'They brought a different dimension to it' - How Doncaster Rovers U18s were brought into the senior set up for a day to remember

The buzz of excitement was palpable even as Doncaster Rovers walked around the pitch on their arrival at Glanford Park.

Thursday, 11th November 2021, 9:56 am
Updated Thursday, 11th November 2021, 10:00 am
Tavonga Kuleya and Will Hollings warming up at Scunthorpe. Picture: Andrew Roe/AHPIX

This could easily have been just another game for Rovers. Or, given the competition it was taking place as part of, holding even less status than that.

But there was something different about Tuesday’s trip to Scunthorpe United in the Papa John’s Trophy.

And it was to do with the presence of a group of fresh faced young lads who could have been forgiven for being a little overawed by the situation.

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A severe injury crisis at Rovers forced boss Richie Wellens to look to the youth team to bolster his numbers for the game, and training beforehand.

So here they were, prior to the warm-up, looking not unlike a group on a school trip given their youthful appearances.

Seven young footballers, all under the age of 18, making the likes of Ben Blythe and Lirak Hasani look like veterans.

In the coming hours winger Tavonga Kuleya would impress after being handed a full debut, while Will Hollings and Jack Goodman made their bows off the bench. Aleks Wolny was ready to be introduced late on too - only for Scunthorpe’s late rally which scuppered attempted to get him on the pitch.

Afterwards, all three of those that made their bows excitedly had their photos taken on the pitch, along with their fellow youth team players who were named among the substitutes.

They were in the element. And, as Wellens explained, they had brought fresh energy to the group during a difficult week.

“The young lads trained with us yesterday and I thought some of them were deserving of their debuts,” he told the Free Press.

“You had myself, Copps, Hunty and Greeny joining in to make up the numbers in training.

“And then you’d got lads who are younger than my son.

“It’s been good because they bring a different dimension to it.

“They’ll have found that tempo is different and you definitely feel it in your legs.

“I think after 15 minutes Tavonga was running in treacle but he got his second wind.

“You can have the fittest younger player against the fittest 28-year-old and the younger player can outrun him in any pre-season runs. But when you get to a game, the older player has got the matches in his legs and the strength.

“That’s the biggest difference.

“They’ve been good in the dressing room, they’ve been lively. It’s been a good night for them.”

Wellens understandably singled out Kuleya for praise after his impressive display, four days on from being named on the bench in the FA Cup.

The 17-year-old carried the ball really well, got involved in the physical battle and showed no signs of nerves on what was a big night for him personally.

He said: “Tavonga did well. He blew up with half an hour to go but it’s understandable because it’s a different level of fitness. But him and his family should be proud because I thought he was excellent.

“All at the Academy should be proud as well because it’s a great start for him.

“I think he got into some dangerous positions when the ball was on the opposite side. He set the first goal up.

“He just needs to grow from this and develop his body. They’re at the very early stages of their career and some of the mistakes they make and the areas they go in, there’s flaws in there but it’s up to us coaches to iron the flaws out and develop them, which I’m sure the academy will do.”

Gary McSheffrey’s U18s have found themselves closer to the first team set up than they might normally have been this season, despite measures to address the risk of a Covid-19 outbreak at Cantley Park.

They have played a key role in pre-game preparations due to the lack of fit and available bodies among the senior squad.

“What we’ve been doing on a Friday when we’ve done our shape, we’ve played against the youth team,” Wellens said.

“We’ve given Gary McSheffrey all our prep work on the opposition and he’ll bring the youth team down to play like the opposition.

“It gives us a chance to have a look at them.

“It’s a good opportunity but it’s difficult for them because they’re getting pinned back by the first team and I’m concentrating on what we’re doing.”

In the absence of an U23 squad, it had been hoped that friendlies could be arranged which would allow fringe senior players and those recovering from injury to gain match action. And squads would have been bolstered by several faces from the U18s.

But the injury crisis which has plagued Rovers throughout the season to date has meant very few matches have been arranged.

Coupled with being part of separate Covid bubbles for the majority of the week, Wellens says it has proven difficult to give youth team players a regular taste of life among the seniors.

“With Covid and everything that’s happened, it’s been really difficult to integrate them in,” he said. “They still get changed in a different building but it does give us one or two days a week for them to get to know our faces and us make them feel welcome.”

“The difference from playing in the youth team to the first team is quite big.

“That’s why we are trying to bridge the gap.

“Because of the injuries and the schedule we’ve had, it’s been really difficult to arrange friendlies so we can mix the first team players that aren’t playing with four or five young kids to help their progression and integrate them into the first team quicker.”

It remains to be seen whether there will be more first team opportunities for the youngsters involved on Tuesday - though progression in the Papa John’s Trophy will have done their chances no harm.

Regardless, the trip to Glanford Park was one they wanted to squeeze every moment out of. There was no rush to head back to the dressing room following the post-match warm down.

There were photos to be taken and laughs to be had on what was as far from just another game as possible for the lads involved.

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In these confusing and worrying times, local journalism is more vital than ever. Thanks to everyone who helps us ask the questions that matter by taking out a subscription or buying a paper. We stand together. Liam Hoden, editor.