U18s manager on the Youth Cup run, mental strength in the side and representing the badge with pride
Town U18s 2020/21 season has finished following Saturday's 2-1 AET defeat at Wigan in the Professional Development League play-off semi-final.
The young Blues had seen their impressive FA Youth Cup run ended at the semi-final stage by Liverpool a few days earlier, the Premier League Reds coming from behind to win 2-1 at Portman Road in front of the BT Sport cameras.
U18s manager Adem Atay sat down with the Club website to discuss his side's memorable campaign.
Thanks for your time, Adem. It’s been a tough few days for the lads, hasn’t it?
The first thing that I will say is about the immense amount of pride I’ve got in the team and the players that have played. It was a disappointing but very positive week in terms of looking back on how far the group have come and improved. In a week that’s not been easy with the scheduling, we’ve had a lot of challenges to face. We had the disappointment of the Youth Cup defeat on Wednesday to then turn it around and travel all the way up to Wigan for a game on Saturday that then goes to extra-time. That’s not easy on senior pros never mind young kids.
Talk us through the game at Wigan?
We conceded within a couple of minutes so it wasn’t an ideal start but we soon managed to settle down and grow into the game. I thought we were the better team, we had the better players on the pitch and had most of the ball without causing or creating too many problems. That was our half-time team talk; we needed to be better in the final third and have more quality. We came out in the second half and got ourselves a goal early on. We felt the momentum shift towards our favour and kept trying to push towards a second goal. It went to extra-time which, to be honest, was the last thing we wanted for the group. Some of the group had another game on Monday [away at Sheffield United U23] but they took it in their stride and didn’t let it faze them. We were the stronger team in extra-time and I thought it was Wigan who had lost their legs more. That’s testament to the character of our players. Unfortunately, a soft penalty was given in the second half of extra-time. We had one or two moments after that but we didn’t have the cutting edge in the final third. If you take the game apart, that is the thing we were lacking. In terms of the mentality, character, attitude and the application, that’s the biggest thing that I’m so proud of. I wanted to give the group one big hug because that hurt. It hurt because for some of these lads it was their final game of the season. Wednesday hurt more in that it was the end of a great run in the Youth Cup. I have an immense amount of pride in the way that the players have conducted themselves and represented the football club.
It must have been a physically and mentally draining week for the group which says a lot about their resolve, too…
It was the first couple of minutes of a semi-final where we conceded one and there was a moment where it could’ve been two. We had to try and find a way to settle into the game and push for a goal. We had to be patient but it came. It just wasn’t meant to be. Sometimes the boys don’t get the rub of the green. Other than producing the quality when it matters, I felt for the group because I don’t know what more they could’ve done on this journey to deserve a spot in a final. That’s not to say we would go on and win it but I thought that’s the least they deserved, to get at least one spot in a final.
We’ve had Covid, we’ve had little use of the facilities at the training ground. They’ve had basically half of the days at the training ground. They’ve had a broken up season with travelling, no changing rooms, having to fulfil fixtures and a backlog of games. They’ve had a run in the Youth Cup playing against category one sides, running Liverpool very close in the semi-final. It’s easy for them to say because they’ve won but Wigan said we were the best team they played against all season. The biggest test for these boys is not now, it’s about if they can push on for next season. It’s about if they can have consistent performances with the U23s or break into the U23s for some of the younger ones. Hopefully in a two or three year cycle we might be able to see some of these lads break into the first-team. I’m really proud of the group and proud of the Club for supporting us and enabling these players to perform and have the opportunity to play. The whole Club are proud of the players and I’m very proud of every single player that has contributed this year.
It’s no doubt been a difficult year on and off the pitch. How beneficial do you think this will be for developing the players as people as much as anything else?
You can’t plan for this. This wasn’t a normal season. This was something that nobody knew how to cope with or handle. The staff around me have had to adapt to it and they’ve been fantastic. They’ve contributed to the players in allowing them to develop. It is also testament to the character of the players and the work that has gone on in the Academy over the years to make sure the right people are in the programme. I said on Wednesday that the boys have got the ability, they’ve got the personality, and they’ve got the mental character that can take them further on this journey. There will be a time where we can reflect and look back. It’s raw at the moment where we will still be thinking 'what if?' with certain moments but you can’t help that. This is the best season that the youth team have had since they won the Youth Cup in 2005, in my opinion. But, it can be an even better season in time to come if players can go on and break into the first-team and make our first-team better. That will be the real indicator of whether we had a good season; whether in three years’ time we can be sat here and having a conversation about three or four boys who were in the team who got to two semi-finals and have now kicked on and got themselves in the first-team. That’s dependent on a number of things but those players have now got to focus on themselves as individuals and on improving every day. They’ll need a little bit of time out but it’s going to be a big two or three years for some of them and we’ll be here to support them with whatever it takes.
The players must be hurting but I’m sure after a couple of weeks they will also be able to look back on a year where they’ve made great memories as a group…
Definitely. They’ve created memories and I hope they stay with them and use those memories as a motivator and driver to go on and want more. When you get a taste of a run in a competition, you want more of it. It’s not about me wanting more. It’s about the players liking the feeling and wanting to compete for a spot in the team, a league run, or a cup run. It’s important to develop that winning mentality at academy level. Winning is part of development and we’ve managed to be exposed to a lot of that this year which is great. We certainly feel that the games programme could be better but they’ve taken it in their stride. Hopefully they can use this to keep improving. If they’re only going to sit on this, then they won’t have a career in the game. They need to look at this as a little taster and to want bigger and better things for themselves. That’s what we’ll be pushing for, each of these players getting better every day.
It’s worth noting that they have achieved what they have achieved with a relatively young group, too…
Each season brings up different players with different qualities, different challenges and different setbacks. We don’t know what next season or the season after that will look like. The younger boys have, through one reason or another - whether that be injuries or their own performances earning their right to play - had those opportunities and they’ve taken those opportunities. It will only help them if they use it as a tool to reflect upon to ensure they can improve and be better for next season. It’s good opportunities and experiences, hopefully we can have more of them next season as well. Overall, to summarise, it’s been a fantastic season. It’s one we are very proud of. We want to make the players recognise what they potentially can achieve and then help them achieve it. We also want to represent the badge in the right way. That’s the important thing. I think they have done the badge proud and they’ve represented the football club as best they can. It’s been a successful season without actually winning anything. The real success will be if they can go and push themselves into the first-team environment in the next two or three years.
In terms of representing the badge and doing the club proud; that has probably been reflected in the response from the supporters to the success and efforts of the team…
It was part of my plan over the couple of days in the lead up to the Wigan game to use some of those messages to show the guys that there were a lot of people who were really proud of the group and what they’ve achieved. They will realise it later on because they’re still in that process of saying we could have and should have done more. We are really chuffed to see fans out there are pleased for the boys. It’s such a shame that we couldn’t have had them for games and have fans in the stadium. I would pay a lot of money to make sure that next year’s group could have a similar journey but with fans in the stadium. Fingers crossed, we can get some good games at Portman Road next year for the U23s and U18s. Hopefully we can open the door to the public and get good support. Even if it’s not the iconic games we’ve had this year, it’ll be great for the boys to have some live appreciation rather than it being on social media. We’re really grateful for the kind words and messages that are coming from everybody; that’s fans, other football clubs, our own staff. It’s touching and we are immensely proud. They’ve achieved a lot this year.
Town U18s are sponsored by Britton Group.