Originally scheduled to feature in our Boxing Day edition of Grove Street for the visit of Stoke City, we sat down with Tom Harban to discuss our U18s' progress this campaign.
The season is going really well, what’s your assessment so far?
"I’m really pleased with the first half of the season. I spoke to the lads after the game on Saturday (11 December), just telling them how well they’ve done, how well they’ve worked – they’ve worked extremely hard since the came in in the summer.
"Overall, I’m really pleased with where we are as a group; the performances have been really good on the whole. We’ve had a couple of not so good ones that might have led to a couple of poor results, but overall, really pleased."
The FA Youth Cup aside, is there any performance in particular that you thought was the standout one?
"Probably Saturday – the first 25 minutes – we were excellent, both with and without the ball. We caused Crewe lots of problems and were 3-0 up after about 12 minutes, so probably Saturday’s performance."
That performance carried on from the FA Youth Cup, are you still looking back at that game as a benchmark of what you want the lads to be hitting?
"No; I expect those standards of the lads in every game. They’ve shown that they can perform to that level throughout the first half of the season on numerous occasions. Saturday could have gone the other way where they go into the game disappointed and have a lacklustre performance, but they came out of the blocks firing and all credit to them; they took the FA Youth Cup defeat on the chin and made sure they ended the year with a win."
You’re not just going strong in the league, but also in the Premier League Cup, is the target to win that?
"I think it’s got to be. The lads want to go out to try and win every game, and if you go in with that mindset, more often than not, then you’re going to be in with a chance of being near the top of the league or winning the Premier League Cup. It’s the first year we’ve been in it, so we want to be really competitive and get as far as we can."
A few of these lads were part of this group last season that was doing really well but fizzled out towards the end. Are they using that as a bit of an added incentive?
"I think they’ve got to. It’s part of their development; they’ve got to learn from those situations. We had a sticky patch last season of five games where results didn’t go our way and it kind of led to us not being around the top two where we wanted to be. So, they’ve got to learn from that, learn from the experiences of last season and pass it onto the lads who have come up."
In terms of experience, there’s a lot of players who have stepped up to the under 23s this season, so that’s only beneficial for them, isn’t it?
"That’s what we want every year – we want lads going up to the under 23s and trying to push themselves and stretch themselves in terms of different physicality and maybe a tempo change compared to under 18s football. But, with that, the biggest thing is the attitude for when they do come back into the under 18s group that they don’t get complacent because they’ve done well with the under 23s for two or three weeks. Their attitude to perform and desire to perform to the highest level has to stay the same no matter where they are."
Does it help that the under 23s squad is smaller than it perhaps has been over the last few years?
"I’m not so sure. I think the lads are performing to a level at the minute where any opportunity they get in the under 23s is fully deserved. So, I’d like to think that that’s not the case. The lads are doing really well and they should be pushing the lads in front, not only to play with them but to get past them and move them out of the way.
"That’s the environment we’re in and the environment we want to create, and if they’ve got to leapfrog over someone in the under 23s to get in and around the first team, then that’s what they’ve got to do."
Are there any players – without naming individuals – who have really stood out this season that you’ve been a bit surprised by?
"Yeah, two or three. I wouldn’t say stand out, but I’ll go off where they were when they walked through the door at the beginning of the season to now, the improvements in two or three individuals – particularly a couple of the first years – have been really pleasing to see.
"Then you’ve got two or three second years who are pushing and doing well all the time. But I think that only comes from the collective of the group; the way they work together. If they don’t work as hard as they do as a group and push each other, then you might not see the level of performance from individuals within the team."
As a coach, seeing that individual development, that must give you some real satisfaction?
"That’s what we do it for in the academy. We’re not here to produce teams, as such – we’re here to produce and develop individuals who are hopefully going to get into our first team or, if not our first team, a first team somewhere else in the pyramid. That’s our job and it’s really pleasing to see them developing and progress and improve.
"These lads with me, they came in as young boys from school and, by the time they leave me, they’re young men; that’s the job that we’ve got to do. It’s nice to have a good team within that, but, at the end of the day, it’s up to us to produce individuals."
