Saturday 27th March 2021, 1200 KO
Fulham FC U18 vs Norwich City FC U18
The build up
The Premier League U18 campaign is building nicely to a crescendo, and in the southern table, there are four teams smack bang in the mix. Going into this weekend, the team to catch were Crystal Palace, top on 38 points, with Brighton second on 36. In third sat Fulham, with 35 points, but crucially with games in hand on both of the teams above them, and a better goal difference. Finally, Aston Villa are the side lurking in fourth, but have played 2-3 games fewer than everyone else. If they were to pick up maximum points from those games, they’d go top.
Slightly strangely, of those four teams, only Fulham were playing this weekend, and the Whites were hosting 8th place Norwich City. The Canaries, managed by Steve Weaver, finishing second bottom in 2019/20, but have improved massively this campaign. A difficult run of four defeats in a row during October and November meant they wouldn’t be competing for the title, but this season has still represented progress. Harry Brooke has joined from Millwall and established himself as a key player, whilst a strong crop were promoted from the U16s, including an almost entirely new backline which has led to the side conceding 13 fewer than at the same stage last season. Of that group, Ola Okeowo, Lewis Shipley and Brad Hills would all start against Fulham, with Hills captaining the side.
Steve Wigley’s Fulham side are hitting form at just the right time, coming into this on the back of big wins against Southampton and title rivals Aston Villa. With 16 goals scored and three conceded in their last four games, Fulham’s strength at both ends of the pitch is apparent, and with the exception of Xavier Benjamin who is currently recovering from surgery, Wigley had pretty close to his first choice team available. He would have been missing Luke Harris, who was called up the Wales U17 squad this week, but the midfielder was able to travel back from the training squad to participate in this match. The only other players missing were Jay Williams away with Wales U18, and Michael Olakigbe who had been invited to England’s U17 training camp for the first time.
Fulham came out of the blocks quickly, with Mika Biereth, Kieron Bowie and Ollie O’Neill all looking to take on their defenders whenever they got into possession. It’s been a feature of Fulham’s play this season that they look to attack down the left more frequently, and with Idris Odutayo and Ollie O’Neill linking up well, they settled into that pattern of play early.
Early half chances fell to Jay Stansfield and O’Neill, but it didn’t take long for the Cottagers to put themselves ahead, and the goal came through Kieron Bowie. The former Raith Rovers player took his time to adapt to U18 football at this level, but has really hit his stride since the turn of the year. When Mika Biereth slid an inviting pass past the covering Brad Hills, Bowie didn’t even have to break stride to fire past Reece Trueman – an U16 player making only his second appearance at this level. It was Bowie’s 7th of the campaign, and means he’s now scored in five matches on the bounce.
Two minutes later Lewis Shipley made a good block to prevent O’Neill getting on the scoresheet, and the young Canaries began to grow into the game. Shipley doesn’t turn 18 until November (and shares his birthday with a blogger not too far from here) but played with a composed assurance against a very mobile and aggressive front line here. After making three appearances last season, he’s missed only two matches this campaign in what is his first full year at U18 level.
At the other end Abu Kamara and Kenneth Aboh were starting to ask questions of Fulham’s defence, which had seen Ibane Bowat restored after missing the last match on U23 duty. Kamara saw a free kick easily held by Alex Borto before the American ‘keeper had to react quickly on 25 minutes to prevent Aboh getting his second of the season. That was as close as Norwich came in the first half, whilst Stansfield and Luke Harris both put shots over for Fulham.
At half time the Whites took a 1-0 lead into the break, but it felt as though the next goal would be crucial. If it fell to Fulham, they’d surely go on to the win, but the game was finely poised, and the echoes of the 2-1 loss to West Brom when Fulham had been in control of the game meant they couldn’t relax.
And they didn’t. If the first half had been quite an even affair, the second was anything but. For the first ten minutes, Norwich had the upper hand, and Borto was forced into a good save low at his near post from an Aboh drive. However, despite the best efforts of Brooke, Joe Duffy and Alex Matos to create more for their forward line, the defensive duo of Bowat and Stefan Parkes held firm, and provided the platform for Fulham to pull clear of the visitors.
