This was a fascinating game. There's just something about seeing these wonderfully talented prospects in person that makes you appreciate how lucky we are as City fans. Preseason friendlies streamed from Australia or Vietnam are fun, and the EDS players involved with the first team definitely added interest, but they don't quite satiate that nagging craving for football that actually going to a game does. Especially one in a ground as intimate as Rhyl's. It's a world away from the CFA stadium, never mind the Etihad, but that only added to the charm and unexpected nostalgia of the occasion. It felt like a welcome throwback to the days of the old second division, Macclesfield and Terry Cooke. And I'm hardly long in the tooth at 29. This was the first time I'd managed to catch the u18s live since the season ended in the middle of May and as expected there was several new faces on show. Typically, all were excellent footballers. Very young too - the first thing that stood out was the age of the players involved. Most still eligible for the u16s, with a couple of 17 year olds and the 18 year old Charlie Albinson in goal proving the only exceptions. Rhyl towered above them - it was their first XI. Literally men against boys. Their centre-forward in particular was huge, built like a tree - 6'5 at least, and probably ten years older than most of our players involved. He wasn't the only one either, and it often seemed a little surreal witnessing the disparity in size. Unsurprisingly, Wilcox's men weren't fazed.
City, as per usual in the academy setup, lined up with something resembling a 4-3-3. Albinson started between the sticks, with the centre-back pairing of Josh Murray and Ash Kigbu ahead of him and Lewis Blackshaw at left-back. Demeaco Duhaney started over on the right. The midfield consisted of Jacob Davenport anchoring, Sado Diallo a little further advanced and Will Patching as the most attacking of the three. Ahead of them on the left of the front trio was the hugely hyped Brahim Diaz, listed as a trialist, but now finally eligible for competitive football this season after turning 16. Isaac Buckley, nominally a striker, found himself on the right and Zack Faour started through the middle. They were all good, acquitting themselves well throughout. Admirable really given the size of the task ahead of them, quite literally in this instance. On reflection, the first half was an even affair. Both teams threatened sporadically - City in general had a little more of the ball, but Rhyl used their experience and physical advantage well to counter. A few scrappy chances aside, little much happened. Buckley went closest for City, racing onto a delicately floated through-ball from Patching before firing straight at the keeper. Rhyl could have had one too, their forward somehow managing to clear the stadium roof from about four yards out. The second half was a different affair entirely. It was City's, and a lot of it was down to one man in particular. Brahim came alive.
He's a talent this boy, make no mistake. He created the only goal of the game with about an hour on the clock, skipping past one challenge before perfectly rolling the ball into the path of Buckley who did the rest. It was lovely stuff and his confidence rocketed as he found himself drifting further and further inside, proving a constant thorn in Rhyl's side. He's tiny still, but there's an admirable bullishness to his game. Nothing seemed to faze him, constantly bouncing off challenges and darting directly towards goal with lightning pace and all the excitement of youth. Technically he's excellent - one particular moment where he dropped his shoulder, leaving a Rhyl defender on the floor drew purrs of approval from the crowd. The resulting shot with his weaker right foot from the edge of the area wasn't bad either - the keeper stretching to just tip it round the post as it headed towards the top corner. It deserved a goal. Either way, it was incredibly exciting. Whisper it quietly but we could have something potentially special on our hands here. Barcelona wanted him and you can see why. I never thought I'd say this about an academy prospect, but there's shades of Kinkladze to his game. Majestically quick-footed, a low centre of gravity and seemingly with a splendid eye for a pass. That's where the similarities end, fortunately for us. Mentally at least, he's cut from a different cloth from the Georgian maestro . There's no shirking defensive responsibilities - he works hard, tracking back and pressing when necessary and if all goes well, then this could be a pretty exciting year for him.
