Saturday 10th April 2021, 1030 KO
Fulham FC U18 vs Arsenal FC U18
The build up
Once again Fulham went into a matchday back in second place, with Crystal Palace having played twice since Steve Wigley’s side last took the field. Two weeks earlier, victory over West Ham had sent Fulham three points clear at the top of the Under 18 Premier League South, but after the young Eagles beat West Ham and Southampton by a combined score of 9-1, they were playing catchup again. With both Fulham and Palace seemingly winning every week, it’s entirely conceivable that the title could come down to goal difference, so the big wins both teams are racking up may be important in a month’s time. The Whites have scored 25 and conceded three in their last five matches, Crystal Palace have scored 20 and conceded five. Both teams are seemingly striding away from the other sides in this league, with Arsenal next in line to test Fulham’s resolve.
The Gunners were missing star midfielder Mauro Bandeira, who underwent surgery this week, and with other U18 eligible players likely to play for the U23s against Derby on Monday, Ken Gillard was forced to dig into the younger age groups for subs. Amani Richards and Reuell Walters were named on the bench, as was Edu’s son Luigi Gaspar who is continuing his return from injury. Arsenal have underwhelmed with a talented pool this season, including regular England age group players such as Zach Awe and Omari Hutchinson. Sitting 7th in the league, they have lacked a regular goalscorer ever since Folarin Balogun stepped up to the U23s two seasons ago. There are high hopes for Khayon Edwards in that regard though – the 17 year old has scored six this campaign, and still has a full season eligible at this level.
For Fulham, both Jay Stansfield and Idris Odutayo were missing after playing for the U23s in a 4-1 victory over Aston Villa the day before. In came Jay Williams, fresh from international duty with Wales, and Michael Olakigbe, who had set up a goal for England on his U17 debut in the week. There was a reminder of the national news as well, with the game preceded by a minute’s silence, in honour of the Duke of Edinburgh who passed away aged 99 the day before, and all the players also sporting black armbands.
After two minutes, Biereth had his first shot of the match when Stefan Parkes sent a curled pass into him from the left wing. Biereth was well covered by Brooke Norton-Cuffey though, who blocked his effort for a corner. Ollie O’Neill swung that corner in, but it eluded everyone, much to Luciano D’Auria Henry’s frustration at the back post.
The match settled into a combative affair, with both sides putting in some big (but fair) tackles. Taylor Foran put in one notable effort to stop an Ollie O’Neill breakaway, with Stefan Parkes returning the favour by sending Omari Hutchinson about four feet into the air. It was a strangely un-U18s type football match, with chances at a premium but an absorbing midfield battle playing out.
There were half chances around the fifteen minute mark for both Kieron Bowie and O’Neill which were blocked, but both sides were struggling to create. Having been in free scoring form, Fulham were finding themselves well marshalled by the Arsenal centre backs, with both Foran and Henry Jeffcott battling well. Outside them, Mazeed Ogungbo and Norton-Cuffey were doing a better job of containing Olakigbe and O’Neill than most defenders have. Ahead, Zach Awe was shielding the defence efficiently.
It took just over half an hour for the first proper effort of the game, when former Raith Rovers striker Kieron Bowie got his head to another O’Neill corner. He made a firm connection, but saw the header deflect off the crossbar and over Ovie Ejeheri’s goal. It was another fifteen minutes before Ejeheri himself would be troubled, getting down low to hold a scuffed shot from Biereth. That was the first, and last, shot on target of the half.
The first half had been even, but Arsenal had really struggled to create anything, with the creative Hutchinson, Marcelo Flores and Joel Ideho finding it hard to get on the ball. When they did, Matt Dibley-Dias and Imani Languedoc were snapping at their heels in no time. With the second half underway, both Biereth and O’Neill played crosses across the face of goal, but no Fulham players could connect, and then on 53 minutes Ejeheri made a brilliant reaction stop to prevent Michael Olakigbe opening the scoring with a near post header.
Fulham were starting to turn the screw, and then on 60 minutes, Arsenal scored with their first shot of the match. The ball was swung in from deep on the right hand side, and as Fulham’s defence looked to Khayon Edwards as the danger man, Joel Ideho was able to sneak in at the back post and tuck the ball home. It was the summer signing from Ajax’s third goal of the season.
Almost immediately, Fulham levelled. Olakigbe, always so dangerous with the ball at his feet, drove forward, before being fouled on the edge of the D by a combination of Jeffcott and Jack Henry-Francis. The Kiwi-born Dibley-Dias stepped up and curled the free kick into the corner of the net, despite Ejeheri getting a hand to the ball.
From that point there was only going to be one winner, and on 72 minutes Kieron Bowie continued his good recent form to net a second, and put Fulham in the lead for the first time. Again, it was Olakigbe who was the source of the danger, when he beat Ogungbo down the right and crossed towards Biereth. The striker couldn’t quite reach it, but Bowie was following in at the back post and finished first time for his 11th of the campaign.
And the hosts weren’t done there. On 81 minutes, Olakigbe found Biereth, and despite the close attentions of both Jeffcott and Ogungbo, he got a firm right footed effort off towards goal. It was close to Ejeheri, who probably should have done better, but the ball seemed to go straight through him, and Fulham were 3-1 up. That was Biereth’s 15th of the campaign, meaning only he’s now just one behind David Omilabu and Dane Scarlett in the race to be the South league’s top scorer.
Both Khayon Edwards and Luigi Gaspar went close for Arsenal in the dying minutes, whilst Bowie should have added a fourth with the last kick of the game when Biereth teed him up, but his shot skewed wide. The referee’s whistle a second later meant that it didn’t matter, and Fulham took the three points, and with it, the lead in the title race. About 150 miles north, Aston Villa were going down 7-0 to Chelsea, which added to their 2-0 loss to Brighton last weekend, means it now is really a two horse race at the top. Both Fulham and Palace have 44 points after 20 matches, but Fulham’s goal difference is fifteen better… With only four games left, this one’s going to the wire.