You just mentioned school there; the lads are still doing their education, how’s that all going?
"They’re flying with it, to be fair – we get really good feedback from the college tutors and Dom Roma, the Education Officer. They’re pretty much in and out these days now because they’re that far ahead, so for them to see that part of their programme in here, it’s important because if football isn’t the career they end up in, they’ve got other opportunities down the line."
As a group, where does this batch rank in terms of the ones you’ve worked with, without putting you on the spot?
"I’ve been leading the under 18s for three seasons now and I’ve been fortunate to have three very good groups in terms of the way they apply themselves every day, the way they work, the discipline and competitiveness within the group.
"I’ve had three really good groups and, looking into next year, we should have a really competitive group again – which is what we want to see. Even the two years before that, when I was assisting, the groups we had were good groups with good people within them, so I’ve been fortunate in terms of that, so far."
It’s going to get to the point soon where more under 16s are going to be integrating, so are you quite hopeful of this next batch coming through?
"Yeah, we’ve got a lot of attack-minded players in the under 16s, which is good and, technically, they’ve all got ability, so hopefully between now and the end of the season, they’ll start getting opportunities to play in the under 18s programme and showcase what they can do.
"Physically, it’ll be a completely different challenge for them, but like in the past when the likes of Aiden Marsh and Joe Ackroyd – Harrison Nejman last season – all came up in their under 16 season and performed well, so I’ve got no doubts that it’ll be the same this time."
There is one striker who is catching the eye – we won’t name him – but he is absolutely flying, isn’t he?
"He’s doing really well. I think he’s our top scorer now in the under 18s. I know Briggsy has missed him in the under 16s, but it’s unfortunate for him that he’s come up with us and done so well. He’s looking fitter and stronger every game he plays now because the intensity is different to the under 16s, and he’s having a real impact on the team, which is really good for him and us as a group."
How do you manage his development, then, because it could be easy to get carried away – especially given that he’s also scored for the under 23s, too?
"His personality and temperament is that he just wants to play football, so he’ll play football for whoever. He could turn up on a Sunday morning and play for the under 14s and he’ll work just as hard as he does for the under 16s, under 18s and under 23s.
"That’s the kind of person and personality that we want in the club. He’s not one of these to get carried away and I think as long as there’s a ball involved, he’ll give everything. Hopefully that remains the case over time, but we as a staff and academy have to keep pushing him to see where he could get to and to fulfil his potential moving forward."
Moving into the second half of the season, what are the collective hopes for this group?
"Obviously, the second years are wanting to push for professional contracts at the club, so that’s an individual goal for them; they want to be in and around the under 23s programme – as do the first years. I think that’s where they need to be in their head space now.
"But, as a group, they want to be successful; that’s the vibe I get from having conversations with them. They want to be successful, challenge the top two and go as far as they can in the Premier League Cup. They took a little bit of a knock with the FA Youth Cup, but it was a really good performance, so we can’t really have anything too negative to say about that.
"Are there bits they can be better at? Yeah. So, over the next half of the season, the mistakes that we have made in certain games, we can eradicate and kick on."
They broke the points tally last season, can this group go on again and smash it?
"I hope so. I think they’ve got the potential to do it. Obviously, we’ve lost a couple of teams from our league now that have gone up to Category One, but they’ve got the potential after a really good and positive first half of the season.
"But I keep saying to them now that they have to come back and hit the ground running if they want to be successful. We’ve got a tough first game back away at Wigan, and they’re always at the top end since coming into Category Two, so that’ll be the benchmark for when they come back."
You won away at Wigan in the Cup earlier this season, does that give the lads the belief that they can go there and get the win?
"Yeah. There’s a big belief in the group that they can go into every game and be competitive and put teams to the sword, if you like. But the biggest thing I’ve found with young boys is the complacency – they can’t get too carried away with what they’re doing and how well they’ve been doing; they’ve got to take each game as a different challenge.
"I’m sure, saying that, Wigan won’t want to get beat at their place again by us, so it’ll be an interesting battle."