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    Brighton and Hove Albion U-23s in 2017-18 - A review of the season

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    At the start of this review I will repeat what I stated at the start of the U-18s review: the purpose of the academy system is to produce players who will become a part of the first team squad. Ultimately, the success of the academy will only be judged on the number of individuals breaking into the first team, not on the match results of the U-23 side throughout the season. Promotions and cup wins, while very pleasing, shouldn’t distract us from that objective.

    2017-18 was the fourth season of the Albion U-23s competing in the U-23 Premier League (renamed in 2016-17 to Premier League 2 and changing from an U-21 league). Albion competed, again, in Division Two. They were entered again in the Checkatrade Trophy, the U-23 Premier League Cup and the Parafix Sussex Senior Cup (as holders).

    Simon Rusk entered the campaign in his third full season in charge, having taken the reins in February 2015 when Simon Ireland departed for QPR. The squad posed for a group photo on academy photo-shoot day in September 2017:-

    Back row, l-r: Soufyan Ahannach, Owen Moore, Danny Mandroiu, Ben Barclay, James Tilley, Aaron Connolly, George Cox
    Middle row, l-r: Jordan Davies, Henrik Bjordal, Josh Kerr, Bailey Vose (GK), Robert Sanchez (GK), Billy Collings (GK), Jonah Ayunga, Ben Hall, Archie Davies
    Front row, l-r: Steven Alzate, David Ajiboye, Rian O’Sullivan, Will Collar, Des Hutchinson, Danny Barker, Reece Meekums, Max Sanders

    Premier League 2 Division Two

    Albion had an average first half of the season; they lost to a late, late penalty (in the 5th minute of injury time) at Reading on January 8th and lay sixth in the table, 4 points outside the play-off positions and having played more matches than every team above them. They had a negative goal difference.

    What happened next was little short of extraordinary. As it transpired, Albion would play another 18 matches (in all competitions) through to the end of the season and they would remain unbeaten, suddenly scoring goals for fun, becoming extremely hard to break down and proving more than a match for all-comers. Their record since that Reading game reads:-

    P:18 W:15 D:3 L:0 F:53 A:7 GD:46

    They kept 11 clean sheets and didn’t concede more than a single goal in any match. It meant that Albion finished third in the table and hosted Middlesbrough in the promotion play-off semi-final at the Amex Stadium which was duly won 3-0. That set-up the play-off final at Villa Park against Aston Villa and a highly professional performance saw Albion clinch promotion to Division One for the first time with a 2-0 victory.

    Checkatrade Trophy

    There was a slight change in the rules in 2017-18 that saw all 3 matches for the U-21 sides in the Checkatrade Trophy group stages played away from home. After defeat at MK Dons, Albion gained a creditable 2-2 draw at Oxford United (and won the penalty shoot-out) but a side loaded up with first-team squad members succumbed meekly at Stevenage and exited the competition.

    Premier League Cup

    Albion safely navigated the group stage where they were pitted against Exeter City, Sunderland and Hull City. Albion won 5-0 away at the Black Cats but had to settle for second position in the group which was won by the Grecians. Onto the knockout phase where Everton were dispatched 3-0 at home; that brought an away tie at Swansea City.

    Albion certainly had their chances in Wales (not least George Cox seeing his penalty saved late in extra-time) but they ended up losing in an incredible penalty shoot-out when Ben Barclay had his shot saved – the previous 17 penalties had all been scored. So, for the second season running, Albion lost to the same opponents at the same venue at the same stage of the competition.

    Parafix Sussex Senior Cup

    Albion won the Sussex Senior Cup in 2016-17 by beating the late Dermot Drummy’s Crawley Town. This season victories over East Preston, Haywards Heath Town, Whitehawk and a 6-0 drubbing of Pagham in the semi-final set up a re-match against the Reds, now managed by Harry Kewell.

    It looked as though Josh Kerr’s own goal may have gifted Crawley revenge 12 months on, but a James Tilley strike leveled matters and his subsequent penalty mishap (saved by Crawley’s Mersin) didn’t prove costly as Kerr found the net at the right end from an Alex Cochrane corner.

    Captain Des Hutchinson lifted the trophy for the second year running in what would turn out to be his final act as an Albion player:-

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    From left to right: James Tilley, Ryan Longman, Alex Cochrane, Bojan Radulovic, Josh Kerr, Billy Collings (GK, hidden), Des Hutchinson, Stefan Ljubicic (partially hidden), David Ajiboye, Bailey Vose (GK, partially hidden), Warren O'Hora, Rian O'Sullivan, Jonah Ayunga, Reece Meekums, Cam Tutt and Matt Weaire

    Player review by position

    For the following analysis, the 2017-18 campaign consisted of 40 matches: 24 in the league (22 regular season plus 2 play-off) and a total of 16 cup matches across the three competitions. I have ignored first-team squad members in this review.

