Ahead of our U18s’ Professional Development League play-off semi-final next weekend, Nicky Eaden expressed his delight at his side’s application over the course of the season.
The young Reds were deservedly crowned as North champions – finishing 11 points clear of nearest challengers Sheffield United and remaining unbeaten at home during what has been a tremendous campaign.
“You couldn’t have asked for a better season, really,” began Eaden. “To win the league and be unbeaten at home; we’ve put in some really good performances and scored lots of goals.
“We’ve not always played out of our skins or played champagne football – it’s been a real mix of grinding results out and some good play mingled in with that.”
The title was sewn up following a 4-1 victory at Cardiff City on 15 April, and our U18s went into that game knowing that three points would be enough after the Blades fell to defeat at Swansea City earlier in the day.
However, Eaden urged caution heading into that encounter, insisting his youngsters had to remain focussed to complete the task at hand and ensure they were rewarded for their hard work.
“In the build-up that week, I was stressing to them that I didn’t care what Sheffield United did on the Saturday,” he continued.
“You couldn’t keep it away from them because they kicked off early, but I warned them that it wasn’t time to take their foot off the gas because Sheffield United had lost at Swansea – it’s time to go the other way; it’s in your hands and you can do it today.
“To be fair to the lads, every time we’ve had a big game this season, they’ve stuck their hands up and produced.”
The messages have been consistent since – to continue playing at the same levels and end the campaign strongly before competing in the play-offs.
Victories over Charlton Athletic – who have recently been crowned as South champions – and Watford to round off the term are an indication that our U18s still have the bit between their teeth and will be a force to be reckoned with in the end-of-season finale.
“I never really like to set targets for the lads – we don’t work in five or ten-game blocks; it’s the next game,” said Eaden. “But I did say to them that I want to finish the season unbeaten, which obviously means you end up winning the play-offs, if that’s the case.
“We made sure that when we went into the next game, we did everything we could to win that one.”
The advantage of winning the league means a home fixture in the semi-final, with either Cardiff City or Millwall set to visit South Yorkshire on 13 May.
Before then, though, the young Reds will continue their preparation out in sunny Tenerife on a warm weather training camp as reward for their achievements this season.
It’s a nice change of surroundings for our U18s and a chance to bond in a different environment, but the coaching staff are trying to keep things as normal as possible while on the continent.
“We’ve made sure sessions are shorter and tried to make them intense rather than long; you don’t want them out in the sun for that long because it can be draining,” explained Eaden.
“Overall, the facilities have been great here. The people who have organised the trip can’t do enough for you because we had a schedule before we came out and have had to make slight alterations, and they’ve accommodated us so well.
“The facilities are top class here and the pitches are Premier League standard, we’ve got an Olympic-size pool and can do recovery sessions, there’s ice baths and a great gym. We’ve just maximised everything that we’ve been able to.
“We’re trying to keep it pretty much as we would at home. We had a game the other night against quite a strong men’s team, which was good for the lads. You’re obviously wary of the workloads because some of the lads have had a long season, but we’ve still got to get some work into them.
“We’ve done as much prep as we can because we obviously still don’t know who we’re playing in the play-offs, so we’ve done a lot of in-possession stuff and creative stuff as to how we’re going to play, which we’ve done all season, and I think that’s shown in the amount of goals we’ve scored.
“Once we find out who we’re playing next week, we’ll be able to do a bit of work on them.”