ham stand to benefit by taking on board a striker blessed with athletic prowess and goalscoring nous.

Twitter: @WillisJamieson

Wolverhampton Wanderers
There was a feeling ahead of the beginning of the EPPP era last season that Wolves may have found themselves a little out of their depth at youth level by competing amongst the best the country has to offer. Whilst their start was shaky, however, they assuaged those doubts in fine style, qualifying for the Elite Under-21 stage and picking up some big scalps across both age groups. As the club’s first team tumbles down the leagues and finds itself in the third tier, it has been the academy-produced players like Jake Cassidy, Liam McAlinden and Danny Batth who have given the biggest reason for optimism. There’s more where they came from too.

U21 One to Watch: Ibrahim Keita – The gigantic French striker made his considerable presence felt at youth level last season by finishing as their leading scorer, and although he is expected to move on to Under-21 level this season, he could easily ascend into the professional game. He has the body to handle the rigours of men’s football and the ability to stick at that level.

U18 One to Watch: Harry Burgoyne – Wolves have brought through one or two decent goalkeepers in recent memory, with Wayne Hennessey and Aaron McCarey earning themselves decent reputations with room to improve yet. Harry Burgoyne has the right stuff to follow in their footsteps and begins his time as a scholar with the starter’s gloves most certainly his.

Twitter: @comptonstars

Coming tomorrow…A look at Chelsea themselves.