Why do those committed few go to youth team games? Is it to encourage the future of the club? To let them know that they are supported as they take their first steps into an often harrowing and lonely journey to professional football? Is it to embrace the community of a football club, one that often gets you better than even family could?
No, it’s so they can boast about how bloody great they are.
The fact that I spotted Britt Assombalonga on one such foray into the world of footballing pubescence, and mildly talked him up before most had heard of him, is still the stuff of legend among friends and family (I assume, we don’t speak of it much any more, but I can still see the admiration in their eyes).
So, armed with a free Sunday and an ego in need of reinforcement, I pottered down to Vicarage Road this weekend (for a second time) to see who else I could attach my eternal glory to.
It’s worth noting I’ve done this before for these pages, predicting the unstoppable rise of a few players after a comfortable 3-0 won over Norwich. Of those players only one has played any league football this season (and even that one, Jazzi Barnum-Bobb, has spent most of the season at non-league Torquay after 44 minutes in League Two with Newport). Just goes to show that nobody’s infallible.
The game followed the pattern of most of those played at Vicarage Road this season. On the front foot from near enough the first whistle, the Young Horns were put into an even more comfortable position 26 minutes in when Sunderland’s big centre back, Rayed Derbali, was harshly sent off for pulling back Ryan Cassidy after being dispossessed about 30 yards from goal.
Watford, playing in a 3-5-2, were playing almost exclusively down the wings in the first half, with direct clipped balls over the top achieving mixed levels of success. They took the lead through left wing-back Lewis Gordon, however, after a neat passing move; the 16-year-old curling the ball inside the far post after coming inside and exchanging passes with Reece Miller.
A penalty in the second half, with Watford playing shorter and more incisive passes, should have put the game to bed, but captain Reece Stray shot straight down the middle, bringing a comfortable save from the most Sunderland-looking goalkeeper imaginable.
After several more chances to kill off the game began the minor meltdown. Watford slowed things down, with two players receiving bookings for kicking the ball away and deserving another. Ten-man Sunderland (a Category 1 academy) spent the last fifteen minutes knocking on the door, possession was lost cheaply, and Gordon was forced to clear off the line after a corner. The one-goal lead was preserved, however, and the side will now travel to Blackburn for the next round.
And so, having seen these players for 90 minutes against ten men, let me tell you exactly what to think of some of the players:
Lewis Gordon – The stand out throughout. Gordon will probably be the most familiar of the names in the side, after he played briefly in the first team’s pre-season run-out at AFC Wimbledon in the summer. He didn’t have to do much defending, but was consistently dangerous in an attacking wing-back role.
Being kids eager to impress in front of a largish crowd, play in both halves gravitated to the Sir Elton John Stand, the only one in use. In the first half, when Gordon was playing on the far side, he made the most of the space provided to him, bursting into open gaps and combining well with Miller. He had to come inside to get more of the ball, leading to his goal, and though he could do with more of a right foot, looked perfectly comfortable anywhere on the pitch.
The fact that the ball was housed pretty much completely on his side of the pitch in the second half may be the reason for the more attractive and silky football. A good touch, impressive speed and a willingness to get forward – following his passes rather than admiring them – meant that he came away with the biggest reputation boost.
Harry Forster – On the other side of the pitch, Forster showed great confidence within a five-yard radius, going past players with a mixture of short-distance pace and trickery, and an ability to cover at the back. While Gordon looks like an attacking full back, Forster is a winger who tracks back. He was very calm facing his own goal, playing the ball around attackers rather than blooting it away like others might. He needs to work on his out ball, as much of his possession ended with clipped passes down the wing rather than anything a bit more thought out, and also needs to stop cutting his own hair, but the boy has skills.
Jamie Lacy – The keeper didn’t have much to do in terms of shot-stopping, but made himself big on several occasions when Sunderland strikers got in behind – impressive as at the moment (he’s only 17) he’s pretty petit (in fact, apart from centre back Ben Tricker, who is massive, it is a pretty small side). The most noteworthy thing about Lacy, however, is his voice. It was hardly raucous in the ground, but his bellows echoed around the ground. He was constantly in communication with his back line, encouraging them and directing them with his lovely deep voice, which I, as someone with no footballing ability whatsoever, found very comforting. Much better a boom than a squeak. Well done, Jamie.
Ryan Cassidy – Another one that’s only 16, Cassidy is currently top scorer in the Category 2 Under-18s league. Signed from Ireland in July, Cassidy looks like a striker that can do a bit of everything. Though he didn’t score, he looked comfortable working the channels in the first half, and also playing more intricate stuff in the second. He was unlucky to see a poked effort blocked during a goalmouth scramble and then should have done better when Miller rounded the keeper and squared the ball, Cassidy under-hitting his shot, allowing a defender to get back and clear. Another short one, Cassidy also did well in the air against the much larger Sunderland defenders, and linked up well with both Gordon down the wing and Miller.
- This was a young Watford team: Just five of the starting line-up are second year scholars.
- Ben Jones, playing on the right side of the back three, can ping a ball. He played five or six beautiful balls across the pitch, perfectly weighted into the path of Gordon or Jubril Adedeji in the second half.
- Jamie, Ben, Lewis, Reece, Ben, Harry, Harry, Yazid, Reece, Ryan, Bradley. TWO Bens, TWO Reeces, TWO Harrys. We’re a long way from Jazzi Barnum-Bobb and Bobson Bawling.
- Here’s Stray’s penalty in slow motion, because I was cold and playing around with my phone.
- Williams Kokolo and Jordan Hickey were my picks of the Sunderland team. Don’t be surprised if you never hear of them again.
Watford: Lacy, Jones, Tricker, Hudson; Forster, Empson (Leighton), Stray, Kaikay, Gordon; Miller (Adedji), Cassidy
Subs: Hoskins, Sesay, Cruz Cabrera
Sunderland: Patterson, Howard, Young, Derbali, Kokolo, Hickey, Mumba, Hackett (Scothern), Diamond, Connelly, Kimpioka (Dunne)
Subs: Devine, Leonard, Newman