Saturday 16th May 2021, 1100 KO
Chelsea FC U18 vs Fulham FC U18
The build up
So this is what it would all come down to. At 1055 on Saturday, 155 matches had been played in the U18 Premier League South, and it would take the 156th, between Chelsea and Fulham, to decide the destination of the title.
The Young Whites won the league last season, with Chelsea finishing second by only four points. This time around, the Blues were midtable, and it was another South London side – Crystal Palace – who were vying for the title with Steve Wigley’s team. This match should have been played three weeks ago, but a postponement meant it would take place now, in mid-May, with all other games completed. Fulham therefore knew exactly what they had to do – win. Anything else, and there would be celebrations in Croydon, where the likes of David Omilabu, Jesuran Rak-Sakyi and Jack Wells-Morrison had fired Palace into contention. Were they to take the title, they would look back on two victories over Fulham as crucial to the success
In recent months, both Fulham and Crystal Palace had been relentless in their pursuit of a league title, with Fulham winning eight in a row, scoring 35 and conceding three, whilst the Eagles were undefeated in 10, scoring 39 and conceding nine. A final day 7-1 thrashing of West Brom had put Palace three points clear at the top, as they and Fulham have traded first place week on week as both continued to win. If Fulham beat Chelsea at their plush Surrey training ground, they’d be joint on points, with their superior goal difference putting them top. A number of the Fulham players have been here before. Jay Stansfield, Ibane Bowat, Ollie O’Neill, Adrion Pajaziti and Idris Odutayo all racked up double figures for starts during last season’s championship campaign, and that experience would be crucial to get across the line again. For Chelsea, this season’s team looked very different to that of 2019/20, and despite the goals of Chippenham born England U16 international Jude Soonsup-Bell, they have struggled to make their presence felt on the league.
Any nerves which Fulham might have been feeling didn’t show, as almost immediately from kick off Jay Stansfield almost set up Kieron Bowie to score when he got around the back of left back Luke Badley-Morgan, but his cross was slightly too high. Lucas Bergstrom in the Chelsea goal was alert moment later to cut out an Ollie O’Neill cross from the opposite flank. Just three minutes later, however, there was an early warning for the title chasers, as Dion Rankine was set free to burst into the box, forcing Luciano D’Auria-Henry to make a crucial last ditch intervention.
Fulham started to grow in confidence as the half progressed, and no one embodied that more than Mika Biereth. He got goalside again after 12 minutes, but his cross was well cut out by Gilchrist, then his clever flick to Stansfield on quarter of an hour forced former Swindon Town defender Charlie Wiggett was forced into a gutsy block from Stansfield.
With 16 minutes player, Kieron Bowie had a great chance to add to his 15 goals for the season when O’Neill got the ball to him in the box. He was well placed, but couldn’t quite get the ball down quick enough and Kingston-born Alfie Gilchrist got across to block again. At this point it really was bodies on the line stuff from the young Blues, who were getting the blocks in admirably, but it couldn’t last.
On 21 minutes, former Exeter City youth prospect Stansfield got the opener, to notch his 7th of an injury disrupted season. A double flick on from Adrion Pajaziti – the Albanian/English midfielder back from U23 duty to captain the side here – and Biereth fell to Stansfield at the back post, but with the angle tight he still had work to do. Stansfield, however, is quite a finisher (as evidenced by his golden boot wining 24 league goals last season) and confidently smashed the ball into the net past Bergstrom’s despairing dive. One nil to Fulham, and they were on course.
Fulham maintained the pressure for the remainder of the first half, but it was sterile, whilst Chelsea showed definite threat on the break. In particular, left winger Dion Rankine looked dangerous, but the hosts were unable to set the former Cambridge United forward free often enough. They were struggling to get a hold of the ball in central midfield, where Matt Dibley-Dias and Adrion Pajaziti had too much energy and composure on the ball, so manager Ed Brand changed things up by bringing on local lad Charlie Webster, and the England U16 international made an immediate difference.
