It is perhaps a little premature to herald a new dawn for Crystal Palace’s academy, but in the early Spring sunshine, a very young U18 side produced a superb performance to end Coventry City’s 11-game winning run with a 2-1 victory at Goals.
Two consecutive wins for this inexperienced U18 side, containing just a single second-year scholar in Sam Woods who captained the team once again, still belie the progress made in recent weeks by this group of youngsters, who followed up last week’s 3-0 victory over Hull City with a fine performance against the Sky Blues.
Paddy McCarthy named 15-year-old Jude Russell in his starting line-up again after a near faultless performance on debut last time out, whilst there was also a surprise inclusion for another 15-year-old in Joshua Ajayi who furrowed the lone striker role with maturity.
The 16-year-old Sean Robertson, who came off the bench to net the third goal against the Tigers, was also named in the starting XI.
It was Joseph Hungbo who again began the game brightly, cutting inside early on with a low shot but the keeper was able to get down low to save well, before the first-year scholar tried his luck from range but fired well over.
The game was even in the early stages with neither side threatening significantly, but on 35 minutes Robertson broke down the right and fired in a cross which was taken by the strong winds and a good chance went begging for the hosts.
Coventry then looked to attack themselves, with the number 11 racing into the area, before Russell made an inch-perfect challenge to snuff out the danger.
There was little further action in the opening 45 minutes, and the teams went into the break level.
The lively Hungbo, who has become a regular this campaign with his rapid pace almost broke the deadlock six minutes after the restart when his volley took a wicked deflection, only for the Coventry keeper to pull off a remarkable one handed save to keep the scores level.
However, on 58 minutes Palace finally took the lead when Tariq Ossai fired in a ferocious low strike from just inside the area across the goalkeeper into the far bottom corner.
Robertson would go close shortly after but saw his shot well saved after a strong run. But it would be the away side who piled on the pressure for a sustained period. Palace sat deep, but once again good defending by Woods and Russell in particular saw them crowd out the striker who was clear on goal.
Northern Irish youth international keeper Oliver Webber was forced into several smart saves as Coventry imposed themselves on the game, but he could do nothing as a deep cross found its way to an attacker who with a fine scissor kick fired in an equaliser on 75 minutes.
Nonetheless, this young Eagles side showed the strength of character to fightback, and for the second game in a row, James Daly managed to find the back of the net after he was played in to finish with aplomb with seven minutes remaining.
They held on to record a fine victory with several players notably exhausted by the final whistle as they sat on the pitch following extensive efforts, and their performance delighted boss McCarthy.
He said: “I’ve asked the lads in there: ‘was it easy?’ They all said no.
“Then I asked: ‘was it worth it?’ They all said yes.
“You have to take that with you. It’s not going to get any easier throughout your career but the rewards and the feelings that the lads are feeling in there, it’s all worthwhile in the end.”
Whilst youth development is ever changing and difficult to predict, there are certainly promising signs at this late stage in the season for next year’s campaign, but the young players must work hard to achieve the goal of a top-two finish set by their manager next term.
The emergence of Russell, Ajayi and Robertson, the first two of whom are not yet of scholarship age, has provided a new spark to the team.
Line-up: Webber; Russell, Woods, Ossai; Daly, Demby, Bryon; Robertson, Onen, Hungbo; Ajayi (Gurung 45)