Albion U18s boss Leigh Downing believes there’s “lots to look forward to” for his young stars in the second half of the campaign, following an encouraging start to his tenure in charge.
Leigh was appointed as 18s Lead Professional Development Phase Coach in September, celebrating his 13th year coaching at The Hawthorns by embracing the opportunity to lead the progression of the club’s scholars.
Downing, along with new assistant Chay Thompson, have helped their young side overcome a mix of results to create a three-game winning run heading into their FA Youth Cup third-round tie against Nottingham Forest at the City Ground on Tuesday night.
The hosts reached the final of the tournament last term, but many of Leigh’s 18s have gained exposure in Richard Beale’s PL2 team this year, and he’s hoping those who’ve stepped up in the 21s can play in an important part in helping his squad progress in the competition.
Q: How much does this competition mean to you and your squad?
LD: The FA Youth Cup for the boys and for us as a club is always a competition that you want to do well in. It gives the boys that unique experience of playing in a stadium, under the lights, and I’ve enjoyed those nights in the recent years I’ve worked as an assistant in the 18s already. We got to the semi-finals one year and the experiences we took from that year were brilliant and we’d love to replicate that kind of journey again.
Q: For supporters who haven’t seen lots of your side this season, which of the boys could make a difference against Forest?
LD: If you look at the consistency of Akeel across both are groups then it will help us. I’ve got to give a mention to Layton Love who’s scored a number of goals for us this year and is in a good place. Hopefully if he keeps doing that then he’ll continue to see the benefits, but Fenton Heard’s another who’s added goals and assists to his game this year. The position he plays in, those aspects are important parts of his game that he needs to do so I hope he carries on that form as well.
Q: A number of your squad have been involved in the U21s this season. Is that going to help your chances of getting a positive result at the City Ground?
LD: This season, Bealey’s had four or five of our group regularly playing up. First-year scholars in Harry Whitwell and Kevin Mfuamba, Akeel Higgins starting to score regularly in the 18s and 21s, Ronnie Hollingshead’s played the whole season at a higher level. You hope the higher level they’re playing at will stand them in good stead when they come down to us, but I’m just really glad they’re getting so many chances in with Bealey in the 21s.
Harry signing his professional contract so early is an example of what we do as an academy. We want to give players that pathway to push towards the first team.
Q: You’re halfway through your first season in charge of the 18s. How’ve you found it and the response from your players, many of which you already knew so well from your time here?
LD: I’ve really enjoyed the step up and making more of the important decisions regarding team selections, the different styles we want to use against certain opposition, and what’s been quite good is that I’ve seen a real improvement from the lads as the season goes on. We’ve picked up a bit of form which always helps the boys with their confidence, and reaching the quarter-finals of the Premier League Cup - which we hadn’t done before. So there’s lots to look forward to in the second half of the season.
Q: Forest made it all the way to the final last season, so it’ll be a tough test for your side. But just how important can the Youth Cup journey be in your team’s development?
LD: Some of the lads who’ve been on that Youth Cup journey, your Caleb Taylors, Zac Ashworths and Jamie Andrews’ are starting to form their first-team careers. So it does play an important part in the boys’ development.
We’d love to get further than we did last year, but we’re against last season’s finalists. They’ve got good players and there won’t be too much in the game with it being two Category One academies against each other. We just need to push the boys to perform to their best on the night and if we do that, I think we have a really good chance of winning.