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Sunday 03 November 2013

Barclays U21s: Hopper's first-team leap

Striker Tom Hopper praises Barclays U21 Premier League impact after Leicester breakthrough

  • Tom Hopper is enjoying the challenge of his first Barclays U21 Premier League campaign

  • The 19-year-old played for the first team in Capital One Cup wins over Carlisle and Derby

  • Hopper also came up against top flight side Newcastle in the summer's Hong Kong Sevens

  • Fellow academy graduate Liam Moore is a "role model" as he is a regular at senior level

When Leicester City take on Blackburn Rovers in the Barclays Under-21 Premier League at the King Power Stadium on Monday night, Foxes forward Tom Hopper will be looking to build on an impressive start to the campaign during which he has also broken into the senior set-up.

"The Barclays U21 League been a good introduction to a higher standard of football – playing people like Harry Kane has been a good challenge for us all"
Tom Hopper

The 19-year-old striker, who graduated from Leicester's academy after joining from Boston United at 16, has built on his reputation as one of the club's bright prospects and, after a loan with Bury in League One last season, has forced his way into the thoughts of Leicester's first-team manager Nigel Pearson, who has guided the side to the quarter-finals of the Capital One Cup and the top of the Championship, as they vie for promotion to the Barclays Premier League.

Hopper has played twice for the senior side this term, in Capital One Cup successes over Carlisle United and Derby County, and is hoping to follow in the footsteps of 20-year-old defender Liam Moore, who is a regular in the first-team's starting XI.

In an exclusive interview with premierleague.com, Hopper praised the impact of the Barclays U21 Premier League, which replaced the Premier Academy League from the 2012/13 season, and reflected on an encouraging campaign so far for the Midlands club.

Good introduction

Premierleague.com: You have picked up four points from your last two matches, including an impressive draw at Tottenham Hotspur, to move up to 14th in the Barclays U21 Premier League. What have you made of your start to the season?
Tom Hopper:
It's been really good. It's been a good introduction to a higher standard of football compared to last season, playing the likes of Tottenham, when you've got people like Harry Kane playing and it's been a good challenge for us all.

PL.com: The Barclays Premier Under-21 League has also given the team the chance to play alongside senior players like Republic of Ireland international Sean St Ledger, Anthony Knockaert and Paul Gallagher. How has that been?
TH:
When you've got people like Anthony Knockaert and Sean St Ledger playing it's only going to help us develop, especially with their experience of playing in big matches and World Cups. It's only going to improve the standard of the training and the standard of your own play. The amount of knowledge they can all pass on to us younger lads is only going to help us.

Realistic ambitions

PL.com: Your side are three points off eighth in the 22-team division before Monday's clash with Blackburn Rovers. What are your ambitions for the season?
TH:
We have got to be quite realistic, as we are quite new to this sort of standard, but we want to win as many games as we can and will go out to try to do so, rather than just take a draw. A top-half finish in the league [is our ambition] because next season it [the league] will split into two different leagues, so we want to finish top half this year, in that first 11.

"I've been really enjoying it and playing in the main stadiums is a great experience every time"
Tom Hopper

PL.com: On a personal level, you have featured regularly for the U21s this season,  netting three goals. How has the campaign gone for you?
TH:
I've been really enjoying it and playing in the main stadiums is a great experience every time. I'm really enjoying playing football every week because in past seasons you could go without games for months if you were around the first team, not getting games, and it can be quite frustrating, but it's really helped me and I'm pleased with how I am playing.

PL.com: As well as establishing yourself in the U21s, you have also played for the senior side in the Capital One Cup. Is the next aim to try to establish yourself in the first team on a regular basis?
TH:
Definitely. That is everyone's ambition and it's great to be on the fringes at the moment, especially with how the team is doing in the league as well – they are flying. Hopefully, I can keep getting on the bench and see where that takes me, with my performances in the Under-21s as well.

PL.com: That the first team are challenging for promotion to the Barclays Premier League and progressing well in the Capital One Cup must be a boost for the U21 side.
TH:
Yeah, it's a great place to be at the moment. There's a healthy competition for places all over the park and it's a hard starting XI to get into, never mind the bench with the great standard of players sitting on the bench as well.

Moore inspiration

PL.com: Has fellow academy graduate Liam Moore becoming a first-team regular given you the belief that the platform is there to break in to the senior set-up?
TH:
Liam is a role model for all of our U21 and U18 players, purely because he's been where we all are and he's gone out on loan to get experience, he's come back and he's really implemented himself into the starting XI. No one can argue with that – he fully deserves it and he's doing really well.

