Saturday 13th March 2021, 1100 KO
Fulham FC U18 vs Southampton FC U18
The build up
With Fulham locked in a tussle with Crystal Palace, Brighton, Tottenham and Villa for the U18 Premier League South crown, the visit of struggling Southampton came at the perfect time, on the back a two week break following the 4-1 win over Aston Villa. Since that result, which put the Cottagers back on top, Palace had picked up enough points to cancel out that lead, so Fulham went into their preparation for this match in second, two points behind the Eagles.
The visiting Saints have had a difficult season under Paul Hardyman. After finishing 9th last time out, a number of key players such as Pascal Kpoumouh and Seamus Keogh were promoted to the B team over the summer, and with the ongoing injury crisis in the Southampton first team, the age group results have had a knock on effect. As U23 stalwarts including Nathan Tella, Caleb Watts, Kayne Ramsay and Will Ferry are drafted into the first team, so the U18s are called up to fill the void in the U23 ranks. As a result, they arrived in Surrey with a team missing so many regulars that five of their starters had played three or fewer matches, and the whole starting eleven had accounted for only three of the Saints’ 19 league goals this campaign. Unfortunately it also meant Goran Babic would be away, and I had been keen to see if the much vaunted Serbian justified the hype. With six points, and only one win in 13 matches, it looked like being a long morning for Southampton, even with the reigning champions missing a few key men.
Captain Xavier Benjamin was unavailable for Fulham, and Idris Odutayo took the armband in his stead. Also missing were Ibane Bowat, Mika Biereth and Ollie O’Neill – three key players who are all expected to travel with the U23s to Stoke on Monday. Stepping into the breach were Michael Olakigbe, Tyler Caton and Imani Languedoc, whilst Devan Tanton made the bench, giving him the opportunity for his second appearance this season.
The expected superiority for Fulham didn’t take long to materialise, and defensive midfielder Joshua Squires was pressed into a goal-line clearance after only two minutes, when Idris Odutayo should probably have done slightly better with his header. Odutayo did make amends just 60 seconds later, when Luke Harris met Michael Olakigbe’s header at the back post. The Welsh youth international saw his header come back off the bar, but his captain was waiting to nod into the empty net. One nil to Fulham, and the attacks would keep coming.
Southampton had (I think) their only attempt on goal around ten minutes in when Borto came out of his goal but only cleared as far as Luke Pearce. His didn’t catch his shot well though, and Jay Williams was able to easily control the effort on the edge of the penalty area. On 12 minutes, Harris (who started the game in lively form) fed Kieron Bowie down the left, but when the Scot cut inside his shot was blocked. Shortly afterwards, Harris fed Bowie in similar circumstances, he teed up Olakigbe, but the winger’s shot zipped wide of the post. Then Bowie again caused problems for Sonnie Davis down the left, and when he pulled it back to Odutayo the full back’s cross-cum-shot dipped narrowly over the bar. All these chances fell inside three minutes, and it was inevitable that a second goal was coming.
Stansfield could have grabbed it on sixteen minutes, but after Olakigbe and Harris had combined well to send him through he was denied by a brilliant last ditch block by Saints’ skipper Lewis Payne. Neither Payne nor anyone else could do anything a minute later though, as Stansfield played the most perfect slide rule pass into the box, completely removing the whole Southampton backline from the picture. He’d seen the run of former Raith Rovers man Kieron Bowie, who made no mistake from around two yards to bag his sixth of the campaign.
On 29 minutes provider turned scorer as Stansfield seized upon some horrible indecision to add a third. When Oliver Wright and Will Tizzard got their lines muddled, the one person they didn’t want to look up and see was last season’s top scorer, and having not scored since the 23rd of January, Stansfield was only too happy to enjoy their hospitable play. He sidefooted into the open goal, and his relief at having ended his mini-drought was palpable.
