It was a productive few months for our U18s, who rounded off their Professional Development League campaign with six wins from seven games.
Those results saw Adam Murray and Tom Harban’s side climb from near the foot of the table to sixth after hitting a magnificent run of form in December.
Just two defeats in the second half of the season ensured the young Reds picked up 30 points in 14 outings, taking their tally to 41 – which is a Club record total in a 28-game campaign.
“I think it’s been a challenging season in lots of different aspects, but a season in which we’ve seen massive growth in a lot of areas as individuals – not just as a team,” said Murray.
“We started off the season with a new philosophy and a new way of playing, which was massively different to what the players were used to coming through the academy in previous years, so it took us a while to maybe build the basics of that.
“But, once we did that and we made a few tweaks to the structure, we’ve seen massive gains from it – not just as a team and in the performances, but individual growth and learning has been huge. So, overall, it’s been a fantastic season for us.
“Me and Tom sat down with about seven or eight games to go and we gave the players a challenge because we’re in a development environment and we wanted to put the focus on winning.
“We said to the players that for the last seven games we were going to do everything we could to win; find ways to win, ways to manage games, how to go about winning three points and what that entailed. We knew we’d suffer a couple of setbacks and get back up and go again – and that happened within the seven games – but we came out with 18 points from 21.
“All the credit has to go to the players in terms of them getting to gist with the new way of playing; it took a while to get the new messages across, but we’ve gelled as a team as the season has gone one with a lot of first years and under 16s who have come in and done a fantastic job in their first real taste of full-time football.
“So, for us to finish 10 points better off and with a fantastic goal difference compared to last season, we’re really happy with the way the work has unfolded and, for us as coaches, to see that coming out on a Saturday afternoon is really fulfilling.”
With several U18s players making the step up to U23s football this campaign, it has resulted in more fledglings from our stellar U16s crop linking up with Murray and Harban.
Aiden Marsh, in particular, has impressed at a higher age group – showing his keen eye for goal on a number of occasions – while also featuring for Martin Devaney in the U23s.
In addition, the emergence of Kareem Hassan-Smith at right wing-back, Joe Ackroyd in midfield and Sam Nicholson at the heart of defence certainly gives the Club reason to be optimistic moving forward.
“I think it’s really good for them in terms of being exposed to that type of football early on,” asserted Harban. “The most pleasing thing about it is that it’s been quite a seamless transition for them, going from under 16s to under 18s for a lot of them.
“That group, as a group, is very highly rated at the Club – I think we’ve taken 12 scholars from it – so, in our minds we had no doubt that, when we had to put players in, that they’d come in and do a job. It’s been pleasing that most of them have chipped in with goals as well since stepping into the under 18s team.”
A mid-season slump saw the U18s lose five consecutive games – including a 6-0 humbling at the hands of local rivals Sheffield Wednesday back in November.
That poor run of form might have seen several young squads crumble, but there was a transformation within the group and renewed confidence following a hard-fought 1-0 win over Birmingham City.
“That was a period of the season where I think myself, Adam and the rest of the under 18s staff had a chat and reflection about where we were as a group at that moment in time; we came out thinking that we had to push the group mentally and test the resilience,” continued Harban.
“So, in terms of the activities that we did in training, we came away from the football at times and pushed them to their limits, mentally, and I think they came out of the other side with bells on.
“Now they’re flying as a group, and we’ve seen in the last seven or eight games that, when they do get a setback, they’ve got the mental resilience where they can dig in and get results out of it.
“I wouldn’t say there was a massive turning point because I don’t think in any game this season, bar maybe one, that we’ve really struggled in; we’ve been in games consistently throughout the season.
“I think, in terms of the group reflecting, we had that period of time where we needed to look at what we can do to get this group where it is now and, like Adam said, it’s full credit to the players that they’ve bought into everything that we’ve tried to implement and they’ve got the rewards out of it by finishing where they have done in the league.”
Perhaps the main catalyst behind the success was a tactical change that saw our U18s deploy a 3-5-2 formation, having originally played with a back four.
Certain players were better suited to a new style, while others adapted seamlessly to learning a different position and role – emphasising the character within the group and willingness to learn.
“The biggest thought process behind it was what was going to get the best out of the players and give the best chance,” insisted Murray. “It was more of a broader scope to learning and developing different roles.
“When we looked at different formations and the areas of weakness we had to focus on – not just as a team, but for individuals – to get better; that was the shape that we felt would push players to the limits. It would isolate certain players that we wanted to be tested and, at the same time, it would kind of put people in places to express themselves a little bit better.
“For their development, our aim is to get them into the first team – and for them to be tactically aware will only help them in the future. I’d say it was a test for them, but they took it on board and we tried to make it as simple as we could.
“A lot of our work always relays back to the Club and the manager’s philosophy, anyway, so even with the change of shape we were high pressing, our counter-press was very aggressive and, in possession, we wanted to keep the ball.
