There have been some nice problems for Stoke City youth coach Kevin Russell this season.
Pretty much every player in Russell’s under-23s squad has been over to train with Michael O’Neill’s first team this season, partly due to the challenges of a unique season and a train load of injuries, partly due to the potential and progress of a talented group.
At the same time it can sometimes be difficult to prepare a side for a Premier League 2 fixture when nearly all your team is on the other side of the training ground.
But those trips across Clayton Wood have helped spur development and Stoke head into Monday night’s play-off semi-final against Sunderland at the bet365 Stadium on the back of a 12-game unbeaten run.
“One hundred per cent it helps,” said Russell. “This role as under-23s coach can at times be testing. Some days you can have four players because so many have gone over to the first team and other days you can 11, 12, 13, 14…
“You’re always adapting to the situation every day, which is what I like about the job. There have been a lot of boys around the first team training group for most of the season and that has helped them tremendously, being with the senior boys, learning from them.
“You can see the confidence when they come back.
“That’s down to the gaffer, the staff and Rory (Delap) has had a big impact, having a foot in both camps if you like. The gaffer has been brilliant with the number of lads he’s taken across this season.”
Stoke under-23s’ promotion challenge was cut off by the pandemic last season when they were on the verge of the play-offs.
There was a turnaround in the summer and the squad this time has been tight on numbers and very young – but not short on quality.
Russell said: “It’s a great group to coach, a great bunch of boys. The work ethic is brilliant. A lot of the boys are local too; Connor (Taylor), Kieran (Coates), Will. Dan Malone’s from Chester but he’s been here a long time. Adam Porter, who is just coming back from a broken leg.
“But for injury, Adam would have had a chance too this season. He had been around the first team even last season. He’ll be around the squad (on Monday). He had a bad injury so it’ll be lovely if he can be involved. He’s a big part of the group.
“They are all coming through together and there is a real close knit feeling.”
He added: “To be fair to the boys this year, regardless of what happens next, they’ve done unbelievable to finish second.
“With the group that we’ve had, a really small group – a lot of times 13 or 14 players. To get to this point has been a great achievement, now I want to see if we can go that stage further. They’ve gone half a season undefeated, which is a feat in itself. The consistency they’ve shown has been tremendous.”
Stoke had a solid first half of the season but they have been almost unstoppable since January, winning nine and drawing three of their last dozen games.
Russell said: “I think there’s been a little bit more belief. We played well in the first half of the season and only lost a couple of games, there wasn’t much in it.
“Leeds have been really strong this season but they’ve been playing a lot of senior players week in, week out.
“I think the league has been quite hard this year. A lot of people thought that with the pandemic that teams would be quite young but in fact it’s worked the other way and teams are quite old. It’s felt more like a reserve team league.
“In the first half of the season we had players like Bauer and Wimmer and Ryan Shawcross was coming back but apart from that we’ve been really young. I think it’s been really beneficial to the boys.
“As coaches we can teach them so much but when they’re out on the pitch playing with and against senior players, they learn so much more.
“I felt that we would be there or thereabouts. At times before Christmas we didn’t get the results we deserved but from that point that belief has been there and we’ve kicked on.”
Stoke City fans have started to get a glimpse of some exciting young prospects over the last few months, with first team debuts for Joe Bursik, Will Forrester, Connor Taylor and Christian Norton.
There have been some increasingly familiar names on the bench too, with Kieran Coates becoming a regular part of the travelling squad.
But as Kevin Russell prepares his under-23s side for a play-off semi-final against Sunderland, who else is catching the eye?
Joined Stoke from crisis club Bury and was recently rewarded for his form with a call up to Wales’ under-21s squad.
Michael O’Neill said: “Eddy Jones is a left-back, left wing-back and I think possibly he could play as a left-sided midfield player as well. Technically, he’s very good. He has a good physique and good stature as well. He’s maybe stood out more than most in training but his opportunities are a little bit different because of the players we have in that position who are ahead of him. He’s one I certainly think has a real chance.”
A hard-working, hard running dynamo in midfield with good technique to boot. A Wales youth international from Buckley, near Chester, who joined Stoke from Wolves as a 14-year-old and is still eligible for the under-18s.
Rich Walker said before the FA Youth Cup clash with Burton, when Sparrow missed out with an ankle injury: “Has trained with the first team and been close to the first team bench on a couple of occasions. A box to box midfield player who can get on the ball and take the game by the scruff of the neck. If you had to think of a top end comparison, Steven Gerrard would be utopia with him. That’s the sort of player he’d base his game on.
“He’s got a decent frame, can get around the pitch, doesn’t mind a tackle and can receive the ball in a tight area and play a bit.”
‘Bugsy’ is a Wales youth international captain, from Vicars Cross, Chester, who has been with Stoke from the age of nine. Comparisons to Glenn Whelan, the 18-year-old thrives in a deep-lying midfield role.
Always available to receive the ball and move it on.
No pressure on the deadline day signing from Manchester City but he’s grandson of Ian Wright and son of Shaun Wright-Phillips.
Already proving a match changer at this level.
Scored for Stoke against Burnley, Reading, Villa and Crystal Palace and took the chance to show off his backflip celebration.
DOUG JAMES TAYLOR
High hopes for the quick and powerful striker who joined Stoke last summer from Salford City, where he had been top scorer for their under-18s and might have been pushing for a first team breakthrough this term.
Settling into new life in a Category One academy, even if he has had to deal with a couple of niggling injuries this season.
It was a conscious decision to have Russell and assistant Dave Hibbert go forth with a particularly young squad this year.
Academy director Gareth Owen explained: “We scaled back the under-23s to give players a chance – the first-year pros – knowing that they’ll be with us for the next two, three, four seasons. We wanted to test them in different environments.
“We went young with the 18s as well to expose the under-15s and 16s and maximise their development. It’s all about giving opportunities to young players and making sure they have right type of characters around them.
“We expect the under-18s to be better next year with almost the same team while in the 23s, some will stay, some will be out on loan and some will hopefully be around the first team.
“There is always stuff to play for and we always want to win but it’s not just about wins and losses, it’s about developing each individual player.”
There will be 2,000 fans in the bet365 Stadium, a nice way to end a unique year – and, hopefully, a final to come.
“It’s great,” said Owen. “It’s a celebration of the hard work of the season. The best thing about it is the chance to play in front of fans with something riding on the game. It’s an environment to test yourself and that’s something you can’t provide from a training perspective. It’ll be invaluable.
“We’ll all be there and hopefully as many supporters can join us as possible and looking forward to the chance to watch the mighty Potters again.”