On 56 minutes, Bowie made it two when Idris Odutayo recycled a Jay Stansfield cross. When the Tiverton-born striker crossed, Eddie Jackson did well to nick the ball off Bowie’s toes, but Odutayo had no difficulty finding the floppy haired Scot to steer home. Bowie’s left footed finish took him to eight for the season, meaning only Biereth has scored more.
Two minutes later it was three, with Stansfield bagging his fourth of the campaign with a brave header inside the six yard box. Again, it was Odutayo who made the goal. The full back from Southwark showed to go inside Jackson, before jinking outside and powering goalwards to deliver the cross. He was almost unplayable at times going forward today, and would be my vote for man of the match. His delivery for Stansfield was perfect, and the striker just had to show the bottle to stoop in under the challenge of Ola Okeowo and head past Trueman.
Three nil, and it felt like game over. Both sides made changes, and Norwich skipper Hills floated an effort over around the 60th minute, but Fulham weren’t done. Ten minutes after Hills had gone close, both Odutayo and Bowie had a number of slashes at a bouncing ball around the goal line, but a combination of scuffed finishes and brave defending from Hills, Jackson and substitute Solomon Alidor-Hamilton kept them at bay.
Ibane Bowat saw a goal disallowed shortly afterwards, when he used his hands to lever himself above his marker Finley Welch before heading past Trueman, but he got his goal just a few minutes later. Bowat is consistently the target for Fulham at set pieces, and when O’Neill put a pinpoint delivery on his head after 86 minutes, the Scottish centre back looped his header back across Norwich’s ‘keeper for his first goal of the campaign.
And there was still time for more, as Fulham bagged a fifth, making it fifteen goals scored in their last three games. Substitute Olly Sanderson – who had scored four goals in his first eight matches of the season – received a pass from O’Neill in the box, and swept a first time finish past Trueman to make the score 5-0.
A resounding win for the Whites, and an important three points which moves them back above Brighton and Crystal Palace to the top. A home tie against West Ham follows on Tuesday, and Steve Wigley will be keen to keep up the pressure on the other title contenders.
Line Ups – Fulham
1. Alex Borto – The American now has nine starts and five clean sheets – including two in a row – and seems to have won what was a very competitive battle for the number one spot. He made at least two key saves here, including one when the score was 1-0 which could have changed the complexion of the game.
2. Luciano D’Auria-Henry – Had a good battle with Joe Duffy and Ola Okeowo down Fulham’s right flank which prevented him getting forward as much he likes to, but was solid defensively and won most of his duels. After a long term injury last season, his consistency this term has been a massive boost to Steve Wigley.
3. Stefan Parkes – Having captained England U15s, Parkes only turned 17 the day after this match, and will be able to celebrate in style after another clean sheet from the heart of defence. Like Steven Sessegnon a few age groups up, Parkes is comfortable across the back line, and has been racking up good performances from right centre back in recent weeks. His signing from Brentford U14s will surely pay dividends for Fulham in the next few years.
5. Ibane Bowat – The Scotland U19 international has been attracting interest from the likes of Arsenal and Everton in recent weeks, and it is easy to see why on the back of performances like this. His passing range is top drawer, and he is a persistent threat from set pieces. In my opinion the best centre back prospect at the club, along with Jerome Opoku.
6. Idris Odutayo – Odutayo was my man of the match today, and once again did most of his good work in the opposition half. The full back/centre back’s scholarship contract is up at the end of the season, and played every match he’s been available for – and been racking up the assists – there’s not much more he can do to earn an extension.
7. Ollie O’Neill – Absent last week with the U23s, Fulham are that much more threatening with O’Neill in the team. The Irish youth international got two assists here, and his deliver from free kicks and corners is impeccable, as is his willingness (and ability) to drive at defenders with the ball. Captained the side today and has two goals from his 17 appearances this season.
