Barnsley Schoolboys U14s will compete in the Champions’ Cup District Final against Aldershot & Farnborough on Friday morning.
The youngsters, managed by Jimmy Whitehead, are set to go up against last year’s winners to lift the trophy outright for just the fourth time in the district’s history.
Since the tournament was established in 1904, the previous triumphs have been in 1949, 1961 and 1991, with the prize being shared with Bristol in 1998 – a team that contained Neil Austin and Anthony Kay.
“In almost 120 years, we’ve only won it three times outright and once shared, so it’s a big accomplishment,” insisted Whitehead.
“In this day and age, I think it’s probably a bigger achievement because you’ve got academies open now that you never used to have, so the lads who are going into there now are training three or four times a week and playing against top players all over the country.
“In that sense, I’d say the standard is even better than what it used to be.”
In what is almost a Champions League-style format, Barnsley have overcome East Ridings, Bradford and Hull to top their group before beating York, Rotherham and Wirral to reach the final.
It’s one step further than last year, when the youngsters lost out to Liverpool 2-0 at the semi-final stage as U13s.
Their reward is a showpiece occasion at Stoke City’s Bet365 Stadium, with the match getting underway at 11:30am.
“It’s brilliant for the lads; a 30,00-seater stadium for them to be playing at at their age,” continued Whitehead. “These experiences might be the biggest and best thing they do, getting to a national cup final, and hopefully one or two of our players might go on to be professional footballers because they’ve got the talent.
“But these kind of occasions will only benefit and help them for their development going forward. I think any kid would relish going on a professional pitch in a final.
“The lads want to win and, for the town and the district, we want to be successful. For me, people outside of Barnsley will think it’s a small town and how have we done this, but I think opposite. I think we’ve got really good players around here.
“At this age, the boys understand that representing the town is a privilege and proud moment, and that will only make them more determined to get better as footballers.
“These lads want to become professional footballers – we all know and explain to them how hard that is – but people become footballers, so why can none of these lads do that? Hopefully one or two will get a career from this and, from my point of view, I’d be blessed to have helped them on their journey. It’s not just down to me, but I’ve had an impact on what they’ve done and they’ve improved, and that’s what my job is really.”
Some of the schoolboys are on track to achieve their dream, with a handful of Whitehead’s squad already involved in academy set-ups across the South Yorkshire region.
Three are currently in the academy at Oakwell, while four are based with Rotherham and another representing Sheffield United.
For Whitehead, it’s the main ambition of his role – to get these youngsters into the professional game eventually.
“My goal when I started at under 11s was to get as many players into academies as I could,” he asserted. “Three lads in my team are at Barnsley and they signed last year and started this season at under 14s – they’ve never been in an academy before, and this is a good age to drop into an academy because they’re two years away from looking at a scholarship.
“There’s a clear pathway, and that’s the main reason I want to do it – to bridge the gap between grassroots football and academies. When I send a kid on trial or a scout comes to watch, they’ve been trained. I want the players to know what to expect when they go into an academy, so they’ve got a good chance of passing that trial when they get there.”
Looking ahead to Friday’s final against Aldershot & Farnborough, Whitehead says there is a sense of excitement for his team, who travel down on Thursday evening to give themselves the best preparation possible.
But, win or lose, he believes the youngsters should be proud of what they have achieved so far in this competition.
“I’m really excited – it’s a really proud moment for me,” declared Whitehead. “I’ve had these boys for four years, the majority of them, since they were 10 years old, so they were little kids when they came and now they’re growing into little adults.
“They’ve improved so much and have worked so hard, and they just seem to get better and better.
“This is for them – it’s not about me – it’s about them to enjoy it because they’ve earned it. I’ve just helped them on the way and I know they’ll do me proud and do Barnsley proud, whether we win or lose.
“We are going there to win because we’ve got that winning mentality, but ultimately, to get to this level is fantastic and it’d be the crowning moment for us all if we could win.”
Tickets for the final are FREE and can be claimed here.