The U21 Premier League has had a rather short existence. Set up for the 2012/13 season response to several clubs simply abandoning structured reserve-team football for a regimen of behind-closed-doors friendlies between ‘development squads’. The new league would focus on youth – hence the name U21 league – though a limited number of over-age players are permitted (three outfield players and the goalkeeper) .
Many games are still played away from public view – partly no doubt due to a concern that others will seek to poach the assets of the future, but the new league’s rules stipulated that at least three games must be played at the clubs main stadium “to enhance the matchday experience for the young players and fans.”
One of the chief attractions of these games is always the chance to see future talent. To say I was one of the first people to see a legendary player – This is not unlike the kudos a music-lover achieves from seeing a band at a tiny venue before-they-were-famous. Of course this is always a retrospective pleasure as most of the names on the team-sheet will be unfamiliar, save for the one or two who have made a handful of first-team appearances.
The scorer of the first goal Harrison Reed, is amongst that number having appeared in the first team. His speculative shot taking a fortunate deflection to ensure it evaded the Norwich goalkeeper. Luck aside, it was a deserved goal and a deserved victory which was made certain by Jason McCarthy’s second half goal.
The players appearing tonight display undoubtable skill – as you would expect from products of the renowned Southampton academy. Among them Matt Targett – who has been with the club since the age of eight – provided a solid defensive performance, while Omar Rowe on the left wing continually harried the Norwich defence.
Playing on the very turf of arguably the world’s top league the U21’s seem within touching distance of untold riches, of being millionaires. Yet, they are still, in reality, far away. According to the PFA around three-quarters of players who are with league clubs will be out of the professional game by the time they reach 21.
For some young players the fall will be great. It was revealed recently that 150 ex-players are currently in prison. Among them Michael Branch; A change in manger was cited as being the root cause in the case of his long fall from promising young player at Everton in the late nineties and which concluded with him being imprisoned in 2012 after a police raid had uncovered £50,000 worth of cocaine in his house
Many though will simply disappear from view, maybe playing non-league, maybe moving abroad, or simply hanging up their boots. In some cases the margin between success and failure can be thin, as well as arbitrary: Illness, injury, change of management, a bad choice can all end a career at this fragile time. A shot can be deflected away from the net as well as into it.