Saturday 6th February 2021, 1030 KO
Fulham FC U18 vs Crystal Palace FC U18
The build up
On a bleak February morning, in the leafy Surrey suburb of New Malden, an U18 fixture took place with potentially massive consequences for the destination of the 2020/21 Premier League South title.
Last season’s champions, Fulham, have been playing their home matches at the London School of Economics’ ground in KT3 this season, and today’s match was a chance for the Whites to gain revenge for a 4-1 reverse when these two sides met in January. On that occasion, Crystal Palace took the points thanks to goals from Tayo Adaramola, Victor Akinwale and Jesuran Rak-Sakyi, in addition to an own goal from Fulham’s Thorstein Antonsson. That victory sent them to the top of the table – one point above their hosts today. This Crystal Palace side feature many of the talents who saw them crowned English champions at U15 level in 2018/19.
Steve Wigley’s Fulham side won the title last season, and boasted the top scorer nationwide, in the form of Jay Stansfield, who scored 22 in just 14 matches. The Academy at Motspur Park has a fantastic record of promoting players to the first team, and Stansfield was similarly fast tracked after that campaign. Unfortunately, his season has been cruelly curtailed by a serious injury, though he did score on his comeback at this level against Brighton a fortnight ago. He isn’t the only member of that successful side to move on, with the likes of Connor McAvoy, Fabio Carvalho and George Wickens joining him the older age group, whilst Tiago Augusto, Mac Chisholm and Tristan Cover have left the club.
Their visitors, Crystal Palace, approached this fixture on the back of three wins, including a 3-2 victory over Arsenal last week. Managed by former centre back Paddy McCarthy (who racked up 134 appearances for Palace between 2008 ad 2016), they plied their trade in the U18 Premier League 2 last season, before being moved into the top flight as the south Londoners’ Academy was improved to Category One in summer 2020. Also subject to the usual player turnover in age group football, McCarthy has seen two of his brightest prospects move up in the form of Brandon Aveiro and Rob Street. In contrast to Wigley, he has, however, retained his top scorer David Omilabu – and the 18 year old from South East London has continued his fine form, bagging 11 in 12 matches so far this season.
When I saw the teamsheets I noticed that Palace were without two of their key players in Cardo Siddik and Michael Omilabu, whilst Fulham were giving Stansfield more minutes in his return to fitness – it was obvious that this would be closer than the last time these sides met. As it happened, Fulham dominated the possession for the majority of the game, but due to a combination of good defence and fine goalkeeping couldn’t turn that possession into a lead on the scoreboard. The visitors had no such issues.
Left winger Ollie O’Neill threatened early on for the Whites, and the Republic of Ireland U17 international opened up Crystal Palace on only three minutes when he drew a good save out of Joe Whitworth. However, although Fulham made all the running in the opening ten minutes, Palace took the lead six minutes in when Victor Akinwale netted from close range. A first time cross by right back Dylan Thiselton was brought down expertly by Kevin Gonzalez, who then slid an inviting ball across the face of the goal. Akinwale, who hails from Kent, eased the ball home to bag his 5th of the season.
On 18 minutes, Jay Stansfield had his first sight of goal from a Michael Olakigbe cross, but it came off his shoulder and went wide. It was one of only two or three chances for Stansfield on a day where Crystal Palace were well alive to his threat. As arguably the best striking talent on the U18 scene, Dan Quick and Joe Sheridan deserve much credit for preventing him from getting a sniff of goal. O’Neill, Xavier Benjamin and Olakigbe also had chances, but a combination of wayward finishing and Whitworth’s alertness held them at bay. Whitworth was also showing good command of his area, frequently coming out to claim corners and deep crosses, including one notable occasion where he collided with Ibane Bowat, before Jack Wells-Morrison hacked clear under pressure from Idris Odutayo.
Fulham maintained their grip on the game though, and with Olakigbe and O’Neill threatening down both flanks it felt likely that they would find an equaliser, but on 36 minutes, Palace got the killer second through Jesuran Rak-Sakyi. The right winger had spent much of the first half defending against Fulham’s dangerous left wing partnership of O’Neill and Stefan Parkes, but when Dan Quick launched the ball downfield, Rak-Sakyi was onto it quickly, lifting it skilfully over the onrushing Dermot Mee before nodding the ball into the net. He almost added a third ten minutes later, but after rounding the ‘keeper, Scotland U19 international Ibane Bowat slid in to avert danger.
The pattern continued again into the second half, but despite Fulham’s pressure, the Eagles stood firm. Captain Aidan Steele at the base of midfield was vocal throughout, organising, encouraging and cajoling his teammates – his Northern Irish accent ringing around the pitch, drowned out only by Paddy McCarthy’s southern variant from the touchline. Alongside him Wells-Morrison and Fionn Mooney stepped up to their skipper’s example, and were routinely found smothering attacks in and around their own box.
On 60 minutes, Fulham came the closest they’d come, when Bowat met a cross from Luciano D’Auria Henry at the back post, and sent it back into the danger area. Kieron Bowie got a head to it, and looked to have scored, but the ‘keeper – who doesn’t turn 17 until the end of February – made an exceptional save, diving to his left, before Tayo Adaramola completed the clearance.
Whitworth was out quickly to smother a Stansfield half chance moments later, before Akinwale had a chance to kill the game on 73 minutes, after a good bit of link up with Fionn Mooney. Bearing down on goal, Akinwale let fly, but his shot seared over the goal. As the game wound to a conclusion, Fulham had one last chance to grab a consolation, but when the ball fell to Stansfield in the box, he couldn’t get it out of his feet quickly enough, and a combination of Dylan Thiselton and Joe Sheridan blocked the shot.
