Alan Connell reviews his under-18 side’s season as part of a successful campaign for the academy.
A table-topping finish over their EFL Youth Alliance campaign saw the under-18s qualify for the Merit League.
The young Cherries sealed their Merit League One spot with a 2-2 draw against Plymouth Argyle to seal the title on the final day of the Youth Alliance campaign.
In the FA Youth Cup, the under-18s also had a memorable season, seeing off Exeter City and Queens Park Rangers to reach the fifth round.
Further success was had by the academy by way of Mark Travers, Jaidon Anthony, Jordan Zemura and Gavin Kilkenny, amongst others, playing key roles in the first-team squad.
Speaking to afcb.co.uk, Connell shared his thoughts on the under-18s’ season and the continual development being made in the Cherries’ academy.
It’s been so rewarding and I think we’ve come a long way in the last ten months. At the start of the season, I thought we were off a little bit, technically.
We had to have a ten-day break in pre-season because of a few Covid cases but the attitude, the desire to improve and the work ethic has been there every day.
I’ve been doing this job a long time now, but it’s been one of the most satisfying seasons to work with this group of players day in, day out.
We’ve had success as a group, we progressed far in the FA Youth Cup and we won the league; so there’s been team success but more importantly, the individuals have improved.
There are second-year scholars that have already gone up to the development squad and been out on loan, so I think it’s been really productive for them.
The first years have played loads of games and had loads of exposure this season to under-18 football and under-21 football with us as well.
We’ve had ups and downs along the way, but you want that. You want them to experience disappointment.
The character they’ve shown time and time again to respond, both in games and from day to day, it’s been a privilege to see this group grow.
I’m excited for the first years and the new under-16s coming up, and how we’re going to evolve again next season.
The FA Youth Cup is always a highlight because of the tournament that it is, so we’ve had that stadium exposure and performed on big nights, which has been really satisfying.
Winning away at Exeter was a stand-out moment because we lost there the year before and some of the players had played in that game when we lost.
It was the same game a year later in exactly the same round and from a psychological point of view, I thought it was a big statement.
We had a last-minute winner away to Portsmouth in October that I thought was a big moment, in regard to the confidence in the squad and certain individuals.
I think when we won the league on the last day of the season, that was a highlight and a culmination of a long, hard season; I thought the players deserved that.
So, there have been lots of moments, and we’ve had good friendlies as well – Aston Villa away stands out.
We played them in the build-up to the FA Youth Cup back in November, a Friday night game under floodlights at their training ground.
They’re one of the best academies in the country; we sold a player there last year.
On the night, we performed really well, won the game 2-1 and at that point, I felt we were ready for the rest of the season.
I think we then went on to prove that in the FA Youth Cup and in going on to win the league.
THE IMPORTANCE OF SETBACKS
What I’ve liked most is that we’ve had setbacks on the way.
We’ve not won every game, it’s not been convincing, we’ve had ups and we’ve had downs, we’ve had challenges and we want the players to have challenges.
Most importantly though, it’s the individual development that we’re after. As much as we want team success. Ultimately, it’s about getting players through.
Probably the highlight for the whole academy is seeing graduates playing for the first team week in, week out; that’s been very satisfying to see.
KEEPING HIGH STANDARDS
Obviously, our ultimate goal is to get players in our first team and this season it’s been great that we’ve had the likes of Jaidon Anthony, Jordan Zemura, Gavin Kilkenny, Mark Travers and others that have made appearances.
It’s great because they’re benefitting the football club, which is what the academy’s here for.
We have to have the highest demands, the highest expectations and the highest work ethic to get our players to that level – as players and as staff.
I think we do that and we’re going to need to continue to do that and go again.
We’ll carry on training a bit longer and then the players will get a five or six-week break, they’ll have off-season programmes to do because day one of pre-season will be hard.
We’ll be looking to hit the ground running and build on this season.
There will be no taking our foot off the gas, it’ll be looking to strive forward with this group, as an academy as a whole and as a football club as a whole as well.
We have to keep evolving, we have to keep pushing and we have to keep improving, so that’ll be the aim come the end of June when we’re back.
From a staff point of view, we’ll be planning over the summer and making sure we’re ready for pre-season and beyond.