In their biggest game for over half a century, Bury’s U18s take on the might of Liverpool for a place in the semi-finals of the FA Youth Cup on Wednesday evening at Gigg Lane, where Watford await the victors.
I’ve been closely following the fortunes of the youth team since Ryan Kidd returned to the to take over as manager of the newly reintegrated highest age group of the academy in 2014. Working alongside Mark Litherland, the overseer of the system as a whole, and only remaining staff member from before previous chairman Stewart Day’s tenure, they, along with the likes of Graham Hastings, Jamie Hesketh and others, have completely revamped what had hitherto been largely barren in terms of producing players who made it professionally.
The game against the Premier League giants could in some ways be argued to be the culmination of over half a decade of innovation and toil largely unseen publicly, save for a few fits and bursts. The first such indication came in the third round of the 2014/2015 campaign. Kidd’s boys travelled to Old Trafford, and far from disgraced themselves by losing by a solitary goal to a Manchester United outfit containing the likes of Dean Henderson, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, and a certain Marcus Rashford; their efforts impressed Sir Bobby Charlton, and planted a small seed in the minds of many close observers that there was a resurgence taking place in south Lancashire. Few of that vintage in white and royal blue remain pro players, but that’s besides the point, and paints the closeness of that encounter in even brighter brushstrokes.
Since that time, there has been steady progress both on and off the pitch. Success in academy matches and league seasons tends not to be measured in the same way as the senior competitions; titles and wins are usually secondary to player development and sales, the latter of which has become all too frequent and, at times, cruel under EPPP (Elite Player Performance Plan). Nevertheless, that as many as 20 or more have found their pathway to the Shakers’ first team in that five-year expanse is testament to the importance of retaining the Category 3 status. A good proportion of that contingent have been sold to clubs in higher divisions, and the club stand to benefit financially and reputationally from their further progression in the sport.
In 2019, the Shakers are now in a position where their ranks are filled with youngsters coming to them, rather than them needing to be sought, because of the high esteem Litherland and Kidd are held in, and because the actions are in sync with the rhetoric about affording them opportunities. In the FA Youth Cup, they are the last side standing whose first team were or are in the Premier League in the last two years. Added to that, their Cat 3 status stands out like a sore thumb among much more moneyed setups.
Most of the talk in the build-up to the final tie of the quarter-final stage I have come across are in tones that make Liverpool’s advance seem almost inevitable. In some ways, it’s not hard to see why, especially if the writer is ignorant of the Shakers’ qualities. The odds are stacked against the hosts, but as mad Reds fan Ryan Lowe himself said, “people are saying it’s going to be a tough game (for Bury)… but why not for Liverpool, too?”
On these pages, I’ve not had as much as I’d like to talk up (within reason) the abilities of the small squad Kidd has nurtured over the past eight or nine months. In the main, there are two formations that have been utilised this season. The former Preston North End centre back, who bested that outfit at Deepdale to reach this stage from the dugout, had almost exclusively set out Bury in an unconventional but attack-minded 4-3-3 prior to November. It was around then that an emulation of the swashbuckling 5-2-1-2 adopted by Lowe was taken on in some games to increase the group’s familiarity and understanding of what’s demanded from the high-tempo, quick passing style.
The above formation demands that at least one of the centre back pair is comfortable in both carrying the ball out of defence and passing it forwards with confidence. Normally, Mark Edwards-Williams is the goalkeeper of choice, and is instructed to take short kicks and throws to set up attacks. By his own admission, recycling it among the backline and looking for an unmarked teammate to clip a pass ahead of are not Sam Allardyce’s forté – that’s not to say he’s lacking in that department, but he is an archetypal centre back, more adept at clearing his lines and standing up to a physically imposing striker. Saul Shotton has got back into the groove following injury problems in the nascent part of the season; aided by his experience in the uncompromisingly brutal shambles of the senior side in 2017/2018, he possesses both the height and passing range to indicate he could have a promising future in the upper echelons of the game for many years to come; his stronger left foot provides good balance to the backline, especially if playing as a three.
The full-backs areas are the most interesting of the XI from a tactical point of view. As with most contemporary four-man setups in defence, they’re asked to push up deep into the opposing third. The wider players in the forward line will naturally look to cut or tuck inside, which creates the space for Jack Hatton and Eddy Jones to whip in low crosses with plenty of pace to the far post. They have also proven to be adept at swapping flanks before and during games, which is unusual, and whether that was created from necessity or the inventiveness of their manager, it has allowed a greater degree of flexibility, and furthermore to exploit one wing or to fortify it.
