Simon Clark’s Under-18s travel to Fleetwood Town tonight in the FA Youth Cup, hoping to kick off a similar run to last season’s which saw them reach a glamorous semi-final at Anfield.
Confidence is high among the Under-18s, who sit second in the league with nine wins from 13, and a number of regular starters were rested on Saturday in preparation for the Fleetwood match.
“We had a really good run last year, that was before my time but I know speaking to those in my squad who were involved last year that it’s a fantastic experience for them,” said Lead Coach Simon Clark. “We’ve rested the majority of the squad and they only played minutes if they needed minutes.”
Although Clark did not experience last year’s run first-hand, he is well aware of the effect it had on the young players.
“Before I came in, I watched the games of last year’s FA Youth Cup run,” he said. “Tom Hart [Professional Development Phase Coach] was involved in it heavily and he knows what it can do for the whole Academy and the football club.
“We need to be at our best because Fleetwood have had a fantastic start and they’ve got two lads who have played in their first team.”
The Under-18s players have experienced pressure games already this season, coming out on top in a first-versus-second clash in the league against Millwall. But Clark said they are all well aware this is undoubtedly the biggest of the season so far.
“I spoke to the lads after training and asked them how they rate this game in their season and they’ve all said this is the biggest game," he said. “They naturally make it a big game and they now have to understand what it takes to perform, but I have no doubt that they will because of the experience and the work ethic they have, and because the experience of last year will put them in great stead.
“When you look at Sonny Blu Lo-Everton and Ryan Maclean, the experience they got last year will hold them in great stead and hopefully we can put together a run again this year.”
Another who impressed in last year’s run – most notably with outstanding performances at Leicester City and Liverpool in the latter stages – is goalkeeper Dante Baptiste.
“I talk to [Goalkeeper Coach] Graham Stack most days and he said at Leicester and Liverpool he was just ridiculous, he could have won games on his own,” said Clark. “Hopefully this year in the earlier stages we can dominate games and have him do less.”
Tonight’s third round tie will go to extra-time and penalties if it is level after full-time. Clark hopes victory will be sealed within 90 minutes, but has good reason to back his ‘keeper if a shoot-out is required.
“Dante has just come from a loan spell at Hendon, which has done him good and he’s just won a penalty shoot-out there,” he said. “If it goes to penalties at Fleetwood, we certainly know we’ve got a goalkeeper who saves penalties.”