Having started every other match this season, Webster had been rested for this match, but his ball retention was key to Chelsea’s second half improvement. Early in the half, Joe Haigh went close with a flick from a corner, but then Fulham were straight back at it through Biereth. He drove in from the right, a real hallmark of his game, and then squared the ball to Pajaziti, but the north west London native drove his shot against the crossbar. Fulham really needed a second goal to settle nerves, but when Bowie saw a shot well saved by Bergstrom on 55 minutes you did begin to wonder…
On 62 minutes Bowie made way for Welsh U16 international Luke Harris, but Chelsea began a period of concerted pressure. Harvey Vale impressed in this spell, and the England U17 international (born on the second anniversary of 9/11 as it happens) was unlucky not to score when he forced Alex Borto into a good save. The young American has kept five clean sheets in his last seven matches, and it was easy to see why as he kept out Myles Peart-Harris, Lewis Bate, and – most spectacularly – Joe Haigh. When the Ashtead based striker fired in an effort from the edge of the box, Borto had to spring athletically across the goal to tip clear.
Since Christmas, Fulham haven’t had many periods where they’ve been under sustained pressure, but they were here, and that save proved to be the crucial moment. Jay Stansfield blazed over from close range around 65 minutes, but within minutes they were 2-0 up, as Mika Biereth bagged his 21st of the campaign, bringing him level with Palace’s David Omilabu for top scorer in the South (only Manchester United’s Charlie McNeil has scored more in the north). Unsurprisingly for the bustling striker, it was a goal all of his own making. With the ball bouncing around Chelsea’s centre backs, Biereth bullied them both off the ball, before sliding the ball past Bergstrom, to send the Fulham substitutes wild. With his goalscoring record this season, it’s astonishing he hasn’t had a look in at international level.
It wasn’t much longer until the third followed, and it was Luke Harris scoring to bag his eighth of the season. Still eligible for the U16s, this has been an incredible breakthrough season at U18 level for Harris, who has a real knack for arriving in the box at just the right time. On 74 minutes, Biereth broke free down the right again, cut the ball back to Harris, and he fired inside the near post with his right foot. Three nil to Fulham, and surely the title was in the bag now.
Both managers made more changes, with Fulham bringing on former Newport defender Jay Williams and Imani Languedoc for their 9th and 16th appearances respectively. For Chelsea, Aleksi Heino and Josh Tobin were introduced. The gig was up by this point though, and it was all about waiting for that whistle. When it came, Fulham were champions again, and no one could say it was undeserved. 18 wins, 2 draws and 4 losses, with a goal difference of +53, Fulham have averaged 3.25 goals per game and have cantered through this season.
Steve Wigley allowed a few moments of raw celebration, before he collected his troops, briefing them on what was to come. In the northern league, Manchester City had pipped their city rivals to the title, setting up a Champions National Final this week – and City have been good. Featuring the likes of 19 goal Taj Sodje, and England internationals Darko Gyabi and Callum Doyle, they’ve lost only once all season, scoring 76 goals along the way.
Time to revel in their success, of course, but the chance to take the National title (potentially on Thursday) will require a quick return to focused training this week.
Line Ups – Chelsea
1. Lucas Bergstrom – 18 year old ‘keeper, signed from Turun Palloseura in Finland, the giant number one has made seven appearances this season. Was alert and quick off his line to cut out crosses, and had a monster boot.
2. Josh Brooking – Signed in 2018/19 from Reading, Brooking has represented England at U16 level. With 23 appearances this season he has played all but one of Chelsea’s matches, and is under contract until next June.
3. Alfie Gilchrist – Born in Kingston, Gilchrist was signed from QPR as an 11 year old and is signed to Chelsea until 2023. With 17 appearances the childhood Chelsea fan was a sturdy defensive presence, getting numerous blocks in, particularly in the first half.
4. Charlie Wiggett – Another 18 year old who has been at Chelsea for three years, Wiggett grew up in Newbury and has another year left on his contract. Another regular (23 appearances) he was a vocal authority at the back, and has also played rugby and competed in 200m and 400m athletics.
5. Luke Badley-Morgan – Only 17, Badley-Morgan has another year left at this level, and was replaced at half time as Ed Brand sought to change tactics. An England U16 international, the former Senrab player signed his first pro contract last October.
