Saturday 27th February 2021, 1200 KO
Fulham FC U18 vs Aston Villa FC U18
The build up
For the first time in a long time, optimism is in the air. The vaccine programme continues apace, and our thatch-haired leader has announced a road map to normality – and, crucially, the sun is shining. Against this backdrop it was genuinely lovely to spend a Saturday afternoon in the balmy sunshine sans coat for the first time in a number of long winter months. I wasn’t the only person enjoying the sun, as Fulham U23 manager Mark Pembridge watched on from the pavilion.
The match itself was set to be a cracker, with 2nd playing 3rd in the Under 18 Premier League South. It was tight at the top coming into this match, as Aston Villa – with two games in hand – sat only two points behind their hosts Fulham. Ahead of them Crystal Palace were still well within reach, whilst the chasing pack of Tottenham, Brighton and Chelsea were all poised dangerously. The Villans have suffered from a number of postponements this season, but are clearly a force to be reckoned with, having lost only once in 12 matches and boast the best PPG record in the division. That loss, however, was against today’s opponents, when a Luke Harris double and Adrion Pajaziti penalty sank the Midlands side.
Steve Wigley’s Fulham side have been in patchy form since the turn of the year. A 4-1 loss to Crystal Palace preceded a 6-3 victory over Brighton. That was followed by a 2-0 loss to Palace, a 5-0 victory over Spurs, and then last week a 2-1 loss to West Brom. With the best goal difference in the division, and outscored by only Brighton this is a strong side, and a victory against Aston Villa today could potentially see them back at the top of the table.
Villa started the match with six players who had featured in the FA Cup squad against Liverpool back in January, when the first team was laid low by coronavirus. Of that sextet, three made their debuts, including the Dutch centre back Sil Swinkels, who had only turned 17 the day before. They started the brighter here, and in the first ten minutes Fulham were almost chasing shadows as the visitors moved the ball quickly and cleanly. Despite this brighter start, they never really challenged Fulham’s goal, and it was the home side who got the first effort on target through Mika Biereth on 11 minutes. His side footed shot was well saved by Oliwier Zych in the Villans’ goal, but the ‘keeper was powerless to prevent the opener five minutes later.
It was Jay Stansfield, playing in a deeper than usual position, who started the move for the opener, as he played a delightful ball over the back line for Kieron Bowie to run on to. The Scot picked up the ball, and undeterred by the presence of Taylor Hart and Paul Appiah, shifted if onto his left foot and struck a firm effort in the bottom corner of Zych’s net. His 5th goal of the campaign.
Bowie then sliced a good chance when he was set up by Biereth, but ten minutes later the score was two nil, and it was another good ball over the top that set it in motion. Biereth managed to get behind Sil Swinkel, and when Paul Appiah came across to stop the striker driving towards goal, he was adjudged to have fouled him. It was the wrong call, but (thankfully, for many reasons) there is no VAR at Academy level, and the decision stood.
Biereth dusted himself off, and duly dispatched the penalty. There was real joy to be had for Fulham with the clipped diagonals into the channels, with the aggressive Biereth and Bowie both happy to put in the hard lines to make them work. With Villa’s full backs pushing high up the pitch, it meant there was space to exploit, and with the technical ability of Ollie O’Neill, Jay Stansfield and Luke Harris to pick the passes, they were only too willing to do so.
The chances for Fulham started to mount up, and before half time a looping header from Ibane Bowat dropped just wider of the post, and then two minutes later Ollie O’Neill was denied by good keeping from Zych. Having been set free behind defence, O’Neill was bearing down on the Pole’s goal, but he came out, stood up well, and made the block. At half time, the score was 2-0, and Fulham were the only side looking likely to threaten.
