Tuesday 19 November 2013
After winning the inaugural Barclays Under-18 Premier League last season, defending champions Fulham lead the South Group after 14 matches this time round, but the club's Academy Director Huw Jennings is still striving for improvement as they look to continue an extraordinary period of success at youth level.
"The only motivation and driving force for us is to provide players who are going to be good enough to play for our first team"
Jennings, who was appointed as the club’s Academy Director in 2009 after spells at Southampton and the Premier League, has overseen two Premier Academy League Group A titles, as well as the Barclays U18 Premier League in 2012/13.
Fulham are second in the Barclays U21 Premier League, but it is the U18 level where they lead the way once more, and Jennings has cited the recruitment of U21s coach Kit Symons and U18s coach Steve Wigley as a key ingredient to their success, as well the successful integration of youth players all the way to the senior set-up.
“We are more integrated now than at any point during the time I have been here and the creation of the Under-21 programme has helped us with that," Jennings said. "In Kit Symons leading the Under-21s and Steve Wigley leading the Under-18s, we’ve got two very experienced and high-quality professionals who will get the best out of the boys with them.”
“There’s never an issue with the younger players training up, and we have had a number of first-team players who have trained with the U21s this year and U18s who have played in first-team training matches. That’s been working very well for us because it’s great experience for the younger players and the senior players seem to relish the challenge as well.”
Hard work, Jennings said, is also a crucial element as Fulham continue to work towards their ultimate goal of promoting academy graduates through to the first team.
“Anybody who thinks success in football is anything other than hard work needs to think again," he said. "Working hard is a pleasure and a privilege, or it should be, in our industry.
“The only motivation and driving force for us is to provide players who are going to be good enough to play for our first team. Until we have achieved that, with a group of players going into the team, we certainly won’t be satisfied.”
Wigley’s U18 side have picked up 32 points from the first 14 matches, scoring 43 goals. They went three points clear of their nearest South Group rivals Tottenham Hotspur with a 3-1 win over West Bromwich Albion on Saturday.
"We are playing some great football. In possession, we are a threat to anybody"
Jennings is excited by the attacking potential in the U18 team.
“We are playing some great football. In possession," he said. "We are a threat to anybody. Our play is attractive to watch, we’ve created lots of goalscoring opportunities and scored plenty of goals, which is a product of that.
“We recognise that when we have the ball we want to move the ball very quickly – that is the key to success in my opinion. Hopefully in our youth programmes, you will see our players move the ball quickly to try to open teams up and score teams up the back of it.”
While Jennings cited Wales Under-19 midfielder George Williams as their “most consistent player” this season, while also praising 16-year-old forward Patrick Roberts and defender Liam Donnelly, he picked out top goalscorer Moussa Dembele as one to watch. The 17-year-old French forward has scored 15 times this season and, after capping off a fine campaign last term with a hat-trick in the Barclays U18 Premier League final, Jennings has high hopes for the player.
“Moussa is a bit of a throwback to a striker of yesteryear, because he is a classic No 9 who can hold the ball up with his back to goal and also run in behind with pace and power," he said.
Fulham U18s cross London to face West Ham United in their next match on 23 November, as they look to register a fourth win from their last five outings, while Spurs, who slipped to a 3-1 defeat at Leicester City on Saturday, take on North London rivals Arsenal.
Aston Villa, third in the South Group, are six points adrift of Fulham with two games in hand after winning 5-4 against Norwich City at Bodymoor Heath training ground. They take on Chelsea, who are fourth, one point behind the Villains, having played a game fewer, in their next fixture.
In the North Group, Everton had been leading the division until a stoppage-time defeat by Manchester United allowed the victors to leapfrog their opponents. Everton U18s coach Kevin Sheedy said the defeat thanks to Sean Goss's late goal at Carrington was an invaluable experience for his players.
"Liverpool v Everton, Manchester United v Manchester City – they’re big derbies and you need players to sample that at U18 level and U21 level"
"It looked like, if anyone was going to get a winner, it was going to be us and then we got caught right in the last minute by a sucker punch," Sheedy said. "It was a bitter pill to swallow for our lads because a draw probably would have been a fair result but that’s the way it goes sometimes, and it his all part of the players’ development.
"They have got to learn to take defeats like that on the chin and come back stronger.
"On the day it wasn’t to be, but we have got a good squad of players. They’re really competitive, they’ve got a good winning mentality and we’ll be looking to bounce back against Newcastle on Saturday."
Sheedy also hailed the change in format to the Barclays U18 Premier League this season, with the division into two regions, which means they get to face all of their major rivals in the North West, as well as getting a taste of the "special" Merseyside derby.
He added: "Liverpool v Everton, Manchester United v Manchester City – they’re big derbies and you need players to sample that at U18 level and U21 level, because you don’t want their first time to be at Anfield or Goodison in the real thing," he said. "You need to experience that along the way, so I’m pleased that the fixture is back in place."
Saturday 16 November
Arsenal 0-3 Chelsea
Stoke City 0-3 Blackburn Rovers
Manchester United 2-1 Everton
Reading 1-3 West Ham United
Manchester City 4-1 Bolton Wanderers
Sunderland 1-3 Liverpool
Leicester City 3-1 Tottenham Hotspur
Fulham 3-1 West Bromwich Albion
Wolverhampton Wanderers 2-1 Middlesbrough
Aston Villa 5-4 Norwich City
Ave goal a game: 3.77
Most goals scored: 32 (by Tottenham Hotspur and Fulham)