Monday 2nd December October 2019, 1400 KO
Crystal Palace U23 vs Middlesbrough U23
The build up
One of the many, many beautiful things about not having to work when I’m home, means it opens up a previously inaccessible avenue of watching football – the working day U23 kick offs. So it was, that at around 0745, I got up to see my wife off to work on this cold, bleak early December morning. Then promptly went back to bed, and got up in time to phone Dulwich Hamlet and confirm this match was on, then get in the car and take a leisurely drive to South East London. Not that there’s much leisurely about driving through the deep south…
This match represented a first ever foray into the Premier League Cup for me, having previously only attended league fixtures at the development level. Crystal Palace’s development squad were to host Middlesbrough at Champion Hill, the home of Dulwich Hamlet. Champion Hill was also a first for me, having never visited this ground before. Even a quick stroll around the ground marked it out as one definitely worth a visit when the usual occupants are playing.
As to the football itself, the odds pre-match certainly favoured ‘Boro, who play their football a level higher in the development system. Whilst there is promotion and relegation between the first and second divisions of the Premier League 2 (Middlesbrough currently sit 5th in the second flight), there is no such movement down to the third tier. This is down to the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP). Under EPPP, call Category One academies play in the Premier League 2, whilst those ranked at (or applying for) Category Two, end up in the Professional Development League, which is where the Eagles play their U23 football.
Astonishingly for a development system which has produced the likes of Wilf Zaha, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and John Bostock, the Palace Academy is not technically ranked within the nation’s top twenty. Middlesbrough’s, by contrast, is. However, in the U23’s cup competition – the Premier League Cup – the playing field is levelled, and both these sides lay joint bottom of Group G after two games, with 1 point. Blackburn Rovers top their group, on nine points having played three matches whoever could take the points in Dulwich, would leapfrog Burnley into third. The young Eagles are currently 8th in the “South” division of the Professional Development League, having won only once in their last five matches – a Brandon Pierrick hat-trick helping them to a 4-2 win over South London neighbours Millwall.
Once the whistle went to start the match, Middlesbrough positively raced out of the blocks, when Isaiah Jones and Djed Spence worked a neat one-two on the right hand side of Palace’s box. Jones took the ball and squared it low, and there was #10 Stephen Wearne to sweep a finish into the far corner and notch his first of the season.
Within another two minutes, the visitors had doubled their lead, and this time it was Stephen Walker bagging his fourth of the campaign. The local lad from Berwick Hills has made four first team appearances this season, and looked a cut above the Palace defenders throughout. On this occasion, ‘Boro’s high press won the ball back in midfield through Wearne, and it fell kindly to Walker. He cut inside David Boateng (a midfielder pressed into service at right back) and curled a left footed shot past Dion Curtis-Henry in the Eagles goal.
And then five minutes later, ‘Boro had their third goal, and the match was over as a contest within the first ten minutes. Again it was a strong pressing game by Middlesbrough in midfield which won the ball back, and captain Ben Liddle got in possession, and laid it off to Walker. Walker again skinned the unfortunate David Boateng, and this time the England U19 international finished right footed past Palace’s increasingly irate ‘keeper.
After the frenetic opening ten minutes, the game naturally slowed, though Palace still could barely get out of their own half, and Middlesbrough settled into a completely dominant rhythm. In fact, the clock showed 24 minutes before the hosts even had a shot on target, when Jacob Mensah got highest to a corner, but could only direct his header straight at Sol Brynn in the ‘Boro goal.
Almost irritated by that, Middlesbrough pretty much went straight up the other end and scored again. This time is was Isaiah Jones who got the goal his first half performance had warranted. The summer signing from Tooting & Mitcham United looks comfortable at this level, and will be delighted to have broken his duck for ‘Boro. He scored after Stephen Walker teed up Ben Liddle for a shot, which was scuffed straight into the path of Jones. From a narrow angle, Jones shot hard and low, nutmegging Henry for good measure.
Two minutes later, Palace put some measure of respectability on the scoreline, when Rob Street bagged his sixth of the season. Young for this level, Street has only turned 18 in September, but has taken to U23 football like a duck to water. Surrey-born Street worked hard throughout – finishing the match with what looked dangerously like a tampon in his nose after catching a knock in the second half, and deserved a goal for his work-rate alone. He got on the scoresheet when Brandon Pierrick dribbled well down the right and swung in a dangerous cross, with Street’s header being past Brynn before he’d even seen it.
And then on 43 minutes the day’s scoring was completed – by Middlesbrough again. This time Jones was provider, meaning he’d finish the day with a goal and two assists, with Ben Liddle providing the final touch. The son of Darlington legend Craig Liddle, Ben has already bagged seven so far this season, and added an eighth with a first time finish after Jones had beaten a static Mensah before pulling the ball back to his captain.
Half time, and 5-1 to the Teessiders – and no-one could say it wasn’t deserved. Graeme Lee’s side had dominated all over the pitch, and rendered Palace’s central midfielders Kian Flanagan and Nya Kirby helpless due to their all-energy passing game. Whenever Palace did threaten to get the ball towards the ‘Boro box, there were Nathans Wood and Dale, well shielded by Hayden Hackney, to mop up danger.
