Saints' U18 outfit have gone from strength to strength since our previous report on the team in October. Following on from the 2-1 win over Man United, Jason Dodd's side have secured further victories over Aston Villa and Newcastle. I took advantage of a first team free Saturday to take another look at the latest batch of academy hopefuls. Sunderland were the visitors to Staplewood, with Saints looking to progress into the next stage of the academy competition.
Dodd had to do without a number of first choice players for the clash. Jake Flannigan filled in very ably at right-back. At left-back, 16 year-old Isaac Nehemie made an encouraging debut, having recently joined on trial from Sparsholt College Football Academy. Nehemie was released by Crystal Palace earlier this year. 15 year old Josh Sims was handed his first start at U18 level. Carel Kayembe also received a call-up from the U16s.
The disruption in selection did little to unsettle the team. Saints were ahead inside the first two minutes. Charlie Higgins found the net, converting an excellent pin-point Dominic Gape cross. Saints were well on top throughout the first half, showcasing some terrific football. Sunderland were nowhere near as bad as the final score-line suggested. The Black Cats attempted to get the ball forward as quickly as possible, but were invariably snuffed out by a defence well marshalled by Jason McCarthy. It was 2-0 on 30 minutes when Sims headed in Rowe's cross. Saints pretty much killed the game off just before the break when man-of-the-moment Ryan Seager converted a simple chance from another Rowe cross.
Saints continued from where they had left off in the second half. Rowe made it 4-0 on 52 minutes with a fine effort. Credit to Sunderland, who never stopped fighting. The Black Cats had a number of decent efforts over the course of the game, and matched Saints for large periods. The home side were far more clinical however, ruthlessly finishing off the chances whenever they came. It was 5-0 on 72 minutes, with Sims grabbing his second goal. Saints grew slightly complacent in the final 15 minutes or so, letting Sunderland back in the game. The home side lost control of the midfield following the departure of Gape, who was substituted. The visitors grabbed two late goals, which they probably just about deserved given their effort over the course of the game. Just when it looked as if they might be on for a remarkable late comeback, Saints keeper Will Britt pulled off a string of fine saves.
With that win Saints progress to the Elite Stage Academy Group with three games to spare. It was another fine display from the youngsters. Saints were superb both technically and tactically for the majority of the match. As mentioned above, we were slightly lethargic towards the end, but perhaps that was inevitable given the amount of energy the inexperienced side had expended. The fact that we managed to pull off such a comprehensive victory without a number of key players, shows how much strength in depth we have within the ranks.
Saints defended well as a team, but it was at the other end of the pitch they really shone. Gape continues to impress, pulling the strings in midfield with a superb range of passing. The skipper has really come into his own this term, having spent much of last season stuck on the bench behind James Ward-Prowse and Corby Moore. Flannigan is a very intelligent footballer, who is spot-on when it comes to decision making. Rowe's playing style is very easy on the eye. The winger is a bag of tricks, who once again caused havoc for the opposition defence. Seager looked a class act yet again. His movement and technique are first class. The only surprise was that he scored just a single goal this time. Sims is definitely one to keep an eye on as well. He more than held his own up against older and stronger players. There is little difference in terms of quality between this team and the 2005 academy class that produced the likes of Adam Lallana, Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott. I have little doubt that at least one or two of these players will eventually make it. Whatever happens to the first team this season, there is plenty to be excited about for the future. There is a long term plan in place at the club, and many of the names above will be involved in years to come.