Friday 18th September 2020, 1300 KO
Reading FC U23 vs Fulham FC U23
My first foray into the Academy football system came with a photography request to cover Fulham U23s away at Reading on a glorious Friday afternoon in mid-September. Thankfully, with plenty of time in the bank in my day job, I was able to take the day off work and drive out to Reading’s plush Bearwood Park training facility.
Bearwood Park is a beautiful set up, tucked away in the Berkshire countryside just outside Wokingham. Home to Reading’s first team and the Academy sides. Built on a former Royal Merchant Navy School campus, it is a sprawling estate with a number of pristine pitches and opened last season – replacing the club’s former home at Hogswood Park. Personally though, I only saw the U23s pitch, the car park, and a portaloo. With the national COVID-19 infection rate ever rising, and the spectre of more severe lockdown restrictions looming, both clubs were very strict with the coronavirus protocols – therefore, on arrival at the training ground I was put through a very professional arrivals procedure, which restricted access only to the necessary areas.
This was Reading’s second competitive match of the season, and followed a week after a chastening 3-0 loss to Norwich City’s age ground side. Last season, the Royals finished 9th out of the 12 sides in the Premier League 2 Division 2 – a competition consisting of those clubs with Category One Academies. Since then, the team has seen a radical overhaul, with a number of prospects promoted from the U18s to replace those who have departed. Last season’s top scorer, Thierry Nevers, is now on the cusp of the first team squad, along with Michael Olise, whilst other key players have left the club altogether – Adam Liddle is now in the National League South with Chelmsford City, and Danny Loader moved to FC Porto on a free transfer.
In the other dugout, Fulham’s U23 side fared even worse last season, finishing just behind Reading on goal difference. Having struggled for goals, top scorer Martell Taylor-Crossdale, a summer arrival from Chelsea has departed for Colchester United on a developmental loan period, whilst U18s prodigy Jay Stansfield will surely see more game time at U23 level this season. Speaking of those U18s, their Premier League South title winning side are likely to make the U23s far more competitive this season, with the likes of Fabio Carvalho, Conor McAvoy and Sylvester Jasper all ready to play more Premier League 2 football. As with all U23 sides, there have been significant departures in the summer. Amongst others, Cody Drameh has moved to Premier League rivals Leeds United for a six figure fee, Nicolas Santos Clase has moved to Racing Santander, and Zico Asare is currently without a club. The visit to Reading was the Cottagers first PL2 fixture of the season, though they did suffer defeat to Cambridge United in the EFL Trophy the week before.
In the bright sunshine, it was Fulham in their incandescent away shirts who started faster, and they were ahead after just four minutes. Former Hartlepool United defender Luca Murphy fed Fabio Carvalho, who slid the ball across the box for Sylvester Jasper to tap home. His first of the season, following on from six for the U18s last term.
It only took a further ten minutes for the visitors to extend their lead, and this time it was Fabio Carvalho with the goal. The powerful Jean-Pierre Tiehi caused havoc at the back, and forced Reading into a defensive error, which resulted in the ball breaking to Carvalho to the right of an empty net. He controlled his finish, to put Fulham two up, and give Reading an awful lot to do.
Both Carvalho and Jasper were in scintillating form, operating in the space between Reading’s defence and midfield. Both players seemed to be given a licence to drift from their respecting flanks by the coaching team of Mark Pembridge and Colin Omogbehin. Whilst this clearly paid dividends going forward, it relied upon the diligent work of the other midfielders to give them that platform to play, and they performed their roles with excellence. Ben Davis and Ryan de Havilland acted almost as a double pivot, happy to pick the ball up in Fulham’s defensive third and move them calmly up the pitch, whilst Davis in particular also carried well at times. Jayden Harris was also impressive in a deeper role – his performance was much more physical than I have seen from him before, possibly a result of his spell on loan at Woking last season.
Reading did create chances, with 19 year old forward Joseph Ajose pulling a save out of Luca Ashby-Hammond around the twenty minute mark. The Royals’ ‘keeper was by far the more active though, and throughout the match Coniah Boyce-Clarke made a number of good saves. Still only 17, he has years of development still to go, but he was responsible for keeping the score respectable at half time. Making stops from Carvalho, Tiehi, Jasper and Harris, he was unfortunate to be on the losing side.
There was nothing he could do on 43 minutes though, when Carvalho added another to Fulham’s tally. Having engaged in some neat interplay with Harris, Carvalho finished from close range to bring the half to a close. The Portuguese-born midfielder bagged 11 goals and eight assists in all competitions last season, and having scored two and set up the others, he has set off on the same track in 2020/21.
It took just one minute of the second half for Fulham to get their fourth and final goal, and it was Jasper again. A foul on Jasper at the edge of Reading’s penalty area earnt a free kick, which Carvalho curled towards the back post. Boyce-Clarke palmed it clear, but with both Jasper and centre back Eric Ameyaw steaming in, there was only going to be one conclusion, and it was the winger – who turned 19 last week – who grabbed the goal. Unfortunately that was Jasper’s last contribution, as he picked up an injury in the process of scoring.
From that point on the game became a slower paced affair. Reading enjoyed much more possession, but never really threatened. Substitute Conor Lawless had one attempt, whilst Femi Azeez was busy in midfield. Luca Ashby-Hammond was never really tested, though, and if anything it was Fulham who were more likely to score on the break. With substitutes Terry Ablade and Timmy Abraham stretching the backline, both Carvalho and Ben Davis were denied by fine last ditch tackles in the box, with Tennai Watson and Oliver Pendlebury in particular pulling out top draw stops.