Elsewhere the midfield three impressed. Patching was good. Tall, elegant and graceful on the ball - despite his obvious natural talent he often found himself on the periphery of games last season. This wasn't the case last night. He ran himself into the ground, pressing well and moved the ball with purpose and creativity. There was even a few impressive bursts forward too, not something I'd seen before from him, but welcome nonetheless. Diallo alongside him put in a solid shift, confident on the ball and physically strong in the challenge. Another set to play a big role in the u18s this year. Perhaps Davenport alongside him too. Only pint-sized, he was tough and tenacious in the tackle, reading the game well and mopping up plenty of stray passes. He recycled possession cleverly, confidently spreading the ball to either wing, rarely wasteful. Buckley was typically Buckley - a real live-wire. He's hugely likable. Now a second year after regularly appearing for the u18s last year, he's a little more senior than some of his teammates and it showed. He ran at Rhyl incessantly, with pace and skill and though not everything came off, he took his goal well, calmly rolling the ball through the keeper's legs. With a little luck he could make a breakthrough to the u21s this year. His attitude deserves it. Faour alongside him had a decent game, looking stronger and more assured than we've seen of him before in a blue shirt. It was an indifferent introduction to English football for him last year, often looking a little passive, and possibly understandably too - he came to the club with a huge reputation, not helped by the media reports surrounding him and it can take its toll on someone so young. He's clearly blessed with ability though, a Ronaldo-esque 40 yard free-kick that narrowly cleared the bar showcasing his potential.
Defensively we were solid and the young back-line stood up manfully when Rhyl asserted pressure. Kigbu's a real leader. Yet another top class prospect we have in the centre of defence. As strong as an ox, fast, athletic with a real confidence in his ability. Left-footed too, which is always a bonus. He was up against their towering behemoth of a target man, and he often came out on top despite conceding a fair few inches in height to him - even though he stands at around 6'2 himself. Like the rest, he showed a willingness to pass the ball around, even if it wasn't always perfectly executed. But this is just a friendly and still just pre-season - that conviction will surely come with time and experience. Josh Murray alongside him was a little more unassuming, but still solid. He remained focused and strong throughout, linking up well with his defensive partner. The full-backs were both bright and energetic, Blackshaw in particular battling admirably against an opponent considerably bigger than him, and Duhaney looking composed and assured when asked to step into the middle of defence towards the end of the game. Albinson was steady and reliable, making a couple of excellent saves to earn himself a deserved clean sheet - one in particular that traveled through a whole crowd of bodies looked for all the world a certain goal before he scrambled across to push it the round the post. The subs arrived late and had little time to impress. There was a couple of touches for Nmecha, but no real opportunities to extend his rather ridiculous pre-season tally of 8 goals in 2 games. Joe Hardy and Joe Coveney registered a few minutes between them, but there was nothing of real note to report.
Overall it was an impressive performance and a great workout for the new scholars. Wilcox would have been proud - this was a real challenge for them against a team vastly bigger, stronger and more experienced. Rhyl were no pushovers. They were well organised and committed. Tough, but fair, when harrying too. A welcome result going into the new season, definitely. As a side note, I couldn't help but be impressed by Wilcox's approach on the sidelines - he was stood only a few feet in front of me through the whole game, constantly bellowing encouragement and instructions to the players. He tows the line between tough and fair impeccably well, at one point loudly acclaiming Patching's decision to drop deep to take the ball off the defenders in a particularly tricky situation. On the flipside, he was quick to sternly admonish any who had briefly neglected their defensive or positional duties. It's all too easy to forget how young these players, they're still very much in the need of refining as individuals, people and footballers. Wilcox and his coaching team are quite clearly intrinsically important to this process and it's no coincidence that we're starting to see players as well rounded as Garcia and Humphreys emerge through the ranks. The very clear attention to detail paid to all aspects of a player's development is paying off and they'll be the first of many too. I really wouldn't be surprised if in twelve months time we're watching another 16 or 17 year old on tour with the first team next summer making headlines. The talent is quite clearly there.