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Cambridge United academy in good health ahead of FA Youth Cup visit from Premier League Chelsea

For clubs like Cambridge United, running a prosperous academy is a vital commodity.

The wealth at the top end of the English game is well documented, but that money has started to trickle down. Even among some of United’s Sky Bet League One peers, certain teams have been forking out seven-figure sums during this month’s transfer window to bolster their squads.

It is one of the leading reasons why nurturing your own talent is invaluable for sides like United and thankfully their production line has been in good health for some time.

Cambridge United Under-18s will face Chelsea in the FA Youth Cup on Thursday night. Picture: Simon Lankester
Cambridge United Under-18s will face Chelsea in the FA Youth Cup on Thursday night. Picture: Simon Lankester

John Ruddy, Jack Collison, Luke Berry and Harry Darling are just some of the players that have been part of the youth set-up at the Abbey Stadium during the last 20 to 30 years, while technically-gifted midfielders Lewis Simper and Ben Worman are both members of Mark Bonner’s first-team squad at present.

And there are high hopes for a number of the under-18 players that will take on their Chelsea counterparts in the fourth round of the FA Youth Cup tomorrow night, with the likes of Kai Yearn, Glenn McConnell and George Hoddle all set to feature.

Dom Knighton, who took over as academy manager in the summer, said of the club’s thriving youth system: “It’s a culmination of things and not just one aspect, but I think what typifies our academy is the togetherness within it.

Dom Knighton, Cambridge United’s academy manager. Picture: Cambridge United
Dom Knighton, Cambridge United’s academy manager. Picture: Cambridge United

“We are lucky to have a group of staff that are so dedicated to ensuring that every single one of the players makes the most of their potential.

“We work hard to recruit and identify the talent but that is only the start really.

“As soon as they are through the door, that’s when everything gets started in a lot of ways.

“The time and care that goes into the players’ development is something that we pride ourselves on.

The young U’s have beaten Stevenage, Portsmouth and Colchester United already this season. Picture: Simon Lankester
The young U’s have beaten Stevenage, Portsmouth and Colchester United already this season. Picture: Simon Lankester

“We’re in a really good place and have been for a while now. I took over in the summer after some excellent work from Tom Pell. He had been a real stalwart in what the academy has achieved recently and from my point of view it was a case of continuing that momentum and trying to add to it.

“One of the big things we’ve been able to do post-pandemic is bring back a tour programme that allows the players to go and play against some really good opposition and Europe’s elite teams.

“And it’s not just about football because those sort of trips will give the lads lifelong memories.

“That is our job as well, to set these youngsters up for life because we all know that not every single one of them is going to go on and have a professional career as a footballer.

The Under-18s reached the fifth round of the competition last season. Picture: Ben Phillips
The Under-18s reached the fifth round of the competition last season. Picture: Ben Phillips

“We’re not only trying to produce very good football players but also good human beings for later in life.

“All in all we’re very happy with where the academy is at right at this moment and we are hungry to continue all of the hard work.”

While Knighton and his team of youth coaches are working hard to shape the players under their tutelage both as footballers and human beings, first-team boss Bonner also takes a keen interest in the development being made.

Bonner’s journey through the academy to the senior hotseat is a well-told story and Knighton believes that it has helped to forge a strong pathway throughout the ranks.

“(Bonner) is integral in what we do. He obviously came through the system and he shows that he understands it,” added Knighton.

“Harry Darling came through when Mark was part of the first-team environment and if you look at the current squad, the likes of Ben Worman and Lewis Simper are getting plenty of opportunities and Kai Yearn and Glenn McConnell have both been involved in squads.

“The young lads know that if they work hard and show plenty of promise that Mark will give them opportunities, but he’s also good at keeping their feet on the ground. It’s easy to get excited as a youngster who gets an opportunity but it’s important they stay grounded.

“It’s a huge jump between being an under-18 player and the first team and that’s why between Mark and the academy we’ve been able to sort out some very good loans this season. It gives the players the chance to play some senior football and they’ll learn so much

“It’s also a big advantage that the under-18s are at the same site for training as the first team. It creates a connection between the groups and also enhances the opportunity for them to train with the senior lads and Mark.”

While Knighton’s roles and responsibilities always require him to have eyes on the future, on Thursday evening it will very much be about the here and now as the young U’s do battle with the nine-time FA Youth Cup winners under the lights at the Abbey.

Twelve months ago United’s budding talents equalled club history by reaching the fifth round of the competition, and Knighton is adamant that nights and experiences such as these will be extremely beneficial in the long term.

“It can be challenging but I know the message from Jimmy (Unwin, manager) will be to go out there and be fearless,” he said.

“They might be up against lads in a Chelsea shirt but the lads in a Cambridge shirt are also very, very good players.

“As long as they stick to the club’s values of being honest and humble in their performance, they’ll be able to look in the mirror at the end of the game and know they’ve given everything.

“I’m sure they’ll put in a performance everyone connected with the club can be proud of.

“Last year was a brilliant run to equal the record and a lot of those boys had actually played the year before aged 16 and been a penalty shootout away against Fylde from facing Chelsea then.

“Those challenges and those setbacks are all part of the journey. It’s integral for their learning. That defeat to Fylde, some of them hadn’t even started their scholarships and it’s those experiences that are massive in the development of a footballer.”

‘Come and support our stars of the future’

Academy manager Dom Knighton has urged Cambridge United’s fans to come out in force and throw their support behind the club’s under-18s during tomorrow’s showpiece FA Youth Cup fourth-round clash against Chelsea at the Abbey Stadium.

The young U’s, who equalled the club record last year by reaching the fifth round, will have their work cut out against the nine-time winners of the prestigious competition.

Yet Knighton is confident that this current batch of budding professionals are well equipped to give a good account of themselves against Premier League opposition -–and he is keen to see a good crowd cheering them on.

“The magnitude of this game shouldn’t be underestimated,” said Knighton. “We thoroughly believe that we’ve got a great squad of players, some of which will go on to have successful careers with the club and beyond.

“As a supporter there is no better feeling than seeing a young lad come through the ranks and become a key player in the first team. Some of these lads have a big chance of doing that.

“As much as we will be making sure that the boys keep their feet on the ground and stay true to the values of the academy, from the club’s point of view – and also the city’s – this is a massive occasion.

“We’d love as many supporters to get down to the Abbey as possible because it’s an historic night for the club.

“Chelsea have won this competition so many times and they’ve got lads hoping to make it at Premier League level, but this is a chance to look at some of quality we’ve got coming through.”

United opened up their campaign this term with a 4-2 home over Stevenage before coming out on top in an epic clash at Portsmouth 5-4 after extra-time.

In the third round they were in dominant form, seeing off hosting Colchester United 6-0 to set up this encounter with one of English football’s biggest clubs.

Chelsea, meanwhile, entered the competition in the last round and got the better of Bradford City by a 3-1 margin.

Tickets for the 7pm kick-off cost £5 for adults and £2 for under-18s. Only the Main Stand, which has been fixed after recent damage to the roof, will be open for this fixture.

Supporters have been encouraged to buy tickets in advance, but they can be purchased on the gate.

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