The long-time Albion fan behind the SeagullsAcademy twitter account has a particular interest in the Albion youth system and the young players developing through the academy. Here he provides a little background on the youngsters hoping to make an impression on the new Albion head coach Graham Potter.
As preparations start to ramp up at the Albion for the third successive season of Premier League football, things will be a little different this summer. The Seagulls enter the 2019-20 campaign with a new head coach at the helm; Graham Potter was appointed exactly one week after Chris Hughton was fired in the hours that followed the final match of the 2018-19 season. With Dan Ashworth having also been recently appointed (to the new position of Technical Director) it is clear that Chairman Tony Bloom is moving the club into previously uncharted waters.
Bloom has, of course, invested a huge sum of money into the infrastructure of the club over the last decade. He funded not just the building of the award-winning Amex Stadium but also the state-of-the-art Category One Academy, the American Express Elite Football Performance Centre. It is now apparent that the chairman expects to see a return on his investment (not necessarily in financial terms, but certainly in terms of producing young footballers who are capable of forcing their way into first team contention).
Chris Hughton’s four-and-a-half-year tenure as Albion manager will be fondly remembered by most Albion fans for many years to come. He inherited a side that was struggling in the Championship and took them to within a whisker of automatic promotion in his first full season. He went one step further twelve months later and then kept the club in the Premier League for two seasons, for good measure. However, there is one thing that was noticeably absent from Hughton’s spell in charge; there were very few first team opportunities for the youngsters developing through the academy, particularly in the league side. This was perhaps most evident when Hughton chose to ignore both Ben White and Ben Barclay and go with no specialist centre-back cover on the bench for three Premier League matches in December 2018.
Given the success of the U-23 side over the last two campaigns (promotion and then a third-place finish in Premier League 2 [Division One]) it would be difficult to argue that the players simply aren’t there. Who are the youngsters who might make the breakthrough now that Albion have a head coach who garnered a reputation at Swansea City last season of giving youth a chance?
Striker Viktor Gyokeres has a genuine opportunity to establish himself in Potter’s first team squad over the next few weeks, particularly as it has been reported that the Swedish youngster was on the Englishman’s radar when Potter was still at Ostersunds. Gyokeres is more a bought-in talent than a product of the academy, joining the club in January 2018 at the age of 19 and hitting the ground running with 11 goals in 15 appearances for the U-23s in 2017-18. He made his first team debut against Southampton in the Carabao Cup last August and also made four appearances in the FA Cup run. He made his debut for the full Sweden international side in January (against Finland as part of a training camp in Qatar, albeit in a very young side) and scored on his full debut against Iceland a few days later.
Fellow U-23 striker Aaron Connolly will also be hoping to impress the new boss during pre-season. The diminutive forward joined Albion to commence his scholarship in the summer of 2016 after developing through the youth system at Mervue United in Galway. He has so far scored at every level he has played at, including notching a brace against West Ham in his debut for the Albion U-23s in January 2017, scoring a hat-trick against MK Dons in the Checkatrade Trophy last November and scoring seven minutes into his debut for the Republic of Ireland U-21 side in the Toulon Tournament in France recently. The Premier League 2 Player of the Season had a brief, injury-affected loan spell at Luton Town towards the end of last season, making a couple of substitute appearances, and will probably be loaned out again to continue his development.
Connolly’s Irish colleague (and captain of the U-21 side during that recent Toulon Tournament) Jayson Molumby has been tantalisingly on the edges of the Albion first team squad in the last couple of seasons, but his chances of a breakthrough have been disrupted by a serious knee injury. He started both of Albion’s Carabao Cup matches in August and September 2017 and a month later was named on the bench by Chris Hughton for three Premier League matches. Unfortunately within weeks he suffered a dislocated knee cap which required surgery in January 2018. He broke down again as he returned to training at the start of 2018-19 and required a second surgery in August 2018. He finally returned to action for the U-23s in February this year (and made the bench for the first team for the Derby County FA Cup tie the very next day). He was named as one of the top four players in Toulon and a fit, healthy and rested Molumby will undoubtedly be pressing his claim at club level.