They almost extended their lead straight away in the second half, as a good cross from O’Neill found Luke Harris in space, but his effort was cleared off the line by substitute Mikell Barnes. Five minutes later, it was Bowie’s turn to go close, as his shot from Jay Williams’ cross clipped the outside of the post and went wide. Then, out of nothing, Aston Villa were back in the game on 56 minutes. The visitors put together a few forays into the Fulham rearguard, and when Stefan Parkes intercepted well to concede a corner on 56 minutes they made it count. A deep ball in eluded everyone, and Tommi O’Neill found himself alone at the far post. He made no mistake with the finish, and all of a sudden it was a game again.
But they weren’t really. Fulham’s pressure resumed almost immediately, as first Ollie O’Neill, and then Mika Biereth, drew good saves from Zych at his near post. On 69 minutes, Ibane Bowat came within centimetres of making it 3-1. Ollie O’Neill, who was looking dangerous every time he got in possession, drove a low ball into the penalty area, and Bowat reacted instinctively to jab a foot at the ball – it beat Zych, but cannoned back off the crossbar.
Minutes later, both Stansfield and Biereth had half chances, with the Tiverton born striker’s shot blocked, and Biereth’s saved by Zych. Then, finally, on 82 minutes, Fulham did get the goal their play deserved, thanks to another penetrating run by O’Neill. When he dribbles at pace the worry it causes defenders is palpable, and on this occasion he was too quick for the Villa defender, and was brought down in the box. Up stepped Biereth, and again he fired home with aplomb to make it 3-1.
On 88 minutes, Villa really should have made it 3-2 after Kahrel Reddin laid on a gilt edged chance to Chisom Afoka. Reddin, from Sutton Coldfield, was on as a sub, and is considered one of the brightest prospects in the Academy. Recently name checked by Gabriel Agbonlahor (along with Louis Barry) as a potential first teamer of the future, he did well down the right and swung the ball in towards the far post. With Alex Borto committed to – and beaten by – the cross, Afoka was presented with an open net at the back stick, but put his effort high and wide.
That was that for Villa’s chances, as O’Neill set up a fourth for Biereth moments later, putting Fulham 4-1 up with less than a minute to go. The Irish winger played a delightful first time ball to Biereth, who showed good strength to hold off Seb Revan, slipped the ball past Zych, and then fired the ball into the empty net. Four goals, three for Biereth, and two assists for O’Neill.
A statement victory for Fulham, who inflicted only Villa’s second defeat of the season, it also came on a day where Crystal Palace could only draw against Leicester, putting the Cottagers back on top of the table. It was worse news for the visitors, who dropped to fifth as both Tottenham and Brighton reined them in.
Line Ups – Fulham
1. Alex Borto – The 16-year-old American ‘keeper, who is also eligible for Poland, signed from US side Cedar Stars last summer. The New Jersey native has been the most used number one for Steve Wigley this season, making seven appearances and keeping three clean sheets.
3. Stefan Parkes – Since joining from Brentford aged 13, Parkes has become one of the most highly rated players in the Academy. Captain of England U15s, the Londoner has featured in every match this season, scoring once – despite not turning 17 until March.
4. Jay Williams – Welsh U17 international Williams signed from Newport County in 2019, despite significant interest from other clubs. Williams has recently come back from an injury lay-off and looks back to his best driving forward from the right back position.
5. Ibane Bowat – Scottish centre back Bowat signed scholarship forms in 2019, and went on to play a key part in the title campaign that followed. With 12 appearances this season, he is a dominant presence in both penalty areas, and is regularly the go-to option at attacking set pieces.
6. Idris Odutayo – Comfortable at left back and centre back, Odutayo took the left back spot today and was a threat throughout the match. A bruising presence, his work rate is also top notch. Has featured eight times this season.
7. Ollie O’Neill – Republic of Ireland U17 international O’Neill is always dangerous with the ball at his feet. Having made his U18 debut at the age of 15, he has grown in stature over the last two seasons and is now one of the side’s key players with two goals in 16 games, as well as a raft of assists.