Fulham kept up the pressure, and had a number of chances to score. A good block from a Saints defender stopped Stansfield from adding to his tally after Harris had found him with a dangerous cross, whilst Imani Languedoc and Bowie both hit some speculative efforts over the bar. Harris also had a half chance, with his half volley easily held by the 18 year old Wright. That chance was a difficult one, but Harris really should have made it 4-0 on the stroke of half time when Stansfield slipped him in at the back post. Wright lunged despairingly to the bottom corner, but was able to breathe a sigh of relief as Harris put his shot just wide.
The second half saw a slight improvement from the Saints, as they managed to find some foothold in the game. Ryan Finnigan and Diamond Edwards did their best to stimulate some forward momentum, but whenever they did make it towards the Fulham box, if Languedoc or Caton didn’t stop them in midfield, a combination of Stefan Parkes and Jay Williams surely did. Across the full 90 minutes, Alex Borto didn’t have to make a single save.
All the chances were still being created by the side in white though, and on the hour mark Olakigbe added a fourth with a beautiful right foot volley. Stansfield clipped in a neat cross on a 45 degree angle, and Olakigbe met the ball sweetly, sending it back across Wright in goal to nestle in the far corner.
A minute later he returned the favour for his teammate from Tiverton, as he drove through midfield before toe poking the ball through to Stansfield. With two assists and a goal to his name already, the striker’s confidence was sky high, and he strode clear of the covering defender before burying the finish past Wright despite Payne’s desperate flying attempt to block. Two goals and two assists represented a day’s work done well for Stansfield, and having taken his tally for this injury interrupted season to three, he departed for Jaylan Wildbore.
In such a gifted side the summer signing from Burton Albion has struggled for minutes this season, and has scored once from six substitute appearances, but he was seriously fired up for this one. Almost immediately he drove past three challenges before seeing his effort deflected wide. Minutes later he attempted almost exactly the same, breaking from the half way line after vaulting the challenge of Southampton substitute Dom Ballard, but saw his shot blocked again.
Then, on 82 minutes, Olakigbe wrapped up his and Fulham’s work for the day, with his second of the match and fourth of the season. As Luke Harris again made ground down the left, he sent his cross low into the middle. Wright saw the danger with Wildbore and Bowie lurking and dived to push the ball away, but he could only send it into the path of Olakigbe, who slotted home easily.
A comfortable six nil victory for Fulham, which reaffirms their title credentials. For Southampton, the relatively short trip back down the M3 from New Malden will have been a chance to begin the inquest, but given the players missing there is a reasonable degree of mitigation. Still rooted to the foot of the table, they will be desperate to at least haul in Leicester City and avoid the ignominy of finishing bottom. Fulham though, are back on top. With Crystal Palace dropping points away to Reading, the Whites have erased their lead, and put themselves back in first by a solitary point.
Line Ups – Fulham
21. Alex Borto – The 16-year-old American ‘keeper seems to have established himself as first choice for the U18s now, after starting the last two and conceding only one. This was the fourth clean sheet of the season for Borto, who has recorded shut outs in 50% of his matches this season. He won’t get an easier clean sheet if he plays to the age of 40.
2. Luciano D’Auria-Henry – At 18 years old D’Auria-Henry already feels well established at this level. Making his 13th start of the season he was rarely troubled, and able to break forward and support the attacks at will, particularly in the second half.
3. Stefan Parkes –Captain of England U15s, Parkes is a calm and composed presence at centre back. He may only be 5ft 7in, but his prodigious leap means he’s still effective in the air, and his experience at full back gives him the confidence to play out of defence well.
4. Jay Williams – Also more than happy with the ball at his feet, Williams was prolific with the long diagonals today, regularly finding the feet and chest of Luke Harris on the left wing. A Wales U17 international, Williams signed from Newport County in 2019, despite significant interest from other clubs.
6. Idris Odutayo – Captain in Xavier Benjamin’s absence, Odutayo has made a reassuring return to the U18s set up following a long term injury. A powerful runner on the left, he struck up a good working relationship with Bowie and Harris, and was in the right place to bag his first goal of the campaign.
11. Kieron Bowie – The signing from Raith Rovers admitted he initially found the technical step up difficult when he arrived at Fulham, but he’s gone from strength to strength in 2021. His close range finish here was his sixth of the campaign, with five of them arriving since new year.
