It’s been some time since I’ve last been to either a Blues under-21 game or a Birmingham Senior Cup tie and it was nice to be able to tick off another non-league ground.
While I was disappointed Blues lost, I felt there was a lot to take from the game about how Blues’ younger players are progressing.
Reading past the scoreline
It’s easy to forgive Blues fans for not knowing much about the under-21s and Academy players at the club.
Sometimes, it’s hard to follow just how the younger age levels of Blues are doing.
Unlike many other teams at our level, coverage of Blues u21 games can be patchy on Twitter with some matches not covered at all. Match reports can be slow to be uploaded, particularly after away games.
Contrast that with a team like Wolves, who have built a snazzy new academy website to showcase their talent coming through the ranks.
It’s no wonder that for most Blues fans, the only thing they might know about how the younger players are doing is the results.
And it would be easy for a Blues fan to be disappointed if all they saw was the result in this game.
After all, while Blues played their under-21 side, Racing Club Warwick play in the ninth tier of the football pyramid.
One would surely hope that even Blues’ younger players would be able to hold out against a side so many places lower than them on the league ladder.
Being that simplistic would be unfair on RC Warwick, who are proudly top of the United Counties League Premier Division South.
They might be in the ninth tier of football, there was some quality on show from their side. They played with grit and determination, with some very good set piece routines particularly at corners.
Likewise, it would be unfair on Blues under-21s.
While the second Warwick goal came from a howler of an ambulance pass from keeper Oliver Basey, it was against the run of play after a sustained period of pressure from Blues.
A young Blues midfield made up of Josh Home (18), O’Shea Ellis (17) and Menzi Mazwi (17) showed some good technique in midfield, passing around players in tight spaces in a way which fits the Wayne Rooney ideals showcased at the Blues Open House.
Rico Browne and Tommy Fogarty were both strong in defence, with Northern Ireland under-21 international Fogarty an absolute aerial threat from set pieces. Byron Pendleton was quick and direct on the right while Femi Olofinjana was a box of tricks on the left, particularly in the first half.
Both Sahid Kamara and Junior Dixon had to come off due to injury before the start of the second half, but it’s not hard to see why they’ve both scored goals at this level.
Dixon had a frustrating night in front of goal but he does seem to have a knack of being in the right place at the right time which is very difficult to coach into a player. If Dixon can build on that he will almost certainly have a career somewhere.
It was a frustrating night too for Frank Tattum who came on at the start of the second half. There were flashes of the talent which has brought goals aplenty for Tattum at u18 level but he was unable to convert any of the chances he had into goals this time.
All in all, while the result might not have been a good one, the performance was one of potential and promise.
A Need for Competition
As much as I’m excited for the potential within the ranks at Blues, it definitely needs to be tempered with just a bit of realism about how these players make their way into the first team.
We’ve been spoiled in recent years thanks to the meteoric rise of Jude Bellingham from the Academy to one of the best players in the world.
Bellingham is a true generational talent; a player who has not only the technique but the physicality and most importantly the mentality to make it huge at a tender age.
These sorts of players come round once every 20 years or more and we have to remember this when seeing other young players come through. We cannot expect all of our young players to be able to make the step up to the first team with ease as Bellingham did.
The big thing that the game at RC Warwick confirmed to me is that many of the u21 players at Blues need more games similar to this one.
Under-21 football can be very up-and-down.
The competitiveness of opposition teams can vary hugely based on the age range of players used; one week a team might be made up of younger players pushed up an age bracket and the next it could be full of fringe players and overage players making comebacks from injury.
That inconsistency of opposition makes it hard for a young player to get into a rhythm of how they need to play. The lack of true competition in under-21 leagues can make games feel meaningless, which isn’t good for helping to build a professional mentality.
Against RC Warwick, the young Blues players had to deal with the physicality of playing against grown men.
They had to deal with the pressure from the home fans barracking every touch – particularly after the second goal – and the urgency of trying to win a cup game.
Again, while defeat is hard to take those young players will be able to learn from that match. They’ll know a bit more of how they need to cope when playing under pressure, and the physicality they need to stay on and win the ball in men’s football.
It’s for this reason I’d like to see some of the older u21 players go out on loan in the second half of the season.
Tommy Fogarty is a good example. He’s on the verge of the first team having been given a squad number (46) and travelling to Coventry City away where he was unfortunate to not make the subs bench.
Blues now have to make the choice of pushing Fogarty into first team training consistently; or letting him get some good experience with a League One or League Two side in the second half of the season to help him really push for a place next season.
Midfielder Josh Home could also benefit from a loan now he is tied to the club until the end of the 2024/25 season. He showed that he has the technical skill this evening but I think it wouldn’t hurt him to get used to playing a more physical game and building that side of him up.
The longer term
Of course, it’s a fact of life that not every young player is going to make it. In the next month or two Blues will be going through the second-year scholars deciding which ones will be offered professional deals and which will be cut loose.
It’s a really tough time for those players and it’s my hope that Blues will do them all a favour and let them know early enough that those who are being let go have time to fix themselves up for next season.
For this reason it’s good to see more of the second-year scholars getting a chance to prove themselves in these kinds of games.
The u21 calendar is a bit of a hodge-podge this season and there are another two games to come in rapid succession – on Friday at home to Coventry City and on Tuesday away to Sheffield Wednesday – before the mid-season break.
After the Sheffield Wednesday game there is a break of nearly three weeks until Blues face Peterborough United.
This is quite a long break at a vital time of the year for young players and I’d like to see Blues repeat something they have done in years gone by to help the development of their young players.
Many of the players on show against Warwick are scholars.
Scholars are players who complete a two year football and educational programme with the aim of winning a professional deal.
They cannot go out on standard loan deals until they sign a professional deal, but they can however be loaned out on short-term “work experience” loans to non-league clubs.
This kind of loan deals allow for the players to train with their parent club as well as play for their loan club.
Blues have used them effectively in the past, sending young players to local non-league teams like Alvechurch to get a chance to play men’s football in the u21s break.
It’s not going to be suitable for every young player, but I hope Blues can work something out like this.
I think it’s especially important for players who may not be kept on as it can help them showcase themselves to other interested teams for their next move.
It is heartening to see that there are some good prospects coming through the ranks at Blues and that maybe the club won’t be so completely reliable on the transfer market in the future.
The Open House confirmed just how highly Blues value their Academy and youth pathways, and it should hearten us all that the club are aiming for Category One status.
However, it’s also evident that the owners need to do more than just chuck money at the Academy to make it successful. There are still gaps in recruitment and coaching, and with the inspection process beginning in August Blues will need to get their skates on to be ready for it.