8. Matt Dibley-Dias – Another arrival from Brentford, Dibley-Dias has missed much of 2021 with injury, but the New Zealand born midfielder is the usual partner to Xavier Benjamin when available. He has good battling qualities in midfield, but was also comfortable in possession – crucially, he retains the ball well, and plays in the mould of Ben Davis and Ryan de Havilland.
9. Mika Biereth – Got an assist from a fine pass to Bowie, and it says a lot that the matches he doesn’t score in are notable now. Only Dane Scarlett of Tottenham has scored more than his 13 in the southern league this season, and the 18 year old is now firmly the first choice to lead the line for Steve Wigley.
11. Kieron Bowie – Eight goals for the season now for Bowie, as the Kirkcaldy native goes from strength to strength. He discussed post-match about how he is making more use of his physicality, and it is noticeable. He also has a useful knack for timing his arrival into the box to make the most of deliveries from wide areas.
23. Luke Harris – Harris has progressed to the U17s for Wales this week, and also made his 12th appearance of the season for Fulham. Nominally a central midfielder, he drifts to the right often and is another who likes to arrive late in the box, which has contributed to his five goals this season.
28. Jay Stansfield – The former Exeter City striker bagged his 4th goal in only his 6th start of the season. Stansfield is a versatile striker, comfortable leading the line, dropping into the ten position, or attacking from wide areas. Fulham have managed his return from injury carefully, and it is paying off now.
Line Ups – Norwich City
1. Reece Trueman – Only his second appearance at this level, Trueman is still an U16 ‘keeper, but was called up in the absence of both Sam Blair and Joe Rose. May have conceded five here, but there wasn’t much he could do about that.
2. Eddie Jackson – The only member of the back line who was in the U18 squad last season, Jackson had a battle on his hands against the dual threat of Odutayo and O’Neill, but showed tenacity to the end. Has been with the Academy from a young age.
3. Ola Okeowo – Promoted from the U16s this summer, Okeowo has made 12 appearances and produced some good combination play with Alex Matos ahead of him at times. Hailing from Hertfordshire, Okeowo was is the same school team as Daniel Oyegoke, of Arsenal’s U18s.
4. Brad Hills – Recently turned 17, Hills has become a key player at both ends of the pitch since being brought into the U18s in the summer. With 12 appearances and three goals he was Norwich’s second top scorer on the pitch today. Captaining the side, he was did his best to organise the defence against a mobile and pacy Fulham attack.
5. Lewis Shipley – A boyhood Norwich fan, with the club since the age of seven, Shipley was probably the best player for Norwich on the day. With fifteen appearances he’s adapted to U18 football well, and the youngster from Wisbech has international experience with England U16s as well. Signed his first professional contract in December.
6. Saxon Earley – Another of the crop promoted from the U16s in August, Earley spent last summer volunteering in a COVID relief food parcel scheme. A pupil at Langley School, he has benefited from the experience of his Head of Sport – former Norwich midfielder Darren Eadie.
7. Alex Matos – Formerly of Luton Town, Norwich fended off interest from Arsenal and Tottenham to land Matos – who is another of Eadie’s charges at Langley. Still eligible for the U16s, Matos gained England U15 match time in 2019, and has scored twice in six appearances at U18 level this season.
8. Harry Brooke – Signed from Millwall in the summer, Brooke made his Norwich debut in October and has not missed a match since. A creative midfielder, he has a similar playing style to Todd Cantwell, and no, that’s not just based on the hair/hairband combo.
9. Kenneth Aboh – The third of the Langley trio in the starting eleven, Aboh has scored once in five appearances but is still eligible for the younger age group. He came closest of any of the young Canaries here, but was denied on two occasions by good saves from Alex Borto.
10. Abu Kamara – Norwich’s top scorer this season, ever-present Kamara has 10 goals in 19 appearances so far. His performances this season have been rewarded with a contract running until 2023 and he has been with the Canaries since the age of 11.
11. Joe Duffy – Duffy turned 17 in January, and has had a productive first campaign at U18 level, scoring three in 14 appearances. Norwich born and bred, Duffy is another who has been called up by England U15s, and signed for Norwich from local Costessey Sports Club whilst still at primary school.