Crystal Palace U18s have had a productive, but somewhat topsy-turvy season, but a comprehensive 3-0 victory over Hull City saw them put in their best performance of the campaign.
The young Eagles sit third in the Professional Development U18 League 2 South with no prospect of gaining ground on leaders Charlton or second placed Coventry City, but goals from James Daly, Francis Baptiste and Sean Robertson ensured they cemented their spot in the table and bounced back from defeat by Sheffield United last time out.
A notable change at this time of year was the absence of the majority of second-year scholars. Those most highly rated have already stepped up to the U23 side, but there will still many missing today. That is an indication that Colm McAdden, Bryce Hossanah, Jalen Jones, Nathan Linton and Emmanuel Yeboah will not be offered professional deals by the club.
At the other end of the spectrum, there was one player who piqued the interest on his U18 debut. Having turned 15 only last week, Jude Russell was named in Paddy McCarthy’s starting line-up as Palace explored a new tactic of three at the back. Sam Woods and Kyle Lynch accompanied Russell. The youngster was assured and composed on debut, rarely looking troubled, although he was not involved significantly as Hull failed to test Matt Funnell with a single shot on goal throughout the 90 minutes.
This was the squad likely to be preferred next season, and their performance was impeccable. Lewis Bryon has been sidelined through injury for part of the campaign but he provided a strong anchoring presence in the centre of midfield, getting forward well on occasions.
It was Bryon who helped Palace into the lead. His low, fizzing shot from range almost snuck in but the Hull keeper was able to turn it around the post. Nonetheless, from the resulting corner James Daly stooped low to head home from close range and break the deadlock.
It is testament to the professionalism of the blonde haired wide-man that he has spent a slightly frustrating season in and out of the team, in various positions, but each week performs to the highest standard with maximum effort. Despite his physique, a centre-forward berth does not suit him, and he is better in a roaming position as he was throughout this victory.
Palace have made a concerted effort to push their younger talent through to the higher age groups this season and in recent weeks that has seen some members of the U16 side move up to the U18s.
Drew Matthews has made two appearances at the higher level, whilst David Boateng was also promoted early.
It was Joseph Hungbo who almost opened the scoring after just a minute when he cut inside and curled a shot against the upright. The impressive Bryon went close after quarter of an hour as his header was cleared off the line and Palace dominated the opening stages before Daly headed home the opener after 30 minutes.
Francis Baptiste spurned a golden opportunity to double the lead when he blazed over after excellent work from former Arsenal player Jayden Onen. The 15-year-old Russell in defence worked seamlessly with the strong captaincy of Woods and the confident performance of Lynch. Their defensive unit was tight and stifled many attacks. Russell took a yellow card for a tackle but otherwise was largely faultless.
Baptiste did, however, redeem himself as he turned his man in the box and was brought down. He duly stepped up to despatch the resulting penalty. It has been a significant learning curve for the first-year scholar who was coveted by Tottenham earlier in the campaign but he has performed the lone striker role with confidence belying his years.
He would go on to play an important role in the third goal as he nodded the ball on for U16 Sean Robertson to race through on goal and slot neatly into the bottom corner to seal all three points.
It was a strong, coherent performance from Palace and a thoroughly professional one. Daly was a thorn in the side of the City defence throughout, his direct running was menacing and he was rewarded with a goal. Next season is a crucial one for him, but if he maintains his professionalism then his talent should guide him through to a professional contract.
Crystal Palace: Funnell; Russell, Woods, Lynch; Ossai, Demby, Bryon, Onen, Hungbo; Daly; Baptiste