10/12/2015: Saints U18s 2-3 Birmingham U18s
There was a period not that long ago when watching Saints at U18 level was almost as enjoyable as watching the first team. Under Jason Dodd and Paul Williams Saints' academy side was packed full of future stars and always played attractive, attacking football. You knew for certain that at least a few of the players on show would make it, and several more would at least enjoy fulfilling careers elsewhere. The 2011 intake alone included James Ward-Prowse, Luke Shaw, Calum Chambers and Harrison Reed, plus four others who have since gone on to play for the first team. The classes that came through just before and just after were almost as impressive. Now it appears the talent conveyor belt has ground to a halt. Very few players in this season's U18 squad will go on it make it at any significant level, let alone at St Mary's. Some of the worst players in previous intakes would be considered among the best if they were coming through now. Take Gboly Ariyibi for example. He was in the same age group as Shaw and Ward-Prowse, but was released at 18, despite impressing out wide at Staplewood on a more than occasional basis. He had a spell at Leeds before settling at Chesterfield, where he recently scored in a televised FA Cup tie against FC United. If a player of that calibre was coming through today he would be one of the first to be signed up to a professional deal.
Results at U18 level this season have been poor. Head coach Craig Fleming - who replaced Anthony Limbrick - has seen his side lose 11 out of 17 games. Saints were beaten 7-2 by Chelsea on November 14th and were thumped 3-0 by bottom club Swansea at Staplewood last Saturday. The 4-1 win over Arsenal in October was impressive, but overall standards have slipped significantly.
Saints have underachieved in the Youth Cup in recent years. Even the great 2011/12 side lost out 5-1 to a Patrick Bamford inspired Nottingham Forest. It was no surprise to see the current side go out at the first attempt. Birmingham picked off Saints on the counter throughout the first half. The visitors took the lead on 3 minutes when Ronan Hale sent the ball into the far post after latching on to a deep cross. David Popa got the 2nd on 12, powering his shot beyond the grasp of Harry Lewis. Popa got another on 21, finishing from inside the penalty area at the second attempt after Tyreke Johnson had been robbed of the ball near the halfway line.
Saints were at their best when they were playing quick short passes through the middle. Callum Slattery and Thomas O'Connor were clearly the most talented performers in red and white. The team rarely managed to build up enough momentum in possession, with players lacking in confidence and knowhow. The few half-chances Saints created mostly came from hit and hope long balls. Slattery's 9th minute free-kick almost caught out the keeper. Later in the half Stuart Wilkin had a shot blocked following good hold-up play from Olufela Olomola.
Fleming made a few subtle changes to team shape at half-time. Wide players Yann Valery and Johnson - who had been completely anonymous in the first-half - dropped deeper, while full-backs Richard Bakary and Jake Vokins were encouraged to push forward. Saints looked more compact as a result. The tactical alterations yielded an early goal. Bakary and Valery combined well on the right, with the latter feeding Olomola, who deflected the ball in.
The goal lifted Saints. It gave the team some much needed belief and for the first time all evening they started to play with a bit of verve. On 65 Olomola smashed a shot just wide on the volley. Saints enjoyed long spells of possession towards the end of the game without creating too many openings. Birmingham still looked the more likely in front of goal. Hale was incredibly unlucky on 75 when his shot bounced off both sides of the post. Valery almost caught the Birmingham keeper out from distance; just moments after the visitors missed another good chance. O'Connor headed in Slattery's free-kick in stoppage time to make for a tense finish, but Birmingham managed to see the game out in the end.
The final scoreline probably flattered Saints a bit, with Birmingham squandering a number of good chances. Still, Saints gave a good account of themselves in the 2nd half and there were a few good individual performances notably from Bakary and O'Connor.
Lewis: Made a few good stops, but also made a bit of a howler. Distribution a bit hit and miss
Bakary: Made some exciting runs out of the back in the second half and defensively sound for the most part
Cook: Has featured a reasonable amount for the U21s recently, but his experience at that level didn't really shine through on this occasion
Jones: Looked erratic in the early going, but did improve. Made a few good sliding tackles, including one which prevented a near certain goal
Vokins: First appearance at this level for the schoolboy. Made a few positive runs early on, but seem to lose his composure after the first 20 minutes
O'Connor: Not everything he tried came off, but deserves credit for always being so positive. Displayed class on the ball. One to watch
Slattery: Not one of his best outings, but still managed to play a few killer balls. Occasionally guilty of trying to do a bit too much
Valery: Very quiet in the first-half, but improved after the break, linking up well with Bakary
Wilkin: Couldn't really get involved in the game in the first-half, but managed to display some good close control in the second
Johnson: Worked hard, but mostly ineffective. Took up some good positions, but invariably unable to beat his man
Olomola: Held up the ball well, but often found himself a bit isolated up front until late in the game
Lea: Didn't get on the ball that much
Willard: As with Lea, didn't feature that often
Saints: Olomola (50) O'Connor (90)
Birmingham: Hale (3) Popa (12, 21)
Referee: Michael Webb
Saints line-up: Lewis, Bakary, Cook, Jones, Vokins, O'Connor, Slattery, Valery, Wilkin, Johnson, Olomola
Subs not used: Parkes, Cvjeticanin, Kayembe
Birmingham line-up: Beardmore, O’Keefe, Seddon, Potter, Challis, Martin, Lubala, Mulders, Popa (Lakin 69), Bailey, Hale
Subs not used: Smith, Bailey, Timms, Yuill