Crystal Palace Under-18s came agonisingly close to winning the U18 Premier League South title, after losing out on goal difference to Fulham on Saturday.
The Cottagers' victory over Chelsea means the Eagles finished runners-up, however: a phenomenal achievement in their first season at Category 1 level.
Paddy McCarthy’s young Eagles have worked tirelessly throughout the season and their fantastic performances are a credit to the club. After a season of hard work and dedication, check out how far they’ve come month by month in the season review below.
After the 2019/20 U18 Professional Development League season was curtailed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Crystal Palace Under-18s found themselves in a new frontier after being moved up to the U18 Premier League South.
The move into the new division came as Crystal Palace were awarded Category 1 Academy status by the Premier League in July, meaning the young Eagles were competing at the highest development level.
Redevelopment work at the Academy meant the young Eagles had to play their first four games on the road.
September: Southampton and Arsenal
The U18s started their first competitive game as a Category 1 Academy by travelling to Southampton. The Eagles made an early impression on the Saints as they took the lead eight minutes in with a penalty from David Omilabu.
But the hosts pegged the Eagles back 20 minutes in to pull level. The game looked set to end in a draw, however with the very last kick of the game Omilabu scored from a Palace breakaway to secure all three points - a dream start for the young Eagles that highlighted the resolve they would show throughout the next nine months.
The young Eagles looked to follow-up on this fantastic start when they travelled to Arsenal. Omilabu gave Palace the lead just before half-time after latching onto a cross from Rowan Smith.
Arsenal pressed on to level and reclaim the lead after half-time, before Omilabu scored again with 83 minutes on the clock. Unfortunately, a goal three minutes from time was enough to make it 3-2 to the Gunners as they claimed all three points.
October: Chelsea, Norwich City, Leicester City and Reading
Another London derby against Chelsea was next for the Eagles as they made their way to Cobham. After an hour, Victor Akinwale scored the game's only goal -Palace's only shot on target - 66 minutes in to secure a remarkable 1-0 victory. This was perhaps the earliest indication the Eagles were ready to battle for the top spots.
Palace then travelled to Norwich City midway through October. The Canaries went 2-0 up in the first-half, but Paddy McCarthy’s young Eagles didn’t let their heads drop as they pulled off a spectacular second-half turnaround to win the game 3-2 thanks to a brace from Akinwale and a penalty from Omilabu.
The young Eagles welcomed Leicester City for their first game at the new Academy. A solitary goal from Omilabu was enough for the Eagles as they saw off Leicester's threat with relative ease, limiting them to only one attempt on goal.
After four away games in a row, the Eagles now had their second consecutive home game against Reading at the end of October. A single goal was again enough for the Eagles as Fionn Mooney netted his first goal of the season 70 minutes in. Four consecutive victories in the month saw the Eagles move to top of the table.
November: West Ham United and Aston Villa
Palace travelled to take on West Ham United for their third London derby in six games. Omilabu got his name on the scoresheet again, breaking the first-half deadlock with a 52nd-minute penalty. The Hammers pulled one back, but Mooney scored 10 minutes from time to give the south Lononders a 2-1 lead. They held on to record a fifth consecutive victory.
Another away trip to Aston Villa awaited the Eagles at the end of November. After a quiet first-half, Villa took the lead from the spot. Palace looked to find a way back into the game after the hosts went down to 10-men an hour in, however Villa doubled their lead. Omilabu netted his sixth of the season, but it wasn’t enough to prevent a 2-1 defeat.
December: Tottenham Hotspur, Fleetwood Town and Brighton & Hove Albion
Yet another London derby was on the cards for the Eagles as they prepared to welcome Tottenham Hotspur to Copers Cope. The visitors got their noses in front early on through a Dane Scarlett brace. Cardo Siddik pulled one back for the Eagles, but Spurs ran riot in the second-half, winning the game 5-1.
An FA Youth Cup Third Round tie was next for Palace as they travelled to face Fleetwood Town. The Cod Army got themselves in front just before half-time and added another just after the restart. Palace were chasing the game and a penalty from Omilabu was not enough to force extra-time as the Eagles were knocked out.
After such a run of victories, these defeats would prove to be key psychological challenges for the Eagles. Handling setbacks and progressing as a player, said manager Paddy McCarthy, are just as important as collecting points.
Whether the lads could put the losses behind them and get back to winning ways was the key question...
Then fierce rivals Brighton & Hove Albion visited Copers Cope before Christmas. The Eagles had a point to prove after being knocked out of the cup, but fell behind early as the Seagulls took the lead through a penalty. It was a serious knock.
The young south Londoners called upon their resolve, however, and soon Kevin Gonzalez equalised after the restart. A further goal from skipper Aiden Steele put the Eagles in front and they held on to emerge 2-1 winners.
January: Fulham and Arsenal
Palace started the new year with a top of the table clash against Fulham. An own goal put McCarthy's charges in front just before the break and they added to their lead with goals from Tayo Adaramola, Jesurun Rak-Sakyi and Akinwale. Fulham pulled one back to prevent a clean sheet, but the 4-1 win saw the Eagles reclaim top spot.
In a reverse of September’s fixture, Palace welcomed Arsenal to Copers Cope. Rak-Sakyi got Palace off to the best possible start after finding the back of the net a minute in. Arsenal grabbed a goal back, but Omilabu restored the lead for the Eagles.