6. Bashir Humphreys – A well known name at this level, Exeter-born Humphreys arrived at Cobham from Reading at U15 level. A former swimmer, his athleticism is clear, and he has also represented England at U16. 22 appearances this season in defence or at the base of midfield.
7. Joe Haigh – Born in Tooting, but based in Ashtead, Haigh is the second top scorer for Chelsea this season with nine. Another to have played for England U16, he arrived at the Blues from his local club Ashtead Town.
8. Lewis Bate – An England U17 and U18 international, Bate is more typically an U23 player (22 appearances at that level this season) and skippered the side here. Born in Sidcup he captained the U18s to the Youth Cup Final in 2020.
9. Harvey Vale – Vale left Fulham for Chelsea at U13, and has scored 6 in 15 for the Blues this season. Now 17, he signed his first pro deal in October, securing his future until 2023, and was unlucky not to score today.
10. Myles Peart-Harris – Another who has featured more regularly at U23, Peart-Harris is from Isleworth and has played for England at U17 level. His seven appearances for the U18s have brought four goals this season for the striker who started out at Bedfont Green.
11. Dion Rankine – Born in Barnet, Rankine signed from Cambridge United aged 14, and has fifteen appearances with one goal this season. He was the main threat for Chelsea in the first half, with his pace on the break dangerous.
(14). Charlie Webster – Only recently turned 17, Webster is one of the youngest in this squad, but is an ever present. From Kingston, he signed a deal until 2023 on his birthday this January, and changed Chelsea’s approach when he came on. The midfielder is an England U16 international.
(15). Aleksi Heino – Like Bergstrom, Heino is a Finnish youth international who arrived from FC Turku. Yet to turn 17 until July, he is very much one for the future, and his substitute appearance here was his debut at U18 level.
(16). Josh Tobin – Hailing from Crowborough, Tobin was signed at 13 from local grassroots football, and is a 17 year old deep lying midfielder. He has played 12 times this year.
Line Ups – Fulham
1. Alex Borto – Borto’s nine clean sheets in 15 appearances this season is a league leading figure, and is made all the more impressive that he only arrived from New Jersey side Cedar Stars last summer. He has made the U18s number one jersey his own, and still has another season of U18s football left. With the likes of George Wickens and the Ashby-Hammond brothers ahead of him, Fulham are well stocked in the ‘keeper department, but Borto is more than capable of keeping that company.
2. Luciano D’Auria-Henry – The eighteen year old right back, from Ealing, had a difficult 2019/20 season with injury and has put that firmly behind him with 19 appearances this campaign, whilst also featuring for the U23s. Having originally started out as a winger, D’Auria-Henry moved to full back at U16 and hasn’t looked back – his natural attacking instincts helping him to three assists from right back. There is a potential gap at U23, with Luca Murphy (more naturally a centre back) playing most matches, and D’Auria-Henry should step up next season.
3. Stefan Parkes – Since arriving from Brentford at U14 Parkes has consistently played above his age group, making his U18 debut at just 15. He’s been involved ever since, and is the only person to have played every match this season. Originally a left back, he has played mainly in the centre of defence this season where he has looked assured every time. He turned seventeen in March, and having also captained England at U15 level and played higher he is one of the most highly thought of prospects.
5. Ibane Bowat – The subject of transfer speculation from both Arsenal and Everton, Bowat is a Scottish U18 international who has played 19 times for the U18s and twice for the U23s. One of the group to have been heavily involved in both title runs at 18 he will step up fully to the U23s next season. Born in Kingston, Bowat was previously at Chelsea, but left to play rugby for Harlequins at youth level before coming back to football with Fulham at 16. Also qualifying internationally for France and Cameroon, he is more of a threat from set pieces than his one goal this season suggests!
6. Idris Odutayo – Another 18 year old who won the league last season, Odutayo has come on leaps and bounds this campaign. He’s added a level of finesse in attack to his natural physicality and regularly has opposition defenders on toast. 16 appearances with 2 goals for the U18s and four for the U23s represents a successful season for south east Londoner. Having signed a contract in 2019, his deal is up this summer so it will be interesting to see what the club do with him. Ziyad Larkeche is the same and was brought in from Paris Saint-Germain for the U23s last summer, but Odutayo can definitely compete if given the chance.