“We’re having some really good tactical discussions at the moment with all the coaches – we’re blessed in the academy with some very intelligent coaches and we’re overseen by an Academy Manager that’s very focussed; he knows the way he wants us to play in terms of in line with the first team and the football club’s philosophy.”
One characteristic that has stood out, in particular, this campaign for our U18s is the team’s desire to never give in. This group of players, seemingly, doesn’t know what a lost cause is.
It all started with the first game of the season at home to Watford, when the young Reds came from two goals behind to claim all three points, before snatching a draw at the death against Colchester United a few weeks later.
That resilience was crucial throughout the campaign, and even ended with two late strikes at Queens Park Rangers to end the season on a high.
“I think the team spirit has been a big part of what they’ve done this season and the fact that they can keep on going and dig in until the 93rd or 94th minute when they need to just shows the togetherness and team spirit within the group,” said Harban.
“There’s some big characters in there that really drive it, so it’s been really pleasing – even last Saturday at Queen’s Park Rangers, we scored two late goals to come away with the three points and that was a massive bonus for the lads. The team spirit has been first class and I think that will carry on into next season with this group of players.”
There are many hurdles that players often have to overcome at a young age – with injuries being a particularly frustrating obstacle.
It was a difficult few months for Brad Binns and Charlie Winfield, both of whom had lengthy spells on the sidelines at the start of the campaign due to their respective knocks.
Tommy Willard also missed the last few weeks of the season through injury and is aiming to come back stronger, and Harban insists that the young players need to show mental strength and bounce back in the right manner.
“For some of these players, it might be the first time that they’re getting these kind of injuries and the first time that they’re out for lengths of time, so it’s up to us as staff – not just me and Adam, but the sports science and physio department – just to keep them involved with the group as much as we can.
“But, at the same time, they’ve got to learn to deal with these sorts of setbacks because they’re going to get more as they go on through their football career. So for Brad and Charlie, in particular, I think it’s been a massive learning curve for them in terms of how they manage their body, how they manage the time when they’re in those positions if they’re in them again – it can be a positive as well as a negative at the same time.”
The arrival of Daniel Stendel at Oakwell last summer brought a new dimension to the Club in terms of how Barnsley play football. This dynamic, high-tempo and attacking brand has transcended through all the age groups and has proved to be incredibly effective.
It is a style that the players enjoy implementing on the pitch and has led to positive results and performances over the course of the campaign, and, while there was a transitional period earlier in the season, the U18s have reaped the rewards eventually.
“Personally it’s been fantastic,” admitted Murray. “For me, as a young coach, it’s been an eye opener coming from a first team environment where, probably as a young manager myself, I had different ideas because of the club I was at. So, coming into a club that has a philosophy like this and a manager that wants to play in this way has made me better as a coach, and to coach it is exciting.
“The players love it; they’ve bought into an aggressive, attacking style of football, which makes it easier for you as a coach to get your points across. There’s been a lot of new ideas coming to us two as coaches going to the players, and then it’s been our job to implement it and make sure it’s carried out with the boys on a daily basis.
“But it’s been a breath of fresh air, to be honest with you – the gaffer has been sharing his ideas and there’s an open-door policy with him if you want to bounce anything off him, so it bodes well for the future.
“I think we’re really, really blessed in terms of being a football club that wants to promote from within and get the young boys through, which at some clubs you don’t get. We’ve got a manager that wants young players in and there’s an open door for them if they’re good enough, which is fantastic.
“So, as a development coach, it puts a real purpose on your work and it’s one of the main reasons why I came to the football club because I knew that there was a purpose behind the role and it was something I was really keen on, and I think, to see the lads get a chance this season – not just in the first team, but 16-year-olds playing in the under 18s and 18-year-olds playing in the under 23s and doing well – it’s backed everything that the Club is about.”
Looking ahead to the 2019/20 Professional Development League campaign, it would appear that the future is particularly bright for our U18s.
A number of players have already shown their credentials and maturity when stepping up from the U16s, with more set to make the permanent move next season.
There is a talented group of players coming through the Oakwell academy; it’s a tantalising prospect and one that Murray and Harban are relishing.
“I think, if we’re being honest, we want pre-season to start now,” continued Murray. “A lot of the under 16s have been with us for parts of this season and been a big part of what we’ve achieved.
“We’ve got a lot of local boys coming in next season – a big intake of strong-minded, young men that are really fulfilled with the purpose to be a professional footballer. They give you enthusiasm every time you see them and to have players like that, whatever level it’s at, is brilliant as a coach.
“So, we’re looking forward to it and have high hopes for them, which adds a little bit of pressure to them, but they’ve all stepped up this season and we’re confident that, if they stay grounded and focussed, that they’ll have good futures in the game.”