Ah how I missed the City Football Academy. Such a wonderful place - breathtaking in scope with pitches as far as the eye can see, all perfectly groomed and impeccably presented. A full-sized blue one too, brilliantly. You wonder if they did that simply because they can? Why the hell not hey? Either way, it's glorious stuff. A real football factory in the making, easily capable of hosting several games at once for all ages and sizes. It's perhaps apt that the players we're producing now are most likely going to surpass anything we've produced before. We're on the cusp of a golden generation, and they're all honed in a glorious golden (blue) home. With the season approaching and minutes needed for our younger lads, two of the academy teams played today. The u16s comfortably ran out 5-1 winners against QPR with Luke Bolton, Tyrese Campbell, Diego Lattie all scoring a goal apiece. Matt Smith grabbed a brace too as Michael Owen, now an agent, watched on from the sidelines. A few pitches away, around the corner, u18s were looking to finalise their preparations for their opening Barclays u18 Premier League fixture.
After a promising 1-0 victory against Rhyl's first team on Tuesday, the final test before the big kick off came in the form of QPR. It was a goal fest. 5-3, and it could have been more if the finishing hadn't been a little wayward. It was hugely entertaining from the off, blessed with technique, endeavour and some pretty committed challenges from both teams. And it came with a slightly changed team from the one that lined up against Rhyl too. The midfield three of Davenport, Diallo and Patching all remained, as did the two wide men of Buckley and Brahim. Ash Kigbu and Lewis Blackshaw kept their positions in defence, but they were joined by Callum Bullock and Joe Coveney as Demeaco Duhaney and Josh Murray were moved to the bench. Zack Faour and Charlie Albinson were the other two to make way, with Jason Wilcox handing England youth international Lukas Nmecha the number 9 role and opting for Daniel Grimshaw in goal.
Nmecha was very, very good. He's a finisher, that's for sure, ruthlessly bagging three to take his tally to a pretty ridiculous 11 in 4 pre-season games. He's tall, confident and deceptively quick - QPR struggled to handle his movement. Some players just seem to have an uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time, and he's seemingly one. Evident in his first and third in particular, getting ahead of QPR's defence to sweep the ball past the keeper to open the scoring after a beautiful, flowing counter attack involving Diallo and Bullock - his third came after he crept in unnoticed at the back post to head in a Will Patching corner. It's a lovely trait to have, add that to the fact that he's comfortable in possession and equally capable of linking up with on-rushing midfielders then you get the impression that he could have a pretty promising career in football. Buckley over to his right ran himself into the ground as ever. He's lightning quick, a little Walcott-esque in a way, though arguably a little more in control than the often erratic Arsenal forward. He was a threat throughout, with QPR taking to some pretty extreme measures to stop him running away from their defence, blatantly pulling him back by his shirt after he'd twice ran past their back-line. He grabbed a goal, deservedly, bundling in at the second attempt after seeing his initial shot saved after being played in by Patching.
Though not quite as explosive as he was on Tuesday, Brahim had a highly effective game yet again. He nearly scored a wonder goal within the first couple of minutes, magically skipping away from three challenges, before firing just over the bar. He was bright, eager and positive throughout, tirelessly harrying when not in possession. Not everything he tried today came off though - he was perhaps a little guilty at times of over-playing it, slightly over-running the ball or trying to beat one too many men. The naivety of youth, clearly - yet as many good players do when not at their very best, he still walked away with an assist and a goal. It was a wonderful assist too, setting up Nmecha's second with a perfectly scooped ball over the back line who ran through and finished with aplomb. His goal came from the spot, a penalty he won himself after skipping past two challenges before being brought down in the area. He took the penalty well, sending the keeper the wrong way, taking it with his 'weaker' right foot. Patching carried on where he left on Tuesday, coolly strolling around the pitch, turning and twisting in every direction. He's an immaculate footballer, technically astute. There's shades of Michael Johnson to his game actually - he glides around the pitch in a very similar way to he did before his career sadly went wayward. Both possess that same natural ability to make football look enviously easy. This should be a big year for him in the u18s - he's the focal point of the team now creatively and he'll surely grow in stature.
I like Davenport. Again, he was strong in the challenge, quick to intercept anything that rolled loose, and, yet again, he used the ball incredibly well. There's a real fire to his game and it's admirable - he snapped into challenges without hesitation, nipping at heels and pressing throughout. Positionally he was excellent. It takes an intelligence to play the holding midfield well, and it was his reading of the game that started the move that lead to Nmecha's second, winning the ball confidently from a stray QPR pass before quickly setting Diaz through who played in the young forward. It was a solid, convincing performance and alongside Diallo, he controlled the midfield. Both were measured and calming influences on the team. Defensively, we weren't as bad as conceding three might suggest. Their second was wonderful, a beautifully placed curling effort into the top corner from twenty yards, and their first came after Bullock couldn't quite intercept a through-ball. Kigbu had another assured game - he actually reminds me a lot of Mangala, and I mean that as a compliment. He's strong, aggressive and has that same quick, galloping stride that the Frenchman possesses. He plays the game on the front foot too, looking to nip in ahead of his opponent and win the ball.
Joe Coveney alongside him was assured, starting at centre-back after coming on at right-back against Rhyl, and Blackshaw put in yet another energetic shift on the left. Both him and Bullock worked the flanks tirelessly, shuttling up and down, proving a constant outlet for the midfield. Bullock in particular, setting up the first with a perfectly whipped cross from the right that left the chance on a plate for Nmecha. Duhaney came on in the second half at left-back, and he was good. Naturally right-footed, he seemed to take to being on the 'wrong' side with surprising ease. He was incredibly direct, getting in behind QPR's defence numerous times. He's fast, and he's confident too. Faour carried on his good preseason, looking stronger and being a lot more involved than we saw last season, nearly grabbing a goal after he raced onto a delightful through-ball from Patching only to see his shot come back off the post. Josh Murray, Deri Corfe and Joe Hardy all gained some vital minutes before the seasons opener too, slotting in comfortably as the clock wore down. Grimshaw in goal had little to do in fairness - he didn't have much chance with any of their goals, but when he was called upon he was reliable. His distribution was notably excellent, receiving the ball from the defence whenever needed and finding a blue shirt more or less faultlessly throughout.
It was an entertaining game, and yet again another good workout. We could have several more on another day - Buckley, Faour, Diaz and Patching all culpable of squandering numerous good chances. It wasn't always perfect, and perhaps we were a little over-eager to push forward at times, leaving a few holes at the back, but that solidity will surely come as they grow into the season. Wilcox would have been pleased with what he saw - there was no lack of desire from any of involved and he'll rightfully feel confident going into the campaign. The season starts a week today against Liverpool, and as ever there will be a report on here after the game.