The Gunners clawed their way level again just before half-time. Omilabu got his brace 77 minutes in and the Eagles withstood heavy pressure to win 3-2 and stay at the top of the league.
February: Fulham, Norwich and Leicester
Palace were up against Fulham only three weeks after the 4-1 victory in another clash at the top of the table. Akinwale got the young Eagles off the mark five minutes in the game with Rak-Sakyi doubling the lead half an hour in through a dinked effort.
The Eagles defended resolutely against wave after wave of Fulham attacks to secure a 2-0 victory and move four points clear at the top of the league.
Palace looked to secure a fifth consecutive win as they faced Norwich midway through February. Jack Wells-Morrison set the Eagles on their way as he headed home 36 seconds in, but Norwich responded with two goals in five minutes to reclaim the lead in the first-half.
Rak-Sakyi looked to have levelled it for the Eagles just before the break, but Norwich again reclaimed the lead. Dan Quick put the Eagles in front once more, but two goals from Norwich put an eight-goal thriller to bed as the Canaries emerged 3-5 winners.
The young Eagles had to dust themselves off after the hectic defeat to travel to Leicester at the end of February. Quick got himself on the scoresheet again to put Palace ahead, though the Foxes got one back in the second-half. The game ended 1-1, with the Eagles looking over their shoulders as Fulham came vying for top spot.
March: West Bromwich Albion, Reading and Chelsea
The young Eagles recorded their biggest victory of the season away at West Bromwich Albion at the beginning of March. Mo Faal put the Baggies in front halfway through the first-half, though Akinwale responded immediately.
A Rak-Sakyi first-half brace and goal from Mooney saw the Eagles go in 4-1 at the break. Goals from Wells-Morrison, Ademola Ola-Adebomi and an own goal completed the 7-1 rout for the Eagles in the second-half.
Palace looked to build on the resounding triumph as they travelled to face Reading. Mooney got the Eagles off to a great start, however the Royals took the lead in the second-half and looked like securing all three points.
Wave after wave of Palace attacks resulted in Omilabu scoring his 10th goal of the season with the very last kick of the game to rescue a point in the 96th-minute .
After three consecutive away games, the Eagles welcomed Chelsea to Copers Cope. Omilabu continued his fine goalscoring form with a well-taken finish just before half-time but the Blues levelled the scores.
The young Eagles persevered to find a winner minutes before the final whistle as Omilabu coolly slotted home a penalty, which saw the Eagles move within three points of top spot.
April: Southampton, West Ham, Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur
In a reverse of the campaign’s opening fixture, the struggling Saints visited Copers Cope. They were quickly dispatched as Maliq Cadogan scored his first goal of the season just before half-time.
Gonzalez got his name on the scoresheet before Kayden Rodney also netted his first of the season. Cadogan secured a brace five minutes before full-time as the Eagles won 4-0 to go level on points with Fulham at the top of the league.
West Ham were next up for the Eagles four days after the convincing victory over Southampton and they were duly dispatched as well. Goals from Wells-Morrison, Quick and a hat-trick from Omilabu - to take his season tally to 15 - saw Palace run away 5-1 winners at Copers Cope.
Palace welcomed Aston Villa for their fourth consecutive home game at Copers Cope. Omilabu got the young Eagles off to a fast start by netting yet another goal from the spot. He secured a brace in the first-half, though Villa did pull one back. Wells-Morrison added another for Palace in the second-half and saw the game out to win 3-1.
Palace’s final London derby saw them take on Spurs. Akinwale found the back of the net from 12-yards out in the opening 10 minutes, and that set Palace on their way.
A solid defensive performance saw them keep Spurs out throughout the game, with Joe Whitworth making some fantastic saves. Palace pushed on and Wells-Morrison doubled the lead in the 90th-minute before Cadogan added another deep into injury time.
May: Brighton & Hove Albion and West Brom
Palace traveled to the south coast for the penultimate game of the season against the Seagulls. The Eagles put in a five-star performance to win 5-1, continuing their five-game win streak.
Omilabu got the game's first goal from the spot, before Wells-Morrison secured a brace to take his tally to seven for the season. Rodney and Rak-Sakyi rounded off the scoring and Palace moved three points clear at the top of the league.
The season finale saw McCarthy’s young Eagles take on West Brom, knowing a victory would put them in the best possible position to win the league. Fulham were three points behind the Eagles, though they had a superior goal difference and two games in hand.
West Brom opened the scoring as they did in the reverse fixture, but the Eagles hit back immediately with goals from Rak-Sakyi and Akinwale. Palace ran riot in the second-half, with goals from John-Kymani Gordon, Cadogan, Ola-Adebomi and a brace from Omilabu.
The result mirrored the record 7-1 victory earlier in the season, meaning the Eagles did all they could to secure the U18 Premier League South title.
Ultimately the lads needed other results to go their way to secure the title, though. Fulham won the first of their two games in hand against Norwich as Palace recorded the 7-1 victory over West Brom. The Cottagers then won their final game against Chelsea a week later, meaning the young Eagles unfortunately missed out on the title on goal difference.
Huge congratulations must go to Fulham and, crucially, Palace's driven young players for the determination they showed in the face of a new and sizeable challenge.