Ladies and Youth Update
Terry Burton`s U-21 side is back in action after the Christmas sabbatical, whilst Arsenal Ladies are embroiled in pre season preparations with a new manager now appointed. So I thought it would be a good time to revive the Ladies and Youth column. Beginning with Arsenal Ladies. Some of the girls were decorated with individual awards last night. Steph Houghton bagged England Women`s Player of the Year at the F.A`s 150th anniversary dinner and England awards.
Steph has played in an unfamiliar left back position for her country as England qualified for Euro 2013 from a tough group. She also notched an epoch making goal for Great Britain at the summer Olympics, scoring a winner against Brazil in front of over 70,000 at Wembley. Meanwhile, Emma Byrne was awarded with Ireland`s Player of the Year award for 2012. The long time Arsenal custodian hasn`t had the same amount of cheer at international level as Eire failed to qualify for Euro 2013, but Byrne`s safe hands in the Irish goal haven`t gone unrecognised. Byrne has over 70 caps for Ireland and is about to begin her 13th season as the Gunners` goalkeeper.
Arsenal announced the appointment of Shelley Kerr as Laura Harvey`s successor. Harvey moves to Seattle Reign, whilst Kerr leaves her job of four years as manager of Scotland`s U-19 side. Kerr worked small miracles with the Scottish youngsters, qualifying them for their first ever Euros tournament in the summer. She also has experience of working with Jen Beattie and Kim Little. It seems to have been a deliberate ploy by Arsenal to appoint a coach with a strong background of development. The process effectively began last season, but the Gunners are easing out a number of their more experienced heads. Faye White may retire now that she has given birth, Jayne Ludlow spent much of last season injured, Kelly Smith`s knees are in a precarious enough state to require astute management. Julie Fleeting is also unlikely to return now she is in the early stages of motherhood.
Arsenal are looking to a crop of talented youngsters, such as Jordan Nobbs, Jen Beattie, Danielle Carter and Bianca Bragg to step up to the plate. The players in their mid to late twenties, such as Steph Houghton, Kim Little and Katie Chapman will be asked to become leaders as the hierarchy shifts. Arsenal will begin their defence of their WSL crown on Sunday, 14th April at home to Bristol Academy, whilst they have been drawn to play Birmingham City, Lincoln City and Bristol Academy in their Continental Cup group, as they seek to defend the trophy they`ve won in consecutive seasons. The Ladies are again offering fans the chance to buy season tickets, for £35 you can watch all of the home games the girls play in the WSL, the Continental Cup, the F.A. Cup and the Champions League.
Despite the postponement of the Southampton game a fortnight ago, the Reserves and youth have restarted their season with a busy schedule. A draw with West Brom and defeat to West Ham haven`t been the ideal manner to begin the Elite Group of the Reserve Premier League. With a game away at Manchester United on Monday, life won`t get easier for Burton`s boys, but stiff competition will be exactly what he would like for his young charges. He`ll get that too in the next round of the Nextgen Series, where Arsenal have drawn holders Inter Milan.
Surprisingly, very few reserve players went out on loan in the January transfer window. Ipswich Town had interest in Thomas Eisfeld, but a deal didn`t work out for reasons undisclosed. Chuks Aneke rejoined Crewe Alexandra, but has found himself on the bench for their last two games. Ignasi Miquel and Serge Gnabry have only just recovered from medium term injuries, whilst Benik Afobe has returned from a pretty underwhelming loan spell with Bolton Wanderers, in which he managed just 3 goals from 23 appearances. The nucleus of the U-21 side looks set to stay together for the remainder of the campaign. With the reorganisation of the second string leagues in England this season, perhaps it is considered that loan spells are not as necessary as they once were. Fixtures are regular and the splitting of the league half way through the season ensures close, competitive games.
The U-18s for instance showed impressive steel in the past week. On a sodden Underhill pitch, they battled out a thrilling 2-1 victory over Fulham in the 4th round of the F.A. Youth Cup last Tuesday. Anthony Jeffrey, Serge Gnabry and Alfred Mugabo all left the pitch with severe cramp as the game went into extra time. Jack Jebb and Chuba Akpom were unable to walk for the last five minutes of an incredibly draining, end to end two hour encounter, which was decided by Austin Lipman`s low shot from range. On Saturday morning, many of the same players fought out a hard earned 1-0 victory over Newcastle United. Arsenal played the last ten minutes with ten men as a very questionable challenge by Eric Cardona on goalkeeper Josh Vickers left the young Gunners stopper needing to leave the pitch due to a heavy gash on the knee. Striker Austin Lipman took the gloves as Arsenal had used their three substitutes.
Two of these substitutions were pre planned, with Serge Gnabry adding 45 minutes more under his belt as he returns from injury. He decided the game with a fulminating 25 yard strike. (He clipped the bar with a similar effort five minutes after his goal). Alfred Mugabo also only played a half after the cramp he suffered on Tuesday, whilst Hector Bellerin limped off after a heavy 50-50 challenge. Though both sides struck the woodwork, Pat Holland will be pleased with how resolute his side were, with the tall, calm and imposing duo of Zach Fagan and Isaac Hayden catching the eye at centre half.
Hayden skippers the U-18s and is a known favourite of Steve Bould. He probably sees a bit of himself in young Isaac who is an ultra calm, positionally aware centre half. Though his taste for the odd foray forward has also seen him star in defensive midfield, from where he scored a memorable goal against Athletic Bilbao in the Nextgen Series. Hayden combines physical power with a cultural edge to his play. Hayden and Bellerin are probably going to become fixtures in the U-21s for the second half of the season. The latter`s conversion into a roving full back has been one of the features of the season. Hector seems to have acclimatised to the tough, fast paced nature of the English youth game. (His patter has become notably anglicised too. From the London Colney sidelines on a Saturday morning, you can hear every word the players utter and his "aaaay man!" inquisition of Zach Fagan when the defender failed to spot his run was most amusing).
The young Gunners will face the winners of Port Vale and Everton in the 5th Round of the F.A. Youth Cup. If they come through that, they have the guarantee of a home tie in the Quarter Final too, against either Birmingham City or Norwich City. Win that, and they play (deep breath) one of Nottingham Forest, Huddersfield Town, Spurs or Bolton Wanderers. The semi final is always a two legged affair with the home leg played at the home stadium of the first team. LD.