Carlisle United’s under-18 side find themselves in third place in the table for the north west region this morning, with their last game of the campaign seeing them run out as winners over Walsall at the weekend.
Fleetwood occupy top spot, with one game left to play, and Rochdale will finish second courtesy of a superior goal difference.
Looking back at the season as a whole, academy boss Eric Kinder said: “It’s been stop-start because of the pandemic and the disruptions we’ve all faced, but that’s the same throughout the world in all walks of life.
“It’s been difficult, and I’ve felt really sorry for our younger age groups (ages 9 to 16). They never really got the chance to get going this season but hopefully, touch wood, that’s behind us now. All things being well they can get back into it properly when next season starts.”
“With the under-18s, they had a late start in terms of training and for the fixture schedule, and that probably caught us a bit cold. We lost three out of our first five games and we’ve ended up getting really close, but not quite having enough points on the board.”
Having played so well, are there any of those ‘what if’ moments that could have seen the young Blues take more in the way of points and league position?
“There are loads,” he admitted. “Like I say, at the beginning of the season we weren’t probably as well prepared as we should have been, but that was nobody’s fault. The circumstances we faced meant we were back on 3 August and we started playing on 8 September, so we basically only had a month to get ready with the lads having been off since March.
“We’d asked them to look after themselves between March and August, but that’s a long time with young lads. We went to Preston for our first game, dominated, and lost 1-0. We dominated the game at Fleetwood the week after and lost 1-0.
“We beat Blackpool, then I arranged a return game with Fleetwood because we had a free date, and I’ve always said that I don’t want a free date on a Saturday before Christmas. We know what the weather can do up here so I will always take the opportunity to bring games out of that winter period if there’s a chance to do that.
“We got beat 2-1 after leading 1-0 for close to 85 minutes, and just talking about those three games gives examples of when we should have had more points. Along with that we had the two drawn games with Shrewsbury, 1-1 at home and away.
“We dominated the home game and the only chance they had was their penalty. Those games are points dropped, so it’s a shame because we could have finished top had we got the results we deserved.”
“We were probably the strongest side in the second half of the season by a long way,” he added. “We were beaten by Rochdale at home, and deservedly so, but we made three horrific mistakes within that. I have no complaints about that result though.
“Fleetwood are going to win it and they’ve taken six points off us, and that’s when they shouldn’t have got one. They are the real ‘what if’ moments from our league games. The other one is the cup game against Blackburn.
“We deserved better from that one with the way we played, but we couldn’t score. That was around a period in December when I remember repeating over and over that we’d started to struggle to score goals.
“As it turned into the new year our clean sheet record was superb, and our strikers started to score regularly. It turned out to be a really good season with the ups and downs you’d expect with young men of this age. They’re a really good set of lads and it’s been very enjoyable to work with them.”
Key to the excellent run of results through the second half of the campaign was consistency in performance levels, both individually and as a team.
“We asked for it, and they found it in the second half of the season, which was really pleasing to see,” he confirmed. “You could see the confidence it brought as well. We had a couple of bad days, but we got over it.
“Being honest, we didn’t play well on astroturf. We were beaten at Blackpool when we shouldn’t have been, but we played about four games on that type of surface and we struggled in all of them. We were just a lot better whenever we played on grass.
“It suited our style of play much better and people like Max Kilsby, Josh Barnett and Jack Ellis are developing into good, aggressive defenders, but there was more hesitancy from them in the tackle on the astroturf, for obvious reasons.
“That’s just an excuse, but it’s the kind of thing you can find yourself dealing with. It’s just a shame we couldn’t find the extra three or four points.”
Young striker Sam Fishburn stepped up to the plate as part of that good run of form, amassing an amazing haul of 22 goals [plus one in the FA Youth Cup].
“When he spoke to me three weeks ago he was top of the scoring charts for all four of the divisions we have at this level across the country,” he said. “I’m not sure if that’s still the case because he hasn’t mentioned it all recently.
“Add to that the fact he hasn’t scored for three weeks and it actually might not be the case. The nearest to him was a lad from Rochdale and one from Gillingham, and they were five behind with three games to go.
“It is worrying that he hasn’t told me about it this week, because if it was still the case I don’t think he’d have shut up about it.”
“In all seriousness, for a lad to come out of local junior football with Wallsend, having never been to an academy or had professional coaching, it’s incredible that he’s done what he’s done. He didn’t score in our first six games this season, so to finish up with 23 goals is phenomenal.
“He’s such a nice person as well, and that helps. He’s got a little bit of an edge to his personality now, but you would have that if you’d had the sort of season he’s had. He’s only just turned 17, so he’s going to have a little bit of an ego. He has that, but it’s in a good way.
“That’s the same for Gabe Breeze. He’s trained with the first team a lot and he’s developed a little bit of an ego, but that’s only because he has belief in himself. He likes to learn, he listens, and he has all of the attributes. It’s about how much he develops now.”