Lead U18s Coach Leigh Downing says he’s already looking forward to seeing Albion’s scholars kick on next term following the conclusion of his first year in charge.
The season was a beneficial one for the youngsters as they recorded their highest finish in the U18 Premier League standings since 2015, ending the year above the likes of Aston Villa, Leicester City and Arsenal.
This came despite being without a number of their most promising first and second-year players, with U21s boss Richard Beale blooding as many as 15 scholars during the 2022/23 campaign.
Albion’s young pros reached the PL2 Play-Offs thanks in part to the influence of a strong core of the U18s group, and boss Downing hopes to see the benefits of those experiences in his team next term as he looks back on qualifying for the PL Cup knockout stages for the first time, the current model of pushing youngsters into the PDP programme, and what he’s learned from his first year leading the club’s scholars.
Now the dust has settled, Leigh, how did you find your first season leading the Under-18s?
LD: I’ve really enjoyed my time stepping up from the assistant role and leading things. Ultimately it’s about development for the players but it’s also nice when your team does well and you see the hard work from, not just myself but the staff as well, come off on the weekends. We sat down at Christmas and said what we wanted to achieve was a strong finish in the league. A lot of our players went out of the team and played for the 21s and we ended up finishing the season five games unbeaten which, to go that period of time without those lads and in a league where we play against your Chelsea and West Hams, is credit to the boys. We ended the season in seventh which, from years gone by, is the highest we’ve finished in a long time really. You’d have to go back to when Romaine Sawyers and my brother Paul were in the 18s to find the last highest league finish before this season.
Getting out of the Premier League Cup group stages and into the quarter-final gave the lads good experiences and the one thing which would’ve been nice was to have gone through more rounds in the Youth Cup. But that’s something the first years going on to be second years next season will be a target for them but overall, I’ve really enjoyed my first year in charge.
A theme during the 2022/23 season was pushing more and more scholars into the PL2 team. Is this academy model something you can see being beneficial for future groups?
LD: If you look at Bealey’s team and the success they had last season, it was with four or five of our boys in there. Ronnie Hollingshead, Akeel Higgins and Matty Richards had gone and done the first part up there but then you find Harry Whitwell, Evan Humphries, Kevin Mfuamba. So their involvement is testament to not just the hard work they’ve done in the 18s, but day-to-day with the 21s too. As a result of that, the 16s have had to step up in some of their absences and two players that spring to mind who’ve benefited from that are Cole Deeming, who’s played half a season with us, and towards the end Ollie Bostock. They were two who’ve seen the benefits of playing up and, ultimately, that’s the sell we want to give players. You’re not only joining Albion, but the reason you stay and become a part of it is to get those minutes in the age groups above and hopefully that helps them become a Taylor Gardner-Hickman or a Dara O’Shea playing in our first team.
Are there a few players in your mind who could have important seasons next year?
LD: Adriel Walker, once we got him fully fit towards the end of the season, his body, strength and speed has meant he really impacted our games programme. He’s been finding his way, and Deago Nelson had a strong season too and he’s one who will be looking to push Ethan (Ingram) and Alex (Williams) above him at right-back. Jenson (Sumnall) has played a lot of regular football in his first year and that’s been the benefit because in years gone by, he may not have played much. But this season they have played a lot and Ben Cisse - who’s been away with England - has had a big year here too. When we have all these guys together, it’s really competitive and we’re looking forward to seeing them all kick on next year.
Your side bowed out of the FA Youth Cup early on. That must be an area you’ll be looking to build on to give your team more experiences playing in stadiums as early as possible?
LD: Those experiences give the lads chances to play in front of crowds at stadiums. It will prepare them for where they want to go and having worked with Caleb’s group several years ago, they believed they could go far in big competitions. You look at the five or six boys who’ve played up in the 21s like Harry, Kev and Evan. That spine of the team should be looking to compete in the big tournaments next year like the Youth Cup and the PL Cup and go through as many rounds as possible. You’ve got to beat the best to go through those stages and that’s something we’re really keen to build on.
While it’s undoubtedly been a proud period for you leading the U18s for the first time, there will have been setbacks along the way. What have they been and how have you found the solutions to them?
LD: You don’t always have the team you think you’re going to be working with on a Saturday. At the last second you could find out, and it is a positive, that Jamie Andrews, Mo Faal or Jovan Malcolm are travelling with the first team. Bealey then has to call upon three of the 18s and my team then changes. What it has made me do is adapt a lot more this year and bed in our philosophy and my style early on so that no matter if the players go up, when they come back down, they know the standards and the structure we want in the U18s. The hardest thing has been never always working with the players fully day-to-day because it can change so much. Now it’s about the Cole Deemings and Ollie Bostocks because they’ve worked with us nearly every day so when they came into the building, as U16s, they're ahead of the curve and they’re ready for next season.
Carlos Corberán’s arrival at the club will have changed some of your models and methods. Have you been trying to alter your sessions to adhere to them?
LD: We as staff and as an academy have enjoyed seeing what Carlos does. When we come back off the training pitches, the boys get to see his training methods and that’s shown on the impact he’s had on the club and we’d be daft not to try and replicate it. The players we provide for him need to be able to do the things he wants, so drip-feeding things in is important and his style is about wanting to be on the ball, pressing, and that’s something we want to try and do as well as an academy.
Just finally, how much have you enjoyed hearing people noticing the work you’ve been doing in the scholarship programme and what are your thoughts for the 2023/24 campaign?
LD: As I’ve said before, I love coming into work every day. The people, not only who I work with, but the people at the training ground and those at the stadium when I go there to watch first-team games, there’s more and more people aware of the work we’re doing. I only ever want to see the club do well so it’s really nice when I do get those positive messages or feedback from people saying ‘well done for the weekend’ when they see our results. It’s always a nice part of the job.
We’ll enjoy the off-season now, but the lads must continue to build on what they’ve done before and for me as a coach, I always want to get better. But I’ll be sending that message out to the lads too to see if we can improve on our last league finish and go further in the FA Youth or PL Cup. It’s fine margins in those games and as we saw last year, one or two goals can change that momentum in matches and the lads, because they’ve experienced it before, will be better-equipped to handle those situations if they arise again so let’s see what next season brings us.