9. Mike Biereth – Hat trick hero, but that was just one element of his performance, as he consistently stretched the defence with his running. His second triple in the month he turned 18 has taken the striker to 13 league goals in just 16 games, leaving him 4th in the race for the golden boot.
11. Kieron Bowie – The Kirkcaldy lad has established himself as a key man in the forward line, and added another goal today – taking his tally to five in 12 games. Signed from Raith Rovers, the powerful striker notched ten goals and five assists for their first team by the age of 17.
12. Xavier Benjamin – Happy in defence or midfield, Benjamin has been with Fulham since primary school. Captain of the U16 side, he has slotted in seamlessly since stepping up to the U18 level. A regular at England U16 level alongside his clubmate Stefan Parkes, he has a very bright future.
23. Luke Harris – With five goals in ten games from midfield, Harris has brought his goalscoring threat to the U18 stage despite only making his debut at this level in September. A Wales U15 international, he is becoming hard to leave out with his recent form.
28. Jay Stansfield – After top scoring nationally last season at U18 level, Stansfield was unlucky to have this campaign disrupted by injury from the start. Signed from Exeter City, Stansfield has already earned first team minutes, and is now re-finding his form at U18 level. He’s been playing in a deeper role recently, where his vision and quality on the ball has been really influential.
Line Ups – Aston Villa
1. Oliwier Zych – A Polish international at U15 and U16, Zych made a number of important stops today, on only his third appearance of the campaign. Still only 16, he arrived at Villa Park from Zaglebie Lubin last summer.
2. Taylor Hart – With three goals in eight matches, Hart is an unexpected goal threat from right back, in his first full campaign at U18 level. The 17-year-old hails from Sutton Coldfield, and was one of the players involved in the Liverpool squad in January.
3. Seb Revan – The 17-year-old full back from West Bromwich is the younger of two brothers in Villa’s Academy. Both have featured mainly for the U23s this season, with Dominic being an ever present, and Seb making 11 appearances as one of the youngest in the older age group.
4. Paul Appiah – Signed from Chelsea in 2019, the 19-year-old centre back has been an ever present as captain this season at U18 level, and has also made two appearances for the U23s. A vocal, organising presence, he has made two EFL Trophy appearances, against Fleetwood Town and Carlisle United.
5. Sil Swinkel – Signed from Vitesse Arnhem last summer, Swinkel is highly rated at Villa Park, and also in the Dutch national set up, having represented the Netherlands at U15 level. At 6’3 he cuts an imposing figure, and made his first team debut as a substitute against Liverpool the day after his 17th birthday.
7. Chisom Afoka – Another 17-year-old, Afoka was making only his fourth start of the season, and was one of the more threatening players for Villa. Afoka made the move to Villa Park from West Brom last summer.
6. Hayden Lindley – Another to make a first team debut against Liverpool, 19-year-old Lindley signed from Manchester City in 2019, and has been an U18 regular ever since. With two goals this season he is more of a deep lying midfielder who recycles possession well.
8. Tommi O’Reilly – O’Reilly signed scholarship forms last summer, and made his first U18 start here against Fulham. The 17-year-old Irish midfielder acquitted himself well against an impressive Fulham engine room today.
9. Dewain Sewell – With top scorer Brad Young missing, Sewell led the line for Villa today. More usually a midfielder, the 17-year-old signed as a scholar last summer and has scored once in 10 starts this season. He worked hard against a strong partnership in Odutayo and Bowat here.
10. Ted Rowe – Rowe also got off the bench in the FA Cup in January, and has made nine U18 and two U23 appearances this campaign. Another who signed scholarship forms last summer, the attacking midfielder originally hails from Leamington Spa.
11. Tristan Abldeen-Goodridge – The 18-year-old Londoner signed for Villa in July 2019 from AFC Wimbledon. He has made five appearances this season, and got his first goal in a 2-0 win over Tottenham in October.