Max Sanders came through the scholarship system at Albion at the same time as Molumby. Sanders, who hails from Horsham, has been with the club since he was 8. He earned his scholarship a full 12 months before it commenced and was captaining the U-23 side during his first full season at that level in 2017-18. He is comfortable fulfilling a number of roles in midfield, capable of getting forward and contributing goals (he scored 6 in 34 appearances for the U-23s in 2017-18) but also able to sit and play the holding midfielder position where he formed a very effective partnership with Steven Alzate during that same season. He was rewarded for his fine club form when he was selected for the England U-19 squad at the UEFA 2018 U-19 European Championship Finals in Finland in July 2018. He started 3 of the 4 matches and was a half-time substitute in the other. He lost a couple of months to injury at the start of the 2018-19 campaign but earned a place in the matchday squad for the Premier League fixture at home to Liverpool in January 2019. He has yet to appear for the Albion first team (he was an unused substitute for the FA Cup 6th round fixture at Old Trafford in March 2018) but it is surely only a matter of time before opportunity comes knocking.
Turning to the defence, Albion have a player who made his first team debut nearly three years ago and who is now the most experienced outfield youngster on the books (with perhaps the highest upside). Ben White joined Albion during his U-16 schoolboy season after he was released by the Southampton academy. He made his debut for the U-18s in 2014. The cultured centre-back (who is also capable of playing at right-back) developed through the youth team and U-23s before making two starts for the first team in the League Cup in August 2016. The following season he spent the campaign on loan at League Two Newport County. He netted one goal in 51 first team appearances and won FOUR Player of the Season awards at the club’s end-of-season awards night; he also won the South West Argus Player of the Season poll. County’s manager Mike Flynn described him as an “outstanding talent” and the best loan signing the club had ever made. He also expected White to go on and earn an international cap.
White spent the first half of the 2018-19 season back with Albion. Ben Barclay (a season older than White) was named in the Premier League 25-man squad but Hughton ranked White ahead of him in the pecking order. White would have started against Southampton in the Carabao Cup in August 2018 but picked up an injury playing for the U-23s a few days beforehand, giving Barclay the opportunity. White was named on the bench by Hughton for the Premier League fixture at Burnley in December 2018 but for the next three matches, when Albion had only two fit-and-available first team centre-backs, the manager chose to leave him (and Barclay) out of the squad altogether. In early January 2019 White went out on loan again, this time to League One Peterborough where he scored one goal in 16 first team appearances.
White has already moved out on loan for the 2019-20 season, this time to Championship Leeds United. The Whites are known to have been impressed by his spell at Newport County and he now has the opportunity to make an impact at a higher level than he has previously played. With the ink barely dry on a new three-year deal, the future looks rosy for the Poole-born youngster.
Left-back George Cox finally got the opportunity to experience senior football in 2018-19. Sussex born and bred, he joined Albion at U-11 level and developed through the age ranks until his U-16 season when he wasn’t offered a scholarship by the Seagulls. He secured a trial with Aston Villa but they didn’t offer him anything as they thought he was too small. He returned to Albion but was only getting expenses in 2014-15 (unlike his scholarship colleagues who were now being paid). He made his first start of that season for the U-18s in September 2014 against Aston Villa in a 3-0 win and immediately after the match he learned he had finally earned his coveted scholarship.
In 2017-18 Cox was an ever-present for the U-23s as promotion to Premier League 2 Division One was achieved via the play-offs. He was all set to go out on loan at the start of the following season when routine testing discovered an irregular heartbeat that required surgery. He had to be awake for the procedure and felt the surgeon cut his groin and saw his blood on the surgeon’s fingers. However, Cox made a full recovery and after returning to the Albion U-23 side he joined League Two Northampton Town on loan in January 2019. Unfortunately he suffered an ankle injury in only his second game for the Cobblers and after almost three months out returned to action for the final few league matches of the season.
Cox had repeatedly demonstrated in his Albion U-23 appearances that he is capable of delivering a lethal ball into the opposition’s penalty area for his attacking colleagues. He will have an opportunity to leave an impression on new boss Potter during the next few weeks of pre-season, but will most likely move out on loan again to continue his development. There are a number of other young players who will also be seeking to put down a marker, not least Steven Alzate (who now has league experience with Leyton Orient and Swindon Town) and Haydon Roberts (who will still be a scholar in 2019-20 but has established himself in the Albion U-23 side and become a permanent member of the England U-17 side with 15 appearances in 2018-19). The youth system at the Albion has never boasted a higher calibre of young player, and the era of the first team manager not trusting the emerging talent might just be at an end.