Aaron Skinner can fill in at right-back if the need arises, but he has been more recently found in the centre of midfield, and provides much of the grit in an otherwise very technical ‘front six’. Although nominally ahead of Cameron Hill on the pitch, he’ll be covering any gaps that arise on the counter, and will need to be at his very best to prevent the diamond employed by Liverpool from monopolising possession in the centre.
Hill has been very unfortunate with injury this season, confined to the sidelines for four months. A deep-lying playmaker, that description doesn’t fully do him justice; he’s very effective in the penalty area at getting on the end of dead balls and finishing them, which isn’t something you normally associate with someone who looks to create from open play. Had it not been for that lengthy absence, it’s likely he’d have been afforded some gametime for the first team in the EFL Trophy run.
Callum Hulme is the first of two second year scholars to have been rewarded for their efforts with professional contracts. Another individual who’s mostly been training with the senior side this campaign, he has an aggressive streak to go along with the ‘silk’ of his idiosyncratic passing range and propensity to shoot (accurately) from long distances. It’s crucial he gets on the ball as much as possible to feed the likes of Joe Adams and Femi Seriki in order to make the Reds think twice about committing players forward in numbers.
Captain for the occasion, Adams is the second person to have signed pro terms, tying him to BL9 until 2021. Good with both feet, he’ll be on the left to accommodate Seriki. Much like Danny Mayor, he’ll sit narrowly than most other wingers in a three-pronged attack, and will doubtlessly cut inside to find Seriki or Jones on the overlap for a cutback around the ‘D’ to curl a shot with his right foot. In a departure from Mayor, he’s more apt to attempt crosses of his own, and if Bright Amoateng is playing, he has a very lively target to aim for. Capped for Wales U19s and top scorer for the Shakers with 13 despite never playing as an out-and-out striker and sometimes missing out entirely due to travelling with the first team for their matches, it only serves to further underlines his credentials and multi-faceted skills.
The irony of Amoateng’s likely involvement is that he’s on trial from Liverpool, with a view to being a scholar with the Merseyside outfit next season. Still just 15, he’s been the difference-maker in the last two rounds of the FA Youth Cup run, hitting decisive goals in both ties. His movement off the ball aids him immensely in creating some room for him to finish off chances, which might be at a premium against his employers.
15 year-old Seriki is also a big talent, which is putting it lightly. Heavily scouted by other clubs, he was named on the bench for an EFL Trophy match in December, as the above tweet attests. Not totally conforming to being classified as either a striker or a winger, he often operates in between those lines, popping up on either side of the nearest centre back to make it harder for them to track his runs. What is probable though is that he’ll be lurking with intent at the far post if a ball comes in from Adams or Hatton, and whilst I’m sure that will have been noted by the Reds’ analysis and coaching departments, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be able to prevent its efficacy. He’s the second top scorer with eight to his name, which is testament to his penchant for anticipating a pass or loose ball in the area at such a young age.
His recent unprompted name drop by Lowe in an interview is the most overt suggestion yet that he’ll make his senior debut before the season is out (if circumstances allow). It would certainly drive up interest even further in him, and then it would be a case of either persuading him to accept a scholarship with the carrot of more first team exposure, or to extract the highest price for his services within the very confining restrictions EPPP places on any deal (not that I’m particularly comfortable about the commodification of players that are still children, but that’s another argument for another article).
The alternative setup is a very close mirror of the senior side, which would probably see Bobby Copping come in at centre back for either Hill or Skinner. The major difference would be a greater emphasis on pressing from the front ny Amoateng and Seriki, allowing the five-man defence breathing space and for the midfielders to get tighter to the opposition to cut off easy passing routes for the opposition.
Copping is another star turn in an academy that has had of centre backs with bags of potential: the versatile Matty Foulds (now at Everton), Jacob Bedeau (first with Aston Villa U23s, now with Scunthorpe United), Emeka Obi (Wigan Athletic), and his teammates Shotton and Allardyce. Very much in the ball-playing mould, the symmetry he provides the trio makes it less predictable as to the destination of the eventual pass they play out from the back. Still in his first year, the maturity he’s displayed both on and off the pitch stand him in the best stead possible to make it as a professional footballer, and he’s not afraid of advancing forward to push up the defensive line… or to attempt to score a screamer:
I still think Kidd and Litherland will go with the 4-3-3 at the outset, but they can at least be assured that the flexibility and familiarity has been instilled in the group to switch things up during the match.