    Goalkeeper: For the second season running, Robert Sanchez made most appearances with 20 in total (and signed a new three-year contract in April). Local-lad Billy Collings made 7 appearances and also earned a one-year extension. Bailey Vose made 3 appearances but spent most of the season out on loan, firstly at Vanarama South Eastbounre Borough (20 appearances in total) and then at Welling United in the same division (where he made 15 appearances). It was announced just yesterday that Vose has been sold to Colchester United where he will sign a two-year deal. Christian Walton spent the season on loan at Wigan Athletic, earning a League One winners’ medal and being awarded the Golden Glove, but made a couple of appearances for the U-23s as he returned to action following his recovery from a fractured fibula at the end of August.

    Full-backs: Ales Mateju joined the club in August and made 20 appearances at right-back for the U-23s; he also appeared twice as a sub for the first-team in the Carabao Cup. First-year pro Owen Moore made 6 appearances at right-back (with a similar number at centre-back and 1 in midfield) and did enough to earn a contract extension this month. Tyler Hornby-Forbes also made 6 appearances at right-back (with 3 at left-back and 3 in midfield). He started the campaign on loan at Accrington Stanley but in a disappointing spell made just 10 appearances (6 starts). He was released by Albion at the end of the campaign.

    Will Collar made 3 starts at right-back; 2nd-year scholar Hamish Morrison made a couple of starts but has now been released and Reece Meekums made one of his two starts at right-back; he scored 7 goals in 39 appearances on loan at Worthing and was highly-regarded by the Mackerel Men. He is another who has been released by Albion.

    At left-back George Cox started all 24 league matches (the only player to be ever-present in the league). He made a further 10 starts in the cups and contributed two goals. He has recently spoken of his desire to go out on loan next season. Tyler Hornby-Forbes made 3 starts at left-back in the cups and Irishman Rian O’Sullivan made 1 start there (in the SSC Final). He had loan spells at Worthing and Carshalton Athletic but was released at the end of the campaign.

    Centre-backs: Tom Dallison, like Tyler Hornby-Forbes, began the campaign on loan at Accrington Stanley. He scored one goal in 6 starts; he had a surgical procedure conducted in November. He returned to action for the U-23s in that late loss at Reading in January, and was then ever-present until the end of the season (apart from the SSC Final when a “reserve” XI was selected). On the same day as the SSC Final it was announced that Dallison would be joining Falkirk on a two-year contract.

    In the first half of the season, the main centre-back pairing had been Ben Hall and Josh Kerr. Hall made 16 appearances but missed a couple of months in October and November through injury. At the end of the January transfer window he joined League Two Notts County on loan. County manager Kevin Nolan was full of praise for him after his league debut and he was voted the County Player of the Month for March 2018. He made 11 appearances for the Magpies and the County chairman has already expressed a desire for him to re-join them next season. He also made three appearances for the Northern Ireland U-21 side.

    Josh Kerr’s signing from Celtic was announced a year ago. He made 15 starts at centre-back, scoring a couple of goals, but an injury kept him out for two months in the middle of the season and disrupted his campaign. Ben Barclay missed almost the entire season with a knee injury but was able to make 6 appearances at the end of the campaign and contribute a goal. He earned a contract extension last week. Warren O’Hora joined the club in January from Dublin-based Bohemian FC. He was nursing a hamstring injury upon arrival but made a couple of starts late in the season.

    Central midfield: Steven Alzate was transferred into the club from Leyton Orient at the end of July and, as the season progressed, would come to form a very effective partnership in the centre of the park with first-year professional Max Sanders. Alzate scored 7 goals in a total of 34 appearances. Sanders had a season to remember. He, like Alzate, would also make 34 appearances, scoring 6 goals. When Des Hutchinson went down with injury, Sanders was promoted to captain the side. In March, with injuries claiming a number of victims, he was named by Chris Hughton as a substitute for the FA Cup quarter-final tie against Manchester United at Old Trafford. And, having played a significant role in the U-23’s play-off victory at Villa Park (with a hand in both goals), he was named in the 24-man England U-19 squad that has just completed a training camp at La Manga; we will wait to see if he makes the final squad for the UEFA European Championship Finals in Finland in July.

    Des Hutchinson started the season as the regular captain of the U-23s but suffered an injury in January that kept him out until late April. He had made his first-team debut in September in the Carabao Cup tie at Bournemouth. The last of his 21 U-23 appearances came as he lifted the Sussex Senior Cup; it was a fitting way to end his five years at the club as he was released last week. Danny Mandroiu is another who missed a chunk of the season through injury but he was still able to contribute 5 goals in 16 appearances. The versatile Will Collar made 17 starts in various positions, scoring one goal, but his campaign was ended by injury in December.

    Jayson Molumby made his first-team debut when he started against Barnet in the Carabao Cup in August. He also started in the next tie at Bournemouth. He was named as a substitute for three Premier League matches in October. The same month he scored a 16-minute hat-trick as he captained the Republic of Ireland U-19s. Having made 5 appearances for Albion U-23s, he then suffered an injury that would keep him out for the remainder of the campaign. Another who suffered a similar fate was first-year professional Archie Davies; he started the campaign on loan at Whitehawk where he made 8 appearances for the troubled Hawks. Having returned to Albion he made 7 appearances for the U-23s but suffered a season-ending injury against Newcastle in January.

