Crystal Palace Under-18s have excelled themselves in their first season as a Category 1 outfit, sitting top of the Under-18 Premier League South after 12 matches.
The young Eagles managed to leapfrog Fulham to sit top with a 4-1 victory over the Cottagers in their first game of 2021. After dropping briefly to second-place, the lads defeated Arsenal to return to pole position.
It's tight at the top and there are still 12 of 24 matches to play but, halfway through their first season at this level, the Under-18s have exceeded expectations.
They began 20/21 with a win against Southampton before narrowly losing to Arsenal. Their first major scalp came shortly afterwards, however, with a 1-0 win away to Chelsea. This impressive victory catalysed a sparkling run of form where Paddy McCarthy's Eagles took 15 points from five games (including Chelsea).
Perhaps the league's toughest team, Aston Villa - who have two games in hand sitting fourth, two points off top - then overcame Palace 2-1 and the lads' fortune took a hit, losing to Tottenham Hotspur and FA Youth Cup opponents Fleetwood Town.
Dealing with three consecutive defeats was the Academy side's first major setback this season, but it's one manager McCarthy feels has strengthened them long-term.
"As staff, we’ve seen massive resilience and an ability to bounce back from these young lads," he writes in his West Ham United programme column.
"You look at the technical, tactical and social, but the psychological side is a massive thing to analyse, too. We’ve got on and off-field expectations and dealing with disappointment is one of them because, if these players are going to have a career in the game, there’s going to be plenty of it.
"There will be massive highs but also massive lows; they have to learn to deal with that. We’re here to aid them in understanding their emotions and to give them the mechanisms to deal with them."
This resilience and mental strength enabled the lads to bounce back by defeating rivals Brighton & Hove Albion before Christmas and then take three points from Fulham this month.
"After the [Fulham] game," McCarthy continues, "the atmosphere in the changing room was calm, which was interesting given we’d just moved top of the table.
"It was clear the players understand we need to be consistent – not only in our messages and behaviour but also in our emotions."
This settled, sensible attitude will suit the Eagles well - with development by far the most pressing goal in Academy football.
McCarthy explains that winning and success in the table are crucial to impress the importance of working hard for rewards and striving for victory, but that he would sooner promote players into the Under-23s rather than keep them to support league efforts.
Stats so far (all competitions)
- Top scorer: David Omilabu (10)
- Most appearances: Cardo Siddik, Aidan Steele, Dylan Thistleton, Fionn Mooney, Victor Akinwale (all 13)
- Biggest win: 4-1 v Fulham
- Games: 13
- Goals scored: 22
The lads' challenge now will be repeating or improving on their performances in the second half of the season. That starts with Fulham on February 6th.
Hear more from McCarthy by pre-ordering our Burnley programme here!