"In the past few seasons there was hardly any football between the U18s and first-team football, so now it bridges that gap massively"
Tom Hopper

PL.com: The Barclays U21 Premier League is  in its second season. Do you think it has helped you bridge the gap between youth level and the first team?
TH:
Yes, massively. In the past few seasons, the gap was so big. There was hardly any football between the U18s and first team, so now it bridges that gap massively. Especially with the big players playing for the U21s occasionally, it just gives you that taste of senior football and what it will be like to play for the first team.

PL.com: Monday's match against Blackburn gives you the chance to play at the King Power Stadium, the main stadium. How much are you relishing the prospect of playing there?
TH:
It's great. We watch the first team play there as well and to be in the changing room beforehand for our home game, it's great to play on the pitch and we always get a good turnout for our U21 games, so it's great to see.

PL.com: You scored in front of over 2,000 supporters in a 1-1 draw with high-flying Liverpool at the King Power Stadium this season. How special was that?
TH:
It was really good. Not many people can say they scored against Liverpool at any level so it's great. It was a great game as well and a great turnout from the Liverpool fans as well, so it was a great atmosphere that night.

Learning curve

PL.com: Last season, you had a loan spell with Bury. How was the experience?
TH:
It was a massive learning curve. It was quite tough being in a relegation battle for the whole season, which unfortunately ended in relegation, but I learned a lot there, playing under Kevin Blackwell, and a lot of the lads were really helpful. The importance of the results week-in, week-out really me when I came back to Leicester to push on.

"I'm quite a mobile forward and put myself around in the air"
Tom Hopper

PL.com: Peter Shilton and Gary Lineker are just two of the stand-out names who have graduated from Leicester's academy down the years. How are you finding the academy.
TH:
I'm really enjoying it. It's a great club and there is a great feeling around here, especially at the moment, and I've really enjoyed my time here, from being in the Under-18s. Everyone knows the sort of players that came through and there is a good group of youngsters coming through at the moment, so there is a lot of hope as well at the moment.

PL.com: How would you describe yourself as a player for those who may watch you for the first time on Monday?
TH:
I'm quite a mobile forward and put myself around as well in the air. I'm someone slightly different and I like to think I can do the physical side of it, as well as the technical side of it. My idol's Alan Shearer, so I would like to get as near to him as I can!

PL.com: Are there any players we should watch out for in the crop of youngsters?
TH:
There's Brandon Fox in the U18s and you've also got Jeffery Schlupp and Liam Moore, who have come through, and Michael Cain, who is a bit under the radar at the moment and is also a really good player.

Watch the young Foxes at the King Power Stadium

If you want to watch Tom in action on Monday night tickets are priced at just £3 for adults and £1 for concessions, with doors open at 6pm. Supporters are advised to arrive early through the VIP Entrance next to Main Reception.

Manchester United and Manchester City are both still due to check in at King Power Stadium this season in what has proved to be an action-packed Barclays U21 Premier League.

Tickets are available by visiting www.lcfcdirect.com, the City Fanstore or by calling the Sale Centre on 0844 815 5000.

Barclays Under-21 fixtures

7pm unless stated

Friday, 1 November
Chelsea 3-3 West Ham United, Aldershot Town FC.
Norwich City 0-3 Manchester City, Carrow Road

Monday, 4 November
Aston Villa v Newcastle United, Pirelli Stadium
Bolton Wanderers v Fulham, Lancashire FA
Leicester City v Blackburn Rovers, King Power Stadium
Middlesbrough v Liverpool, Hartlepool United FC
Southampton v Wolverhampton Wanderers, Staplewood Training Ground
Sunderland v West Bromwich Albion, Eppleton Collery Welfare Ground
Tottenham Hotspur v Reading, Bishops Stortford FC

Friday, 8 November, 2013
Manchester United v Stoke City, Altrincham FC

Find out the full Barclays Under-21 fixture list here and view the table here.
To discover the Under-21 Premier League Cup draw, click here.

You can follow developments on Twitter with the Premier League's account @premierleague or via the hashtag #BU21PL

Key Points

  • Leicester City take on Blackburn Rovers at the King Power Stadium on Monday in the Barclays Under-21 Premier League
  • Leicester U21s striker Tom Hopper is enjoying the challenge of the competition
  • The youngster is relishing the chance to play alongside senior players as he breaks into the Leicester first team

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