The Starting Line Ups
1 – Coniah Boyce-Clarke – Still only 17, the young goalkeeper impressed me today, not just with his shot stopping ability, but also with his urgency and distribution from the back. Having debuted for the U23s at just 15 years old, Boyce-Clarke has impressed at international level, winning the Golden Glove award for England at the Val de Marne tournament in 2018.
2 – Tennai Watson – One of Reading’s better performers, Watson is a 23 yeard old right back from Hillingdon. He made his first team debut in 2016/17, and has since had loan spells at AFC Wimbledon and Coventry City.
5 – Imari Samuels – Was called up to the England U17 squad before COVID struck, and has trained with the senior squad on occasions. Samuels is signed to the club until 2022, a clear sign of the faith they have in his potential.
6 – Nelson Abbey – Abbey has only recently turned 17, and was another called up to England’s U17 squad in February of this year. A strong centre back with Nigerian and Dutch eligibility, he was composed on the ball, and always looked to pass out from the back.
3 – Ethan Bristow – Another 17 year old, Bristow had a tough time against the liverwire running of Carvalho, but stood up well to the challenge. From Bristol, he is a tall centre back who was deployed on the left here. He signed a new contract last October, committing himself to the club until 2021.
4 – Ryan East – A defensive midfielder, East had his work cut out against Fulham’s aggressive dribbling. Having recently turned 22, he became the club’s 50th Academy graduate to play first team football when he made his debut in March 2019.
7 – Femi Azeez – Busy when in possession, Azeez looked the most likely outlet to create any chances Reading were going to have. Formerly of National League Wealdstone, he is the older brother of Arsenal prospect Miguel Azeez.
8 – Oliver Pendlebury – For the second time Pendlebury stood out for me in this Reading side. He was a tenacious tackler, but also looked comfortable in possession. Once particular last ditch tackle on Ben Davis almost certainly prevented a fifth goal. A competitive runner with Berkshire schools, he puts his fitness to good use on the pitch.
9 – Nahum Melvin-Lambert – 18 next month, Melvin-Lambert found service difficult to come by in this match, as he was played in perhaps a more advanced role than usual. Highly thought of within the club, he made his first team debut two weeks ago, as a substitute against Colchester United.
10 – Jayden Onen – A Ugandan forward, Onen is a recent arrival to Bearwood Park, following his release from Brentford in the summer. He made 30 appearances for the Bees’ B Team last season, scoring three goals and was called up for the AFCON Qualifiers in March.
11 – Joseph Ajose – The Hackney-born winger signed his first contract in March this year, after signing from Port Vale last season. 18 years old, he had plenty of pace, and forced the first save out of Fulham’s goalkeeper.
1 – Luca Ashby-Hammond – Hailing from Kingston-upon-Thames, Luca is one of a number of highly promising ‘keepers at Motspur Park. The 19 year old had little to do against Reading, but has real potential, with caps at U16 and U17 level for England.
2 – Luca Murphy – Signed from Hartlepool United, the Sunderland born centre back operated on the right flank here, and got forward well in support. Contracted until 2021, this is a big season for Murphy who appears to have added an attacking threat to his game.
17 – Eric Ameyaw – An American centre back, Ameyaw has previously played for the likes of Dunstable and Shenley Pumas. Based in Buckinghamshire, he has previously lived and played in Italy, and looked unflappable at the back for Fulham.
4 – Connor McAvoy – A Scottish full back, McAvoy is based in Surrey, and started a scholarship in 2018/19. Playing in the centre of defence, his quality on the ball was evident throughout and he looked comfortable at this level having stepped up from last season’s U18 Champions.
3 – Ziyad Larkeche – Larkeche arrived in the summer from Paris Saint-Germain, and looks to be an acquisition with huge potential. His runs forward on the left flank wreaked havoc, and he has already formed a good understanding with Jasper. Only 17 years old, he has represented PSG in the UEFA Youth League, and has international experience with France.
14 – Ryan de Havilland – Wimbledon-born midfielder Ryan had a short loan spell at the Met Police last season, but was back to anchor the midfield against Reading. De Havilland has been with the club since he was nine years old and first played at U23 level in 2017/18.
8 – Jayden Harris – A loan spell at Woking seems to have helped develop Harris’ game, as he was a close contender for Man of the Match today. A bustling, muscular presence in midfield, the 21 year old from Croydon has been with Fulham since 2009.
23 – Ben Davis – A dynamic midfielder with great technique and passing, Davis has played at U23 level for his country Thailand, and appeared for the first team against Southampton aged just 18. Born in Phuket, he has been based in Harrow ever since he moved to the UK and signed for Fulham.
10 – Fabio Carvalho – Almost unplayable at times today, Carvalho looks like the latest talent who will follow the likes of Harvey Elliott and Ryan Sessegnon into the first team. His close control and pace make him a nightmare for defenders. The winger from Lisbon only turned 18 three weeks ago and is already a very accomplished player at this level. My Man of the Match today, he is well regarded both at Motspur Park, and in the England set up.
7 – Sylvester Jasper – Jasper has had a meteoric rise since the beginning of 2019, going from U18s football to getting first team minutes against Manchester City. His partnership with Jay Stansfield last season was the most productive in the U18 system, and on today’s evidence the London-born 19 year old will have similar success at U23 level.
9 – Jean-Pierre Tiehi – The son of a former Cote d’Ivoire international, Tiehi arrived at Fulham from Le Havre in 2018. His tireless running and physicality created a number of problems for the Reading backline here, and he was unlucky to end the match without a goal.