While results are of secondary importance at youth level, both the U18s and the U23s recoded impressive victories.
Chelsea have dominated U18s football in recent seasons, winning the FA Youth Cup and amazing five times in seven seasons, yet the remnants of last season’s successful team were beaten at Staplewood on Saturday by two late goals from Tyreke Johnson. Saints- for whom the highly regarded Callum Slattery continued his reintegration following a serious knee injury- recovered from the early loss of England U17 striker Dan Nlundulu to beat Chelsea- who also finished top of the south group of the 2015/16 U18s league- by three goals to two.
The following Monday in the PL2, the U23s achieved a similar feat, beating a Manchester United U23s team that included several of the players that helped them win the now defunct U21s league last season. It was a surprisingly comfortable evening for the U23s, and in many ways underlined the dilemma faced by those responsible for developing the youngsters. For some of the older players- Jack Stephens, Harrison Reed and Jake Hesketh- it was, frankly, too easy. Hesketh, who had apparently been identified as Saints’ main threat- was often double marked but was nonetheless able to pull the strings, with Reed similarly influential as part of a double pivot as Saints (with Martin Hunter back at the helm) went back to 4-2-3-1. Meanwhile Stephens seemingly won every header he challenged for and was almost totally untroubled throughout. These players are, transparently, too good for youth football now, but whether they would benefit from being sent on loan to play in a division and style to which they are not aspiring is one of the great debates in youth coaching now.
Speaking of loans, another development squad player, Sam Gallagher was able to breathe a sigh of relief as he registered his first senior goal since March 2014. It was one of those simply beautiful goals- a curving cross met by a soaring header- and made all the more enjoyable by the emotion in Gallagher’s face in the aftermath. In the long months since he scored for Saints’ first team against Norwich, Gallagher has suffered both injury and bereavement. To emphasise how different Saints’ world was when Gallagher scored their rather scruffy fourth goal in that game, it’s worth pointing out that Mauricio Pochettino was at that point still the manager. When Gallagher signed a four year contract earlier that year, Pochettino predicted that the Devon native would "save us many millions in the transfer market". Gallagher has much to prove before he can prove his former manager to have been prescient, but on Saturday he took a tiny step towards so doing.
Jason McCarthy and Paulo Gazzaniga weren’t so successful. McCarthy’s temporary employers Walsall were beaten again, this time at Charlton, while Gazzaniga’s Rayo Vallecano lost 2-1 at Elche. The value of these loan moves can be questioned, yet one advantage is that they free up places in the U23s for younger players. Stephens, Reed and Hesketh, on the other hand, as well as not being sufficiently challenged on Monday, are currently obstacles for less experienced products of the academy. The aforementioned Johnson, clearly still invigorated by his star turn for the 18s against Chelsea, terrorised United’s youngsters in the first half on Monday, showing that there are scholars who are ready to compete at a higher level.
This is an issue for Saints. The fact is that the majority of boys playing in the U18s football don’t make it. The quality of the U23s league is questionable, but it’s certainly higher than that of the 18s.
Still, for Martin Hunter, U18s manager Craig Fleming and the various other members of the coaching staff overseeing the next bunch of hopefuls, this must have been a gratifying few days.