When full time came, it meant a 2-0 win for the Eagles, who extended their lead at the top to four points, with 5th placed Chelsea up next. For Steve Wigley’s charges, an important match against Tottenham Hotspur follows, with the 4th placed Spurs well placed to overtake Fulham.
Line Ups – Fulham
1. Dermot Mee – An 18 year old Northern Irish ‘keeper, Mee signed from Manchester United in the summer, having previously been at hometown club Birmingham City. Capped four times at U19 level, Mee competes with Alex Borto, Damian Las and Alfie McNally for the number 1 shirt.
2. Luciano D’Auria-Henry – A very highly rated young right back, D’Auria-Henry is eligible for both England and Italy internationally. He has played at for the U18s as an underage player for two seasons, and is now very accomplished at this level.
3. Stefan Parkes – Could well be the next full back off the seemingly never ending production line when has turned out the Sessegnon brothers and Marlon Fossey in recent years. England captain at U15, Parkes is in his second U18 season but still just 16. Linked up well with Ollie O’Neill down the left flank.
5. Ibane Bowat – Comfortable in midfield or defence, Bowat is an 18 year old Scottish U19 international, who is also eligible for France. He was comfortable in possession and was often the player Fulham looked for at corners and attacking free kicks.
6. Idris Odutayo – A solid centre back who has now been playing at this level for three seasons, Odutayo has had his recent development hampered by injury, but remains a good prospect. Solid under the high ball, and a good reader of the game, he has formed a good partnership with Bowat.
7. Ollie O’Neill – Irish youth international O’Neill is one of the jewels in Fulham’s Academy crown. Part of the devastating quartet with Carvalho, Sylvester Jasper and Stansfield last season, this season is O’Neill’s chance to be the go-to-guy, and he was in scintillating form here, particularly in the first half. A tricky winger, but with a combative nature, he has genuine potential.
11. Kieron Bowie – Hailing from Kirkcaldy, in Scotland, Bowie came closest to scoring for Fulham, and the U19 international was unlucky not to add to his 2 goals for the season. Signed from Raith Rovers, Bowie has just completed his first full year in south west London.
12. Xavier Benjamin – Benjamin was the captain of Fulham’s U16 side, and it’s easy to see why as he’s a confident presence in the middle of the park. Happy to put his foot in where necessary, he has been called up to England U16s in the past.
14. Michael Olakigbe – I was impressed with Olakigbe, another who stepped up to U18 level this summer. Aggressive in possession, he frequently looked to – and did – beat his full back and get the ball into the box. Qualified for both England and Nigeria, he’s arrived from QPR two seasons ago.
15. Tyler Caton – Fulham love to have someone who can retain the ball and break up possession in their midfield at Academy level, with the likes of Ryan de Havilland and Jayden Harris frequently taking that role higher up the age groups. Caton, at just 17 is a recent arrival to the squad, and has stepped into the role well.
27. Jay Stansfield – One of the hottest properties in youth football, Stansfield was integral to Fulham’s success last season, after signing from Exeter City. Having spent almost three months out with an ankle injury, he will surely be featuring for at least the U23s once he is back to full fitness.
Line Ups – Crystal Palace
1. Joe Whitworth – Still only 16 years old, Whitworth has already established a fine reputation in youth circles, since signing for the Eagles from AFC Wimbledon four years ago. An England U15 international, he was exceptional here, organising well, and making some fine stops. A real talent.
2. Dylan Thiselton – Thiselton was up against in marking O’Neill, but acquitted himself well, and won as many duels as he lost. Palace have real pedigree in the youth system at left back, most notably in the form of Tyrick Mitchell, and with 13 appearances, Thiselton has the spot sewn up at U18 level.
3. Tayo Adaramola – A pacey right back who showed a good awareness of danger, Adaramola signed his first professional contract last November. Born in Dublin, he is an Irish U17 international and played in all their matches at the 2019 European Championships.
4. Aidan Steele – An 18 year old who has already featured for the U23s, the Northern Irish youth international is a natural fit as captain. He covered the pitch with ease, and was a real leader on the field. Steele signed for Palace from Watford, having initially played with Cliftonville. Was my Man of the Match today.
5. Dan Quick – Quick was part of a stubborn, resolute defensive effort here, and played well throughout. The Londoner joined the club at U15 level and has made eleven appearances this season.
6. Joe Sheridan – Kent born Sheridan was part of the team that won the U15 title, and was imperious against Fulham today. He reacted quickly to any threats, and was frequently the first head to the ball when free kicks and corners came in.
7. Kevin Gonzalez – Born in London, but eligible for Colombia, Gonzalez has already featured in the pages of the national media when his agent touted him as the next Coutinho. Has played ten times this season, scoring once.
8. Jack Wells-Morrison – An U15 champion, Wells-Morrison’s energy and tenacity in midfield was crucial here. He regularly prevented the likes of Caton and Benjamin from having any time on the ball, which strangled the supply lines to Stansfield.
9. Victor Akinwale – Another member of the successful U15s, Akinwale made his first England training camp last season, and bagged his fifth of the season today. He’s a strong presence in his own box as well, proving invaluable at both ends of the pitch.
10. Fionn Mooney – A very highly rated talent, Mooney was the de facto leader of the U15 champions, and bagged six goals at U18 level whilst still just 16. An England U17 player, he is by trade an attacking midfielder, but was more than willing to do the dirty work here, tracking runners, and giving his defenders an out ball.
11. Jesuran Rak-Sakyi – English born, but Ghanaian eligible, the winger was committed in his defensive efforts today, but made no mistake when offered the opportunity to score. He took his goal with consummate composure, notching his third in nine games this season.