Line Ups – Fulham
1. Alex Borto – Making his 11th appearance conceded only his 7th goal of the season today, but made a good stop low to his left from Luigi Gaspar late on. The summer signing from New Jersey has really made himself at home in the number one shirt in the second half of the season.
2. Luciano D’Auria-Henry – The pace of D’Auria-Henry from full back is an important weapon for Fulham, and he has a great understanding with both Luke Harris and Michael Olakigbe in front of him. Sixteen appearances this season, to add to almost a full campaign in 2019/20, and he still has a whole year eligible at this level.
3. Stefan Parkes – Another composed performance from Parkes, who started at left back then moved to the centre after Williams was substituted. He exudes confidence every time he players, and it really is remarkable to think the west Londoner still has two years left at U18.
4. Jay Williams – Recently returned from international duty where he picked up his first U18 cap for Wales in a 2-0 loss to England, Williams slotted in next to Bowat at centre back. Removed on 66 minutes, it looked as though he had picked up an impact injury.
5. Ibane Bowat – Another international, though not in action in the recent break, Scottish U19 Bowat didn’t have a huge amount to do as Arsenal generally struggled to attack through the centre, but was his usual composed presence on his 15th appearance of the season.
7. Ollie O’Neill – Making his 19th appearance of the season, O’Neill had a good battle with Norton-Cuffey here. Always a threat with the ball at his feet, he dovetailed well with Parkes down the left. An Irish U19 international, his set piece delivery is a big part of Fulham’s offensive capabilities.
8. Matt Dibley-Dias – Bagged his third of the season today, showing off his free kick prowess. Retained possession well and did the dirty work alongside Languedoc shielding the defence. Originally at Brentford, Dibley-Dias has slotted straight back in after an injury-interrupted season.
9. Mika Biereth – One of the most prolific U18 strikers this season, Biereth has really continued where Jay Stansfield left off last season. His pace and aggressive running stretches defences, and his finishing has been consistently good. Notched his 15th of the season here.
11. Kieron Bowie – On a ridiculously hot streak, the summer signing from Scotland has now scored in seven matches on the bounce, to bring his tally to 11 for the season. A real physical presence, he routinely outmuscles opposition defenders and presses effectively out of possession.
14. Michael Olakigbe – Man of the match today, with two assists to add to the one he got for England U17s in a midweek friendly. Still three weeks from his 17th birthday, the winger started this season on the fringes, but has grown in importance through the year.
17. Imani Languedoc – Partnering Dibley-Dias in midfield, before moving to left back for the last twenty, Languedoc was again tidy and tenacious. Now in his 7th year with the club, this was his 6th start of 13 appearances.
Line Ups – Arsenal
1. Ovie Ejeheri – Born in Greenwich, and eligible for England, Uganda and Nigeria, Ejeheri attended an England U17 training camp in November, and swapped with Hubert Graczyk for the U18 ‘keeper’s shirt this season. Arsenal have a huge surplus of number 1s at the U23 level, so if the decks are cleared this summer, he could have U23 opportunities next season.
2. Brooke Norton-Cuffey – Signed from Chelsea in 2016, the right back signed his first professional contract with the Gunners in January. 16 appearances at U18 level, and an U23 debut this season, stand him in good stead moving forward – as does his natural intensity on the pitch.
3. Mazeed Ogungbo – A Republic of Ireland youth international, Ogungbo is the captain of the U18s, and has now been involved with the U18s for three seasons. A versatile defender, he can cover any position across the back line.
4. Taylor Foran – The centre back famously ended up in goal on his U23 debut in October, but is highly rated within the Arsenal Academy. A no-nonsense defender, he has made 12 appearances this season.
5. Henry Jeffcott – 17 year old Jeffcott has featured six times this season, and is typically a left back though deployed through the centre here. He did well against a very efficient front line, and made a number of crucial blocks. His running battle with Biereth was enjoyable needly at times.
6. Zach Awe – Another played who has recently signed his first professional contract, the 17 year old has featured regularly for England at various schoolboy levels. Often a centre back, he played in a defensive midfield position here, and has made 14 appearances this season.
7. Omari Hutchinson – Top scorer for the U18s this campaign with seven goals, Hutchinson has been an ever present, and has trained with the first team this season. A fixture in the England U17 squad, he has been with Arsenal since the age of 11, and is one of the most highly rated players at London Colney.
8. Jack Henry-Francis – A calming presence in midfield, Henry-Francis was making his 14th appearance here. Was one of Arsenal’s best players today, and has a playing style similar to that of Charlie Gilmour who came through the Arsenal Academy before moving to St Johnstone.
9. Khayon Edwards – With six goals in his debut U18 campaign, Edwards is a highly rated prospect. Edwards’ final season at U16 level saw him notch a quite respectable 15 goals. The north London local was up against it today, but battled hard, and was influential in Ideho’s goal.
10. Marcelo Flores – A Mexican U16 international, Flores joined Arsenal from Ipswich Town in 2019. Originally from Canada, he is also eligible for England and was named in the Guardian’s “Next Generation 2020” list of the 60 best young talents in world football. Has 12 appearances and four goals this season.
11. Joel Ideho – Signed from Ajax in the summer of 2020, Ideho has played three times for the U23s and ten times for the U18s. He notched his third of the season here. Prior to Ajax, Ideho turned out for Willem II Tilburg and the Gunners saw off interest from Southampton and Hertha BSC to secure his signature.