Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Wigan Athletic U18 vs. Tottenham Hotspur U18

Happy New Year! As we’re now in the future (‘2020’ sounds somewhat Science Fictiony to me), I thought it would be a good idea to look towards the next decade and see what kind of players our teams are producing. Fortunately for me, Wigan Athletic U18’s have made it to the fourth round of the FA Youth Cup and tonight, they face a stern test against Tottenham Hotspur U18’s.

Despite our current struggles in The Championship, there’s much hope that we’re about to establish a fruitful production line of players at the club – already this season, 17-year-old forward Joe Gelhardt has made several appearances from the bench, most notably scoring the equaliser at Hull in a 2-2 draw. Whilst he isn’t the tallest, he has a great low-centre-of gravity and natural strength; his floating around the forward line and general bullishness has even seen him being compared to Wayne Rooney.

At the start of the season, Latics were given ‘Category 2’ status under the Premier League’s Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP). This enabled the youth team to join the Professional Development League (the second tier of U18 football, basically), playing matches against clubs from around the country rather than just the North West. At the time of writing, Latics’ U18’s sit top of their group, 8 points clear of second – so the hope that we can produce players for the first-team is understandably high right now.

Speaking about the club’s progression to Cat 2, this was only made possible thanks to plans to develop a dedicated indoor facility for the Academy – Stadium Way, created inside a former Powerleague centre – opened yesterday. Containing a full-size pitch, gym, several outdoor pitches, office space, classrooms and amenities for parents and families, the facility will be given over for community use at various times in the year too.

My one major criticism of the club during our time in the Premier League was that we did not invest sufficiently into the infrastructure with the television riches we received – the old training ground (now being the main base for the academy) was upgraded in increments, whilst we didn’t really have much of an academy set-up. I felt we missed out on a source of talent during those years – instead of taking a risk and paying out (often over-the-odds) for foreign or lower league players, we could have dipped into the youth set-up for squad depth. These players would be used to the club, played in positions and roles that would have suited the style of play – Callum McManaman (man-of-the-match in the 2013 FA Cup Final) being a rare example of a youth player coming through our system during those years.

All that’s in the past though and now, as Wigan is located in a favourable position in the North West, there’s optimism that we can attract the best youngsters around, especially now that we've got these facilities (for one, they’ll have far more chance of playing in the first team here than for Liverpool and Manchester United, for example). Even if the worst comes to the worst and we get relegated to League One (yet again) at the end of the season, the infrastructure will still be there to support the first team squad, meaning that the club has players to come into the team as they sell others off. Every club should be striving to have such facilities, one day, I hope everyone will.

My interest in youth development (at least at the professional level) was peaked as I attended an England U18 international at the then-named JJB Stadium in 2000 as they took on France. I’ve posted the back of the programme below for you to have a look at (see how many players – as well as a glaring error with one of the sides – you can recognise), but my abiding memory was of a French team that toyed with England for most of the game, eventually winning 3-0 – all the goals scored by Djibril Cisse. He looked simply unplayable – quick and strong, he helped himself to his goals in the style of a seasoned professional and he seemed destined to play at the very top levels of the game.

(click to enlarge)
Since then, I followed Cisse’ progress – I got really excited when he signed for Liverpool in 2004, acting like an expert because I ‘discovered’ him. Sadly, I think injury probably put paid to what would have been a great top-level career for him but despite that, he didn’t do too badly (winning the FA Cup, Champions League and Super Cup with The Reds, as well as becoming the Lord of the Manor of Frodsham). Big up to Jermaine Defoe who is one of very few players in those squad lists that is still active as a professional today (although, they’re now all aged 37/38, to be fair!)

Aside from Gelhardt, another one of our England U18 internationals is Jensen Weir. A central midfielder, Weir is the son of former Rangers and Everton centre-back, David (no doubt irking his dad by switching from Scotland’s U17’s last season!) – and as I arrive at the stadium and grab a teamsheet, I see he’s in the team for tonight. Gelhardt is also starting, having been drafted in from the first team, with our other youth internationals – MacKenzie O’Neil (Northern Ireland), Kyle Joseph and Luke Robinson (Scotland) also in the team for today. We even have another ex-footballer’s son, James Carragher – offspring of Liverpool legend, Jamie – playing at the back too.

This fourth round tie is a huge test for these players, however; Spurs (a Category 1 club – they must have an indoor training centre in space or something) are 2nd in the U18 Premier League and beat lastyear’s FA Youth Cup winners, Liverpool, in the last round of this competition. Incidentally, our U18’s went out last season’s competition with a defeat to Liverpool – however, after winning 12 games on the bounce at a higher level this season, I’ve detected a quiet confidence from the comments by the staff that we’ll give them a game.

And we certainly did – right from the kick-off, Latics were direct and aggressive in their pressing, dominating the ball in the opening 15 minutes, deservedly going ahead through a Weir free-kick. Having scored one in the 8-1 victory over Croydon in the last round, he’s marked himself as a bit of a specialist to this novice youth team watcher. There was a bit of fortune to the goal, though – the ‘foul’ for the free-kick looked like a good tackle from the Tottenham lad (indeed, it got some applause from some in the crowd). Then, the shot took a deflection on its way towards goal, wrong-footing the goalkeeper.

Spurs have clearly marked Gelhardt out as the danger man, as he has no less than two players a time on his case whenever he receives the ball – he handles it okay and is linking up with Joseph well. I like the look of Joseph (no, not in that way!); he’s tall, got a bit of pace about him and he seems to be a bit of shithouse – nothing nasty, like leaving a foot in, but he seems to enjoy barrelling into defenders.

As the half wore on, both sides had long spells with the ball, but not creating much in the way of clear-cut chances. Latics did make the Spurs keeper work with a few shots from distance that he handled comfortably, with everything else blocked. The best of the blocked chances being a volley from lively winger, Sean McGurk, that would have taken the net off if the ball had hit it. Instead, a defender was left with a sore knee.

The away side come out fighting in the second half, putting pressure on the defence with some through-ball attempts, but Carragher managed things well (where have we heard that before?) Latics have a great chance for a second McGurk cut inside from the right, his shot from just inside the area hitting the crossbar. Picking the ball up from the byline, Gelhardt proceeded to drive towards the area, past a defender, laying it off to O’Neil, who in turn laid to it off to Joseph – who smashed the ball in the corner of the net! It was a brilliant, well-worked goal that was a sure-fire sign of a side that were confident in front of goal – the very antithesis of the first team at the moment!

Spurs try to rally but the Wigan team are now bursting with confidence and are buzzing around, nipping the ball off their increasingly-frustrated opponents. They do have a decent shot from distance, but home goalie, Sam Tickle, gathers the ball well. Late on, Latics think they have a third when O’Neil turns in Gelhardt's deflected shot – the players run to the corner to celebrate, only for it to be ruled offside. A comical scene then transpires as they all sprint back from the corner and back into position!

The match finishes 2-0 to Wigan, the players taking the well-deserved applause of the majority of the 668 crowd (later, I would learn this was the highest of the night in the FA Youth Cup). Hopefully, the fifth round will see us get another home draw and a four-figure crowd – if they hand in a performance like tonight, it’ll certainly please many of our supporters who have been bereft of slick, attacking football and goals of late.

Whatever happens, I’ll look forward to reading back this report in 2040 to see how many of tonight’s players made a decent career for themselves – remember, I and I alone discovered these players!

Wigan Athletic U18 2
(Weir, 17. Joseph, 62) 

Tottenham Hotspur U18 0

Attendance: 668


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