Teen prospect Lewis Simper thrives as a product of the Cambridge United academy
In the life of Lewis Simper, the 2019/20 season will be memorable for many reasons.
For most it will be the clichéd story of ‘two halves’, the second being the point in history when the coronavirus brought the world to a stop.
But for Simper, the campaign as a whole will be the one that realised the first part of a 12-year dream – signing his first professional contract with Cambridge United.
Coming from a family of U’s supporters, it was his Chelsea-following father that began the route to the Abbey, and that was only a stone’s throw away from the stadium.
“It all started as my dad took me and my brother to some trial on a rainy night at Coldhams Common,” says Simper, now 18, recalling a time when he was just six.
“We didn’t have a clue what we were doing, they asked for my name and it all kick-started from there – I had no idea what I was doing there, I just thought I was going for a kickabout.”
The youngster had done enough to catch the eye and, although with Ely Crusaders at the time, it meant selection into the regional development centre and a pathway through the club.
“It’s really good whether you are in the development centre, the shadow squad or the academy, the coaches are all really good and all want the best for you,” says the attacking midfielder.
“Making that progression through the ranks is a good feeling.
“You feel so much more comfortable. I’ve known Pelly (Tom Pell, United’s academy manager) since I was six and have grown through the academy with him.
“When you know you’ve got someone you can trust coming through, there is nothing better because you feel like you can just express yourself on and off the pitch.”
It is a system that is espoused throughout the upper echelons of the club, but it can sometimes be difficult to quantify how important the academy structure is and what it can mean.
To the outside world, the benefits can sometimes be judged too arbitrarily – the successes and failures based on players reaching the first team – but it is a learning process, and one in which Simper has clearly benefited.
“From about the age of seven I was always playing a year above just to test me up against the bigger players,” he says.
“I was never really one of the bigger players when I was younger, but I always had technical ability so they always pushed me onto play against bigger players and that has helped me out on my journey.
“You get thrown about a bit, get toughened up a little bit, especially in academy football and it isn’t all like non-League getting smashed about.
“It was good to get a taste of it growing up.”
That ‘toughening up’ process continued in the truncated second half of the season, when the U’s developed a link-up with St Neots.
Barry Corr, United’s development coach, also took over as manager of the Saints in January, and it meant some of the Sky Bet League Two’s youngsters were sent to BetVictor Southern League, Division One Central to learn a bit more about their trade. It was another valuable experience.
“It was probably one of the best things that has ever happened to me to be fair, just getting that men’s experience was key,” says Simper.
“It’s just made me feel so much more ready to kick-start next season, and hopefully at Cambridge with the first-team squad.
“Every game, I would have about three players smash me in the air, but it’s what it’s about and toughens you up.
“It’s the only way you’re going to learn. Every game you would have about half of their team in your ear chirping at you, but it’s just part of the game and gets you ready for what’s to come.”
It is now up to Simper to shape what that will be.
When he returned to Clare College sportsground last pre-season, it was on the back of an ankle injury that had ruled him out for the last few months of the previous campaign.
The objectives, therefore, were quite straightforward, get fit and ready for the kick-off and, with the hard work done, he helped the youth team make a strong start.
There were personal targets as well, the ultimate one being a professional contract.
“It was to get around the first team as much as possible in training sessions and work towards a pro contract, that was the main goal,” says Simper
“It comes from within to be fair, and setting your own goals. At the start of the season, I set how many goals and assists I wanted by the end of the season.
“I used that as a guideline that if I reached those goals then I had given myself the biggest chance to earn a contract.
“The coaches aren’t always going to tell you that you’ve had the best game, or tell you what to work on. It’s a joint process.
“You need to make those decisions for yourself to look back at the clips that we get after each game, which is really good, and take it from them to evaluate how you think you’ve played, taking it game by game.”
The signs were encouraging when Simper earned call-ups to the first-team bench – on five times in total, though he is still to make his first appearance.
The first two were in the Checkatrade Trophy, the second of which was against Peterborough United and came about in a very different circumstance – having already played Posh in the morning for the youth team.
“We had won and I was just celebrating when Tom Pell came up to me and said ‘go and get showered, you’re on the bench for the first team’,” says Simper.
“I had just played 90 minutes and penalties against Posh, absolutely run myself into the ground and then I’m on the bench for the first team – I had to quickly get over there with the sports scientist and get on the bench.
“I’d been on the bench once before, and the nerves got to me a little bit but because it was so out of the blue I didn’t have a clue about it, it just felt amazing.”
Easing his transition into the first-team fold has been following in the footsteps of the likes of fellow youth-team products Harry Darling, Leon Davies and Ben Worman.
“It’s a great bunch of lads and I’ve been training with them for a while now last season,” he says.
“It’s about looking at those types of players, like Harry and Leon, how they coped with it, talking to them to find out how they dealt with it.
“It’s key, especially being in the youth team and you’re seeing Harry and Leon playing, it does give you that sense that if you’re doing well, you’re going to get that chance.
“It makes you want to work hard in training every day to reach what they’re doing at the moment.”
There is also invaluable advice from the more experienced players in the squad, to which Simper can turn.
“You’ve got Greg (Taylor), Liam (O’Neil) and Harrison (Dunk) and they will tell me when I’m not doing things right how to improve, and when I’m doing things well they will tell me.”
And the next aim is to start the new campaign – whenever that may be – as he finished the last.
“Pre-season is my chance to show what I’m about, and that I can be part of that squad, adds Simper.
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