7. Ollie O’Neill – Also involved heavily in the last campaign, O’Neill came back from a bad injury in the 2018/19 campaign to establish himself as one of the key creative influences for the team now. Turned 18 in January and is at his best driving at the space between defenders in possession – when in form, I haven’t seen anyone better at it in the league. The Irish youth international turned pro last February so should have at least another year left on his deal. His 23 appearances at U18 have brought four goals, along with nine assists, and his dead ball deliveries are a potent weapon.
8. Matt Dibley-Dias – The team’s free kick specialist, Dibley-Dias scored an absolute peach in the 5-1 victory against Arsenal in April. Hailing from New Zealand and the grandson of a former Flamengo player, he joined from Brentford and can play in a range of midfield positions. I always struggle to get photos of him in possession because his two touch play is so quick, and he was sorely missed in the middle of the season when injured. Only recently turned 17 he has another season to go at U18 level, and made 20 appearances scoring four time across the year.
9. Mika Biereth – What to say about the division’s joint top scorer. He has evolved his game so much this season, to go from four goals in 15 games in 2019/20 to 21 in 21 this time around. Able to play the battering ram role, but also an effective channel runner, Biereth has given every defence a torrid time, scoring against every side in the division, and bagging three hat tricks. With 13 assists to boot, he’s had 34 goal contributions and has averaged a goal every 87 minutes. Absolutely ready to challenge Ablade and Tiehi for a spot in the U23s.
10. Adrion Pajaziti – An English/Albanian midfielder, who is also eligible for Kosovo, from north west London, Pajaziti has split his time between the U23 and U18 sides, making 31 appearances in total, scoring and assisting three times apiece. A natural leader and big part of the group, whether he’s played U23s or not he has still turned up for every single U18 match. At 18 years old he’ll be playing exclusively for the U23s next season, which he’s shown he is more than ready for. He’s aiming high though, and having seen Fabio Carvalho play and score in the Premier League, Pajaziti is targeting first team minutes in 2021/22.
11. Kieron Bowie – When he signed from Raith Rovers Bowie has said he initially found the technical level an adjustment. That may seem strange for a player who had scored ten goals for the first team by the age of 17, but he has well and truly made that adjustment now. Since the turn of the year the lad from Kirkcaldy has been unstoppable, with 14 of his 15 goals coming since New Year, including an incredible run of 13 in nine matches. Turning 19 in September, Bowie already has a Scottish League One promotion on his CV, now he has a Premier League U18 title as well.
28. Jay Stansfield – Signed from Exeter City in 2019, Stansfield was born in Tiverton and made his first team bow in an FA Cup tie against Aston Villa in January last year. A Championship appearance followed during his breakout season at U18 level last year, where he bagged 24 goals in a title winning campaign. Since then a nasty injury prevented his natural advance to U23/first team level, but he has returned in a deeper lying role for the U18s this season, scoring six and assisting three in ten appearances. At 18 he’s finished with U18 football, and the only question which really remains – does he go to the U23s, or will he start next season with Scott Parker’s first team squad?
(4). Jay Williams – Signed from Newport County (after starting out with Port Talbot) in summer 2019, Williams has played international at U17 and U18 level for Wales. Comfortable across the back line, he is another who has had his season disrupted by injury, but returned at just the right time in the spring to help the push to the title. Has made nine appearances this season.
(17). Imani Languedoc – Another player who has only recently turned 17, Languedoc has at least another campaign at this level, and is sure to feature more heavily next time out. His 16 appearances have mainly come from the bench, and although more naturally defensive, he has contributed with a goal as well. Started his career with Junior Elite, a youth club founded by U23 coach Joint Head Coach Colin Omogbehin
(23). Luke Harris – A real surprise this season, Harris has stepped up into the U18s despite being just 15 at the start of the season. An Epsom local, he has made himself a key member of the starting line up, contributing eight goals in 18 appearances. An international with Wales at U15 and U16 level, he will be one to watch next season at this level – don’t bet against him playing U23 while still 16 either.