There are other options they can turn to on the bench – Copping or Hill (as already mentioned), plus the likes of Callum Jones (who’s been playing deeper in midfield since signing back in October than he had for either TNS or Oswestry Town in Wales), Aaron Brown (a mobile striker/wide forward capped by Northern Ireland U17s), and Cedric Ondoa, who would be able to provide more of a focal point in attack with his height and build.
As far as Barry Lewtas’ charges go, I enlisted the help of a couple of others who have more closely watched them in action, including Connor Rowden, a youth football expert who appeared on the popular ‘Not the Top 20’ podcast in January to talk at length about the state of it in England.
As you’d probably expect, their squad and probable XI has no real weak spots in it, and have not experienced too many issues competing on three fronts (with many of their ranks also appearing in the U19 UEFA Nations League). The lack of much width on the roster has been bypassed with a 4-4-2 that reinforces the strength of the spine of the XI.
Custodian Vítězslav Jaroš recently trained with Jürgen Klopp’s first team roster at Melwood; signed from Czech side Slavia Prague in 2017, he’s become the #1 choice for both the U18s and U19s, with his distribution of the ball being equally vital to his shot-stopping.
At centre back, there’s likely to be Morgan Boyes and Rhys Williams. The former can also turn out on the left flank, and will undoubtedly be tasked with containing Seriki. The latter evokes comparisons with Virgil van Dijk, which is a lot to live up to! Hugely impressive on the ball and in the tackle, he has stepped up on occasion to the U23s under Neil Critchley’s watch.
On the left, Algerian Yasser Larouci has been converted from a striker, which is a reversal of the usual trend. Not massively tested in the FA Youth Cup thus far, it might be something Kidd can look at as a means of pushing Jones onto him in order to curb his attacking prowess and leave Seriki more free in the same motion. Neco Williams (no relation to Rhys) is also a new face to the backline, having dropped back from the wing. He’ll play on the front foot and try to smother Adams out of the game.
Rarely seen at U18s level is a midfield diamond, but Lewtas has boldly admitted that he doesn’t have the personnel at his disposal to go with convention and put three in the middle. At the base, it will be a contest between Leighton Clarkson and Edvard Tagseth to get the nod. Clarkson is very much in the deep-lying playmaker mould, and won’t offer too much physical protection to the back four. Tagseth would offer more off the ball, but he’s only returned from injury.
Abdi Sharif places more emphasis on the defensive aspects of the narrow diamond, acting as a mid-block alongside Elijah Dixon-Bonner. The pair will fan out into the channels out of possession to attempt to force Bury’s full-backs inside, where the Reds’ numerical superiority will greatly aid them at winning back the ball to start counters. Dixon-Bonner complements Sharif with his creative mindset, and will target captain Paul Glatzel with raking passes forwards, should Jake Cain be marked closely by Hill or Skinner.
Cain is an all-round attacking midfielder, and possesses equally strong feet, making the angles of his passes to the strikers more obtuse and varied. He will need to be picked up to prevent an unchecked late run into the box just as much as his eye for a final ball will, too.
Bobby Duncan might be a familiar name to some readers. A Liverpool lad and cousin of legend Steven Gerrard, he was prised away from the academy of rivals Manchester City with the promise of a better pathway (even sacrificing a year of playing time to force the transfer), which is a pattern also seen with more high-profile figures like Jadon Sancho and Brahim Díaz in the past year. Prolific in his partnership with Glatzel, he has the qualities to fulfill his immense potential, despite not being exceptionally pacey or strong at this point in time. He and Glatzel are similar players, which goes some way to explaining how they dovetail so well together. Interestingly, their left feet are stronger than their right, which might have the effect of shifting their attacks into that channel as a result, opening up an alley on the opposite side, and will be a constant nuisance to Bury’s backline.
As for a prediction, it’s difficult to foresee Liverpool not scoring, such is the level of talent in their lineup. However, in one-off games such as this, they can be beaten. Almost all of the Reds will at some stage sign professional deals, even if it’s away from one the most famous sides in world football – that speaks volumes about the concentration of ability in their group. Bury are unlikely to match that, but are steadily improving their reputation and ‘pull’, year on year. The fixture will be the biggest some of the Shakers’ contingent will ever play in, and they can use that as a platform to upset the odds. I can see it being edged by the visitors… but only after being pushed all the way to extra time.
If you’re in the area and your Wednesday night, I implore you to attend the match in person at Gigg Lane, regardless of whether you’re a Bury or Liverpool fan. The players for both teams deserve all the support that’s on offer, and spectators will be treated to two technical outfits that might differ in stature but not desire to win. If you’re like me and you’re unable to see it in person, the game should be streamed by the FA on their website and YouTube channel.