    Wide midfield: Henrik Bjordal had a very impressive campaign, ending as leading scorer with 13 goals in 32 appearances. The Albion took up their contract option on him last week. Soufyan Ahannach joined the club in August and made 15 appearances for the U-23s before joining Sparta Rotterdam on loan in January. He scored one goal in 12 starts before suffering a double leg fracture in April. Jordan Davies scored 3 goals in 13 appearances but his campaign was also disrupted by injury.

    David Ajiboye made 10 appearances for the U-23s but joined Millwall on loan in January where he made 9 appearances for their U-23 side, scoring one goal. He returned to help Albion win the SSC before being released last week. Second-year scholar Alex Cochrane made 4 appearances for the U-23s and provided an assist as Albion beat Crawley Town in the SSC Final. First-year scholar Ryan Longman scored two goals against East Preston in the Sussex Senior Cup and one of his 5 appearances came in the final of the competition.

    Forwards: Aaron Connolly was the second-highest scorer (after Bjordal) with 12 goals in 27 appearances. He formed a productive partnership with Viktor Gyokeres and half his goals came in the final 4 league (and play-off) matches. Connolly missed a couple of months through injury early in the campaign. Viktor Gyokeres had an amazing impact after joining the club in January (his signing was announced in September but he remained with IF Brommapojkarna to help them secure promotion). Gyokeres made his debut for Albion as a sub in that Reading defeat; he scored on his full debut in the next match against Sunderland. In March he started a run of scoring in 8 successive matches. He finished the campaign with 11 goals in 15 appearances.

    James Tilley scored his first goal at senior level when he netted the winner after coming on as a substitute against Barnet in the Carabao Cup in August. At U-23 level he scored 8 goals in 31 appearances but the form of Connolly and Gyokeres kept him out of the starting line-up at the end of the campaign; instead he started (and scored) in the “reserve” line-up that retained the Sussex Senior Cup against Crawley Town. It is now 3 years since he made his senior league debut against Middlesbrough; he signed a new three-year deal in October but it is difficult not to believe that next season will be critical in determining his longer-term prospects. First-year scholar Danny Cashman scored one goal in 3 appearances and the forgotten man Jonah Ayunga made his only appearance in the SSC Final against the Reds (he had just returned to action after a long rehabilitation from surgery following a broken leg playing for Galway United on loan in August). He had made a solitary substitute appearance for Poole Town on loan 11 days before the Crawley match.

    Season-long loans: Ben White spent the entire season on loan at Newport County, and it is difficult to think that the move could have worked out any more productively. White made 51 appearances for the Ironsides (mainly at centre-back but also at right-back) and scored one goal. He played at Wembley after County earned a replay in the FA Cup at home to Tottenham. He earned numerous man-of-the-match awards and at the end of the season won four different Player of the Season accolades. Manager Mike Flynn stated that he was “Definitely the best loan signing we have ever had at this football club”. After some speculation that he was attracting interest from other Premier League clubs, he agreed a new three-year contract with Albion in April.

    Mathias Normann joined the club in July. In August he joined Molde FK on loan (under manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer). He made 7 appearances, interrupted by an injury sustained in October while on international duty for the Norwegian U-21s. In January he re-joined Molde until June; he has made a further 8 appearances, scoring one goal and getting sent-off earlier this month.

    Jordan Maguire-Drew started the season on a season-long loan at League Two Lincoln City (but with an option to curtail the agreement in January). After a promising start his form faltered and in October he picked up a grade two hip tear. He did score two goals in the Checkatrade Trophy, one of 14 total appearances, but the loan was cancelled and he joined Coventry City on January 3rd. Again he made a promising start but in March he required an operation for appendicitis. Surgery damaged the muscles in his stomach and he only returned to the teamsheet for the final regular league match of the season. He was an unused substitute for the two play-off semi-final matches against Notts County and so he may yet have a part to play in Coventry City’s Wembley date against Exeter City on Monday.


    Looking at the results and achievements of the U-23s in 2017-18 it is undoubtedly the most successful season enjoyed by the side since Albion’s academy received Category One Status in 2014. The youngsters will be playing in Division One of Premier League 2 for the first time next season, which will provide a correspondingly higher level of competition.

    However, the ultimate objective is to produce players capable of earning a place in Chris Hughton’s first-team squad. The law of averages says that most of the players mentioned in this review will fall by the wayside over the next few seasons. Will any of these names make an EPL appearance for the club in 2018-19? Only time will tell whether U-23 promotions and cups (and successful lower league loan spells) translate into Premier League players….

    A review of the youth team in 2017-18 can be found here -----> Brighton and Hove Albion U-18s - A review of the 2017-18 season

    Last season's review of the U-23s can be found here -----> Albion U-23s: Review of the Season - 2016-17


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