The second half was a much more even affair throughout. The Palace manager made two changes over the break, bringing on 17 year old Aidan Steele in midfield, and former Brentford attacking midfielder Giovanni McGregor, both of whom added an element of poise and control in midfield. Middlesbrough still had the upper hand, but the difference was more a slight gap, as opposed to a gaping, Grand Canyon-esque chasm. ‘Boro continued to press hard, but their hosts had more success breaking the press, and creating some chances on the counter.
On 56 minutes, Brandon Aveiro had a well struck effort from around 25 yards, which Brynn could only parry away. Lambeth lad Aveiro – he of the famous chewing gum kick ups – was first to the rebound, but scuffed his follow up shot wide. After a quiet first half, he improved no end in the second. Their were definite signs of improvement from the Eagles in the final third, but they were still prone to lapses at the back, and former-Fulham right back Djed Spence almost provided an assist for Tyrone O’Neill, but his shot was deflected wide.
With fifteen minutes left to play, Palace started to probe more, and Aidan Steele had a decent effort twenty yards, which went straight at Brynn who held well. By this point both teams looked evenly matched (barring the four goal disparity), and it was Palace who finished the stronger. Both Pierrick and Aveiro had chances after good runs through midfield, but both lashed their efforts high and wide.
Middlesbrough did manage to find the net again, scoring a sixth in stoppage time, which was disallowed for offside. Through the crowd of bodies I couldn’t see who had actually put the ball in the net, so wouldn’t wish to venture an opinion as to the accuracy of the linesman’s call… There was just about time for Street to have another half chance, when he shot on the turn, but Nathan Wood blocked well. Shortly after that, referee Howard called time on proceedings, and Middlesbrough could set off on the long drive north, with their three points safely in the bag.
1. When I watched Middlesbrough in Newcastle back in October, I was really impressed with their tenacity out of possession, which was at a level I hadn’t before seen in developmental football. It was no fluke. Straight out of the box, Graeme Lee’s side played with a level of intensity which Crystal Palace simply couldn’t live with, and their ten minute blitz ended the match as a contest.
2. I don’t know if Crystal Palace have an injury crisis at U23 level, but they started a number of players out of position, and the lack of familiarity was telling. For the first forty five minutes, they played like a side who barely knew each other, but with striker James Daly playing left back, midfielder David Boateng playing right back, and Bromley triallist Oliver Tanner still getting to know the squad, it was hardly surprising. Boateng and Daly struggled in the first half, with Djed Spence and Isaiah Jones having particular joy down the right. Both improved in the second half, when they defended more on the front foot, and looked to use their attacking talents more often, but by then the damage was done.
3. I’ve watched a number of U23 sides this season, ranging from PL2 Division One, down to the Professional Development League, and this Middlesbrough crop are a talented bunch when compared to their peers. What really resonates is the age of this ‘Boro team, with only Nathan Dale, Isaiah Jones, Ben Liddle and Tyrone O’Neill of the starting eleven into their twenties.
4. Crystal Palace also had a very young side out on display. A number of the players were drawn from the U18 squad, with some “big name” U23s missing. Jason Lokilo started on the bench, but would surely be considered one of the stronger players in this crop, whilst the likes of Luke Dreher, Nikola Tavares and Sam Woods were missing altogether. As a result, Palace started with five players still eligible for the U18s.
5. For the Eagles, Brandon Pierrick both started and finished brightly, but had large patches where he was anonymous, whilst Rob Street demonstrated an impressive work ethic throughout. In the second half, James Daly got forward well from left-back, and looked the man most likely to break the Middlesbrough press. Both Gio McGregor and Aidan Steele made a difference when they came on, but the one player who looked the most comfortable throughout was Nya Kirby. An U17 World Cup winner two years ago, Kirby is a highly talented central midfielder, and brings an element of calm to proceedings. Too often isolated, he struggled to impact the match in the first half, but was the only player always offering to teammates under pressure, and had a calmness in possession which was lacking from the other Crystal Palace players at times.
6. For the second match in row that I’ve watched, Stephen Walker looked a cut above the U23 level. He could really use a loan in January, as he’s too good for development football, but with the first team only a point above relegation, Woodgate is unlikely to take a chance on a youngster. A loan to Milton Keynes last season may have been too soon, but he’s certainly ready for League One or potentially a League Two title challenger now.
7. The key difference (of many) for Middlesbrough today, was the effectiveness of their right wing pairing. Faced with an out of position, and unprotected James Daly, both Djed Spence and Isaiah Jones filled their boots. A pair of South London boys, it was a homecoming to remember for the former Fulham and Tooting & Mitcham players, as they ran riot down their flank in the first half an hour.
8. The performance was once again built on a solid defensive line, anchored by Sol Brynn in goal. Both Spence and Patrick Reading in the full back positions did their jobs effectively, but the real stars of the defensive performance were the holding midfielder Hayden Hackney, and Boro’s two centre backs. Hackney only turned 17 this summer, but was disciplined in his positioning, and strode forward well in possession when the opportunity allowed. The two young men behind him were solid again. 17 year old Nathan Wood, and 20 year old Nathan Dale are potentially the best pairing in the U23 system at the moment, with Wood’s athleticism and composure on the ball allying perfectly with Dale’s reading of the game and aerial ability.
9. With three points from this match, Middlesbrough have moved above Burnley in the Group, onto four points, giving them a good opportunity to take one of the two qualification spots for the Round of 16.
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