Reflections on Royal progressIt's been easy to see in the past few days just what our youth teams' progress means to the entire club, and in particular to manager Nigel Adkins.
The boss was in the dressing room straight after the under 18s' historic FA Youth Cup win against Liverpool last week, and when he got confirmation of our under 21s' victory against Arsenal to reach the final of the Premier League Cup on Saturday, he asked for a microphone in order to wish them congratulations live on local radio, despite having just finished his post-match chat. Such was the delight our boss took in seeing young players making progress.
And it's not just Nigel. Chairman Sir John Madejski was on the pitch doing Youth Cup fist-pumps and hugging Eamonn Dolan, while Director of Football Nick Hammond was of course in the tunnel congratulating our players on their historic achievement. As an another example, up on the gantry where our live YouTube stream was being broadcast, we'd all agreed to keep the noise to a minimum as my colleague Ross, Michael Hector and Jake Taylor commentated through the game - but it's safe to say silence was well and truly broken when George McLennan equalised and then De'Jaune Taylor-Crossdale scored the winning penalty. There was no holding back at those moments.
The manager rightly said after Saturday's game it had been an uplifting week for the club, and he was absolutely right. In fact, it goes back a little further than that. A fortnight ago our under 21s won 2-1 at Anfield, and not only was the win pleasing, but also the fact so many of our fans got to see it live on LFCTV. They saw a side full of ability and confidence, and Craig Tanner in particular got tongues wagging on social media. Of course, it wasn't just him, and his assists were only possible because of good finishes from Michael Hector and Harry Cardwell.
For me, one of the most interesting aspects of the game at Anfield was speaking to manager Martin Kuhl after the match. You could forgive him for having a beaming grin after a result like that, but there was nothing of the sort. His mentality was simply 'we're pleased, but we want our players to come back to Anfield and play in a first team game.' Led by Eamonn Dolan, our Academy has always had that goal, to produce players for the first team. And with six Academy products playing in the Championship game against Brighton five days later - plus another one on the bench - that strategy is clearly working.
When Nigel Adkins spoke of it being a positive week for the club, he was in no way limiting that to our youth setup. The Brighton game was the start of what he publically said was a big week, and the display at the AmEx got us on the right track. It's perhaps easy for me to use stats in our favour but I can't imagine many teams go there and have 58% possession.
And then up to Leeds three days later; a truly fantastic result. The spell after half time was absolutely devastating and you don't need me to say it, but Royston's free kick was sensational. Credit to Leeds for coming back into it, but we saw the game out well and you could see on the boss' face after the game how pleased he was with his players. All of that made the 30-minute delay and 5am arrival back home more of a distant memory!
The following day was that epic FA Youth Cup encounter, and it was honestly one of the best nights I've had at Madejski Stadium. Watching youth football in itself is a joy, there's a youthful exuberance which shines through, but this was something else. Cardwell's opening goal was brilliant, and in itself should be enough to talk about, but there was so much more to it. To go 4-2 down in extra time and then fight back, it was just a great night to be there. I implore you, if you can get to our Youth Cup games, please do.
And look at the football David Dodds' team played in the second period of extra time, when you could forgive young players for being nervous and anxious. There was nothing of the sort in Liam Kelly's pass for Taylor-Crossdale's goal, and then there was so much good play in the 4-4 equaliser; Jack Stacey out wide, and then composure from Noor Husin and Tariqe Fosu not to snatch at it, instead setting up George McLennan for a wonderful moment. The calmness in that situation deserves great praise. And then five penalties scored out of five. There's just so much about the evening that sticks in the mind, and Liverpool manager Neil Critchley got it absolutely spot on when he talked about the quality on show from both teams. There's much conjecture about the future of English football, but if this game is an example then we're in for some excitement, that's for sure. These young lads can play, make no mistake about it.
But the fun didn't stop there. It was a real shame that fixture congestion meant the under 21s semi-final was played at the same time as a first team game, because like so many people at the club I really wanted to see both matches. But my colleague Matt was there as we took on the Gunners, and he simply described the performance as 'unbelievable.' Four of our lads had played 120 minutes on Wednesday night, and trust me just watching it was tiring, never mind playing! They then needed to find the energy for another two hours of football, and from Matt's first-hand knowledge, the vibe at full time was fantastic. This is a serious competition, the best players from the best Academies. It might be the first year it's been in existence, so it's not quite on the radar as much as the FA Youth Cup, but arguably it should be; the players involved can be a good few years older and there's more likelihood they've had first team experience. It's a strong knock-out competition and a 3-1 result is a real marker for our team.
Back at Madejski Stadium we were taking on Derby, and of course we'd have liked all three points in a game where there were plenty of chances. But the boss was right in his desire to praise the players after three tricky games. He knows there will be twists and turns, and with ten games to go it's all to play for. We could well have won the game, but in fairness Derby had some big chances too. They hadn't got to third in the table without causing opposition sides problems, and overall a draw is probably best described as 'not too bad.' Unbeaten in the three games keeps us in the hunt.
On top of all this, our ladies team won 2-0 in the FA Cup on Sunday afternoon, and they're gearing up for their first League game which is at Madejski Stadium and is free entry on Wednesday 16th April, 7:45pm. Please forgive the obvious plug!
And quickly, in terms of dates for the diary, the FA Youth Cup semi-final is two-legged against Fulham or Huddersfield, who play tonight [Tuesday 18th]. The semis [the other tie is Arsenal vs Chelsea] are scheduled to be live on ITV4, as is the final. Therefore we won't show any more Youth Cup games on YouTube. As an aside, in the FA Youth Cup there are minimum admission prices that have to be adhered to, which isn't the case for under 21 games.
The under 21 final will also be two legs, and we're trying to stream the game live here on the website; it won't be on YouTube due to the different rights contracts involved, and there's no TV partner for this competition yet. We'll be playing either Man City or Burnley, and their semi isn't until 1st April. The day before, our under 21s play Man Utd at Madejski Stadium which should be another very good evening.
So right across the club, there's been much to be positive about. I haven't even mentioned the under 21s' 4-1 win against Bolton last Monday! I think to sum up, I'll leave you with an incredible comment from Michael Gilkes after the Youth Cup game, when I said to him 'what a great night,' his response was simply, 'no, what a great football club!'
As a PR man I couldn't have put it better myself!
Craig Mortimer-Zhika, Head of Communications