Youth

Derby and Villa kids making light of night work

Pete Lansley 30 Nov 2015
Premier League U15 Floodlit Cup match between Derby and Aston Villa

Pete Lansley discovers impact Premier League U15 Floodlit Cup has on academies

A wet and windy night in the Midlands after a traffic jam on the A38 would test the mettle of even the most die-hard football-mad teenager. Yet with something tangible at stake we saw the best of two of England's top academies when Aston Villa visited Derby County this month.

Three points were up for grabs in the Premier League Under-15 Floodlit Cup. The competition was introduced for the 2015/16 season and, because of the development of these players at academies, mostly from the age of eight, the level of technical expertise on display is very high.

Less developed players would struggle to adapt to the conditions as a torrential rainstorm took place for the second half of a match played on the state-of-the-art pitch at Moor Farm, the Derby County Training Centre that is a replica of the one at Derby's iPro Stadium. But the touch of the players was invariably immaculate as Villa won 2-1.

Even as spectators on the touchlines found their shoes immersed under water, the 14 and 15-year-old academy players stayed on their feet whenever possible, displaying dribbling, short passing skills and off-the-ball movement at a high tempo. When they did commit to tackle, however, it was as if Premier League points were the prize.

"It's competitive," Sean Verity, Villa's U15 co-manager said. "That changes a coach's perception of what needs to be done. We're driven by the players. Their mission at the start was to try and win so we have to fill in behind that to help them achieve those goals.

The two teams play under the floodlights at Moor Farm
The two teams play under the floodlights at Moor Farm

"It'll never be the be-all and end-all for us [coaches] but for the kids, the result is really important so it's just trying to help facilitate them towards that."

Most academy matches in the youth development phase (12-16 years) are played on Saturday mornings with results not recorded as the clubs and the Premier League prioritise players’ development according to a four-corner long-term plan - technical, physical, psychological and social - that underpins the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) introduced by the PL in 2012.

As players reach the latter half of this phase they naturally become more competitive. With the skills from the four corners embedded, they are equipped to raise the stakes. Increased competitiveness becomes an integral part of their development.

Playing on Derby's pitch, under floodlights, with the incentive of qualifying for the quarter-finals of the northern tournament from a group that includes Leicester City and Stoke City, the players did not hold back. Sceptics suggesting academy players are too soft should watch this kind of match.

"We have lots of development, but they've got to learn how to win."

Sean Verity

"That's why it has got a good feel about it," Verity said. "Fair play to the Premier League, putting this element into the games programme. For me, the challenge of trying to win games is how we need to try and develop our players. We have lots of development, but they've got to learn how to win.

"That becomes really important. For instance, the last time we played Derby we were 2-0 down and they've hit the bar. Our lads' will to avoid losing the game came into play as we drew 2-2 and maybe could've won it at the end. Playing on grass as well tonight is fantastic."

The father of one of Villa's technically gifted offensive players pulled his Parka over his head to avoid a gust of rain just as his son dropped off to pull his marker out of position, called for the ball, then turned into the space he created to run at the Derby defence.

"There’s definitely an extra edge to these games," the father said. "The lads are not fazed by playing on this stage, as they've played at Villa Park and the like, but it's great when the result is on it."

Darren Wassall, Derby's academy director before becoming first-team manager, Tony McAndrew, Villa's U18s manager, and talent scouts from the English and Scottish Football Associations watched on as Villa hit the crossbar five times and yet were hanging on as Derby pushed for a late equaliser.

The Aston Villa and Derby kids performed well in poor conditions
The Aston Villa and Derby kids performed well in poor conditions

Villa had seven staff with the team, including two video analysts, while Derby, managed by Adam Thorley, prepared their players with a big screen in the classroom once their school day finished.

"We try to do this for away games as well," Thorley said.

The Villa team bus only arrived at 5.45pm - "it's almost like a non-league mentality," Verity said, "now you've got to switch yourselves on to play your football" - but that was a challenge in itself for the players.

"I finished school at 3.20 and came straight here with my dad," one Villa defender said afterwards. "He picked me up and then ever since I've been trying to get my head on the game.

"We were lucky, we just missed the traffic the team bus caught. My mum made me a sandwich I ate on the way so I had time to digest it.

Derby coaches give their players instructions
Derby coaches give their players instructions

"These types of game are very good experience. It's good for the future. The result being important is a difference so it helps us develop in both ways [technically and competitively]… it's about winning the battle: individual battles, team battles. You feel like you've got to win.

"In the long run, it's very good experience, to help us develop as players. On Saturday, it's about development. This is more like the Premier League, because it's all about results."

Thirty two teams, divided into north and south, are competing in eight groups, home and away, up until Christmas. Then the new competition becomes a knockout, producing two regional winners who will meet to contest the Super Floodlit Cup final at the end of the season.

"At our level, it's Champions League isn't it?" Verity said.

Pete Lansley (@PeteLansley), a freelance football reporter for the Sunday Times and the Guardian, is a Level 2/Youth Module 3 coach working with Derby County Community Trust.

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