Friday 13 December 2013
As West Bromwich Albion prepare to take on Manchester City in the Barclays Under-21 Premier League at The Hawthorns on Sunday, the Baggies defender Liam O'Neil has lauded the competitive nature of the league, and is relishing the prospect of playing at the first-team stadium this weekend.
"This set-up where you can go up and down, means there is always a fight and everyone wants to do well"
Speaking to premierleague.com, the 20-year-old Englishman said the Barclays Under-21 Premier League has introduced an unparalleled competitive edge since it replaced the Premier Academy League and Reserves format at the start of the 2012/13 campaign.
"It definitely has [more of an edge] because games are a lot more competitive now," said O'Neil. "We're playing for something instead of when we were playing reserve football a few seasons ago and the game lacked a bit of intensity and tempo.
"It's bringing a competitive edge, so when you come into the first-team environment you can go into it knowing that you've been wanting to win Under-21 games and just lead on there.
The present Barclays U21 Premier League of 22 teams will be split in two for the 2014/15 campaign with the introduction of promotion and relegation. West Brom are 11th, just above the cut-off point for the top division and O'Neil believes the new system will only add to the greater element of competition that exists.
"Now we've got the new Under-21 league set-up and you can go up and you can do down, so there is always a fight and everyone wants to do well," O'Neil said. "Everyone wants to stay at the top of the league as the competition is better and there are more opportunities."
West Brom have brought themselves into contention for a top-half place in the Barclays U21 Premier League after an impressive run of recent form. Before losing to Southampton in their last outing, the Baggies had won three consecutive league matches, and six in all competitions.
On his side's upturn of form, O'Neil puts it down to the team's togetherness.
"We've had a lot of stability with training, so the group has been together a lot and we've been able to get the shape together going into each game," he said. "Every player has performed well, too. Even if we have gone a goal down we haven't lost our heads or done anything wrong in the game. We've stuck in there and got results out of it.
"We can do anything with the team we've got. Obviously we want to finish as high as possible in the league but that depends on personal performances and the team as a whole, and whether we can keep the team together. Although loans are good for a lot of the players, if we can keep the group together we'll have that chemistry and win more games."
That winning streak included a victory over Liverpool in their last fixture at The Hawthorns, and O'Neil is looking forward to taking on City, whom they also face in the last 16 of the Under-21 Premier League Cup on 22 December.
"It should be really good," said O'Neil. "The Hawthorns is a great ground, a good pitch and we're going to come into the game firing and to win the game because City are always going to be a good test and we want to prove ourselves against them."
"The Premier League is one of the strongest in the world, so for Saido to do that shows that it can be done and you’ve got to just keep working hard"
Another benefit of the competition is the option of fielding up to three over-aged outfield players in Under-21 matches, which has given O'Neil and his team-mates the chance to play alongside senior West Brom players like Zoltan Gera and Steven Reid.
O'Neil believes such an opportunity can only boost the development of the younger players.
"First-team players used to come into the reserves just for the fitness but now they know that the team are playing it for an important reason, they've got to put a shift in there as well.
"That helps everyone. They are first-team players who have a lot of experience and help us young players get better, which is always good. Gera, Reid, such players have a lot of experience in the game and they're people you can go to and talk to and really learn from.
"They've been in a few games for the Under-21s and that's been great, and you can see that helps the team as well. We've been a lot more solid when we've had those players in there, because of the responsibility, and they lead by example."
One West Brom U21 star who has made a big impact with the senior side is 20-year-old striker Saido Berahino, who has scored six goals in his debut season for the first team, including in West Brom's 2-1 win over reigning Barclays Premier League champions Manchester United. Berahino's success has given O'Neil and his team-mates the extra belief that they too can break into the senior set-up.
"It's always great to see one of the young lads come through and getting in and around the team and for him, doing so well," he said. "It shows that it can be done and there are opportunities at the club.
"The Premier League is one of the strongest in the world, so for Saido to do that shows that it can be done and you've got to just keep working hard."
Admission to West Brom's Barclays U21 Premier League encounter with Man City, which kicks off at 2pm, is £5 for adults and £1 for concessions, and fans can buy tickets on the day. Entry is free for home season-ticket holders. For more information, click here.
Friday 13 December
Stoke City U21 v Southampton U21, 2pm, The Weaver Stadium
Fulham U21 v Tottenham Hotspur U21, 7pm, Motspur Park
Sunday 15 December
West Bromwich Albion U21 v Manchester City U21, 2pm, The Hawthorns Stadium
Monday 16 December
Reading U21 v West Ham United U21, 7pm, The Camrose
Wolverhampton Wanderers U21 v Aston Villa U21, 7pm, New Bucks Head
Everton U21 v Liverpool U21, 7pm, Haig Avenue
Arsenal U21 v Leicester City U21, 7pm, Meadow Park
Bolton Wanderers U21 v Chelsea U21, 7pm, Leyland County Ground
Blackburn Rovers U21 v Middlesbrough U21, 7pm, Leigh Sports Village