Under-18s boss Leigh Downing says he’s “enjoying every day” leading the club’s scholars in their development.
The teenagers have experienced the usual rhythm of academy football since the beginning of the 2023/24 season, with the young Baggies drawing one, winning two and losing three of their opening six league games in the U18 Premier League South division.
In addition to starting their Premier League Cup campaign, Downing and his staff will be preparing the squad for the excitement of the FA Youth Cup towards the end of the year - a competition relished and cherished by all involved at scholarship level.
Predictably, the theme of second years featuring in Richard Beale’s Under-21s team has continued this year meaning, like last term, the 18s have handed opportunities to some U16s earlier than expected.
But Downing has enjoyed meeting the challenges head on and hopes to see the benefits of exposing his young team to high-calibre opposition in the months ahead - especially after guiding Albion’s scholars to a 3-2 win over high-flying Fulham recently.
Leigh provided his thoughts on the 18s who have impressed so far, his second year in charge of the side, and the importance of cup competitions in bringing on his players this season.
As ever in 18s football, it’s been a mixed start. Have you been encouraged by what you’ve seen?
It’s been a classic case of development football at the start of this season; winning, drawing and losing. The U17s won in the PL Cup and the 18s lost in it, so we’re looking towards getting some consistency by establishing more settled groups. Four of the U16s have all played in the 18s which you don’t have very often, or certainly in the years I’ve been here. Carrying on from last year you’ve got Kevin Mfuamba and Harry Whitwell pushing on, and Jamal Mohammed who has had first-team opportunities as well and Deago Nelson too. We’ve managed to cope with those instances and it’s brought more opportunities for players while bringing its challenges and that’s how I’d describe our start to the season in the 18s so far.
The lads know the the scholarship period is a short one. It says two years, but it’s more like 18 months so the more they can do within that short space of time will definitely help them out when it comes to making decisions.
More U16s have been called upon this year to boost your squad. Even though it’s quite a jump, they seem to have coped well under the pressure…
Carlos had lots of 21s boys this time around during pre-season, which meant Bealey had our second-year scholars in his group so it was challenging for us. But what those instances have done straight away for a lot of the new boys here is provide opportunities for the 16s to come up and play 18s football and our 18s to play in the 21s. So although it’s been challenging because of how young we’ve been, some of the lads have stepped up and already staked a claim to be part of the 18s regularly.
We only really had Cole Deeming and Ollie Bostock playing up from the 16s regularly with us last year, but the positives so far have been blooding the first-years early and they’ll certainly continue to get chances. There might be some pain along the way and we say that to the boys in a sense that they may make mistakes, but we believe as a club that they’ll see the benefit from those during the second half of the season. I’m hoping the more they get exposed to these top teams, the earlier they’ll show improvements from them. I’m pleased with how they’ve done and they’re a good, honest group who come in, work hard and get better which is all we can ask for.
In terms of first and second year scholars, have both sets of boys made a positive impression on you?
Dan Chimeziri has started the season well, Divine Onyemachi’s had an impact, Rhys Morrish came out of grassroots football to join us and he’s already had a call up from Wales since he’s been here. Ethan Ingram was the last player who achieved that because we recruited him from grassroots too and he got around the international scene.
Ollie Bostock has made an impact, got some assists and goals in the games, and he’s another who has international recognition with Wales and is constantly getting called up. Adriel Walker’s gathered some good scoring form and as a front player, you want to be impacting games, Deago has flirted between the 18s and 21s, same with Evan Humphries, and Mohammed has been a standout training with the first team and as a second-year scholar, I’ve barely seen him which speaks for itself. There will be some individuals who have the right mindset and Jenson Sumnall and Ben Cisse have taken on a leadership role within the group, being two of the older ones. If they aren’t doing those things right on and off the pitch, then Saturday will go the same way. That’s why they have responsibilities around the training ground to keep them level, humble and it’s important we try and instil that into them.
Albion’s academy has produced some good goalkeepers over the years and Ben, who you mentioned just, is another exciting talent coming through…
Ben’s athleticism is a real strength. He’s so powerful, quick and is an agile goalkeeper who can get around the goal at great speed and he’s one we’re pushing every day. He’s getting exposed in games and we’re looking to him to be a big important player for us because we know the potential he’s got. He gets around the England international scene and he’s got to be pushing like Josh Griffiths was when he was a scholar, and the likes of Ted too. It’s a very young goalkeeping department at senior level now and what you do see is there’s three academy graduates there which is testament to Boaz Myhill and, although he’s not here anymore, Mark Naylor who will have worked with Palms as a youngster.
We always discuss the importance of the FA Youth Cup. Will there be a lot of emphasis on creating a run in the competition this year?
In the FA Youth Cup we were against another Category One team in Nottingham Forest last year and sometimes you need the luck of the draw to progress. The boys know when that time comes around, through their own mindsets, they feel confident about their prospects in the tournament. Us as coaches, we of course look at those occasions and if we can progress in them, it gives players better experiences to help them prepare for first-team football in the future. On a Saturday it’s not always about the result, but we have to give them tasters about how to win because Carlos could call upon them at any moment and they could be in a changing room where, if you don’t win on a Saturday, there will be players there who hold others accountable.
One of our joint targets this year is to hopefully progress in the FA Youth Cup because you look at what it did for Caleb Taylor’s group that year, they’re all currently on an important part of their development process so, hopefully, a run in the competition this year will help the current group on their own paths.
It’s your second term in charge of the 18s this time around, and you seem to be enjoying coming in every day in your current role…
It’s been really enjoyable. Chay (Thompson) has been with me over a year now too and as staff we’re all working towards the same goal and for how long I’ve been at the club, I come into work enjoying every day. The lads are a good bunch to work with and they want to do well and that’s all I can ask of them. I enjoy trying to make players better and developing them for the club and that will continue to happen for the rest of the time that I’m here.