14. Michael Olakigbe – A Nigerian winger, was picked up from Queens Park Rangers in 2018 and made his U18s debut just over a year ago. With two goals and an assist today he was a key performer here. He’s come off the bench as often as he’s started this season, which really shows the strength in depth this Fulham group possess.
15. Tyler Caton – In his first full season for the U18s Caton has now made seven appearances, with this his second start. He’s unfussy in possession, and does a lot of the dirty work, and it was effective today.
17. Imani Languedoc – Another who has featured regularly from the bench, Languedoc got his fifth start today, and is a true Academy product, having signed from Colin Omogbehin’s Junior Elite aged 11. Sitting slightly deeper than usual today, he worked well with Caton, and was often the first step of an attack, picking the ball up from defence and looking forwards.
23. Luke Harris –A Wales U15 international, Harris is an exciting attacking player in a squad full of them. Fulham have been fortunate enough to have Jasper, Carvalho, Francois and O’Neill who can take this role over the last few years, and Harris looks like the next in that mould.
28. Jay Stansfield –Signed from Exeter City, Stansfield has already earned first team minutes, and is now re-finding his form at U18 level. With two goals and two assists today, he was a cut above the rest and Southampton couldn’t cope. Expect to see him challenging Tiehi and Ablade for the U23 spots before the season is done.
Line Ups – Southampton
1. Oliver Wright – Frome based Oliver Wright was promoted from the Southampton Academy formally in the summer, though he has already played a full season at U18 level. Today was his 10th appearance, and there was not a lot he could do about any of the goals.
2. Sonnie Davis – Son of former Southampton ’keeper Kelvin, Davis famously made his first appearance in a Saints shirt aged just 11, when he scored against his old man in a testimonial match. It was another first today, as the 15 year old made his bow at U18s level.
3. Matthew Carson – The 16 year old from Glentoran has made a good impression since arriving at Southampton in August 2020. Originally from Larne, Carson has settled straight into the starting XI at U18 level, missing only one match so far.
4. Joshua Squires – The disruptive midfielder was one of Southampton’s better performers on the day, despite it being only his third start at this level. More regularly a member of the U17s, at just 15 years old he was more than happy to enter the fray with the likes of Bowie, who has half a season of first team football under his belt.
5. Lewis Payne – Saints captain Payne is another promoted from the Academy last summer, and has gone on to be ever present for the U18 side. He was a committed presence at the heart of defence, flinging himself in front of any shots he could in attempt to halt the tide.
6. Will Tizzard – 18 year old centre back Tizzard was a vocal authority for the Saints, but like his teammates found it hard to deal with the movement and pace of Fulham’s forward line. Another ever present, he and Payne have formed the bedrock of the Southampton defence all season.
7. Rylee Wright – Wright signed for Southampton in 2018 from youth side NPLYFC based in Teddington, Surrey. The Saints fended off interest from QPR and Brentford to land the winger, who made his third appearance of the season today despite being just 16.
8. Ryan Finnigan – 17 year old Finnigan signed his first professional deal last December, and was Saints most effective player today. The only member of the squad with first team minutes, Finnigan appeared off the bench in an FA Cup victory over Shrewsbury Town in January and has been singled out for his potential by Academy Director Matt Hale.
9. Luke Pearce – A product of the Walsall Academy, Pearce has primarily been a back up to Sam Bellis this season, but made his fourth start of the season today. He caught the eye of Southampton’s Academy when featuring regularly for the Saddlers’ U23s and making the first team bench aged just 15.
10. Diamond Edwards – Signed from Reading in 2019, Edwards is a former England U15 international who showed clear ability on the ball here. The 19 year old has been compared to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Saints supposedly saw off interest from Roma to sign him.
11. Fedel Ross-Lang – Ross-Lang signed professionally alongside Finnigan, having arrived at the club from Manchester City last summer. More regularly used from the bench, Ross-Lang is capped at England U17 level and made his second start of the season here.