The O Zone: The FA Youth Cup is a career pinnacle for some

The O Zone: Behind the scenes at Leyton Orient

It was the first round for the youngsters in the FA Youth Cup last week and, while some people moan the FA Cup doesn’t carry the prestige it once did, I learnt the magic of the cup is still very much alive in the junior competition.

Thursday evening’s trip to Hampshire to report on the Under-18s’ tie at AFC Totton wasn’t a journey I was particularly looking forward to as there was a lot of work to be done to prepare for Saturday’s first-team match. However, in the event I had an enjoyable evening at the Testwood Stadium.

The academy staff spend a fair amount of time in the office and I’ve become increasingly interested in how the youth team get on. In addition Andy Edwards, our academy director, often gives me a lift home from work in exchange for helping him with a few bits on the computer, such as illustrating his set-play posters for the changing room.

In one of our car journeys earlier in the week Andy mentioned that one difficulty in preparing for the game was getting the players ready for the extra attention and pressure that the cup brings.

It certainly gives the youngsters the limelight and you could see they enjoyed it as it provided an opportunity to experience for the first time some of the routines that the first-team players go through, such as stopping for a pre-match meal at a hotel en route, which was a real novelty for them, as was playing under floodlights, a first experience for some.

One of the helpers with the youth team is Errol McKellar, a great character who helps with everything from driving the minibus to phoning through results. A mechanic by trade, he’s always on hand if anyone at the club needs their car looking at, but he’s also a popular figure in the local community, a mentor to a lot of kids in Hackney, and was an Olympic torch-bearer. He’s been a coach in Hackney for years and worked with thousands of players, including the likes of David Beckham, Sol Campbell and Ledley King. People like Errol are invaluable to a club like ours, and we’re lucky to have him giving up his time.

“You can tell a few of the lads are a bit nervous tonight,” he told me as he leant on the dugout while the players warmed up. “After all, for some of the older lads this could be the last FA Cup game they ever play in.”

It’s the sad reality of football that the majority of youngsters don’t make it, and as a result a run in the FA Youth Cup could end up being the peak of their careers in the game and give them their only opportunity to play in front of decent-sized crowds at proper stadiums.

The first-team players understand the importance of the competition, as demonstrated by the raft of good-luck messages on Twitter before the game. The next day at training I was talking about my evening in Hampshire to first-team midfielder Johnny Gorman, who  underlined that.

“The Youth Cup is massive. Some players can set themselves up for a whole career just out of being part of a good cup run,” said Johnny. He has an excellent youth pedigree himself, having been a youngster at Manchester United before turning down a scholarship at Old Trafford to sign with Wolves as they would allow him to take his A levels alongside his football.

In the end, the Under-18s put in a great performance to win 3-0 against plucky opposition, playing in front of a fair-sized crowd including players’ families, Os fans and the first-team manager, Russell Slade, and his coaching staff.

In the end the only down side was the late night. As mentioned last week, the minibus packed up recently, meaning we borrowed two from a local school for the trip. A lot of the lads went home with their parents, who had travelled to watch, but the remainder piled into one driven by Errol, while Andy and I and Miguel de Souza, our head of youth recruitment, set off in “the slow bus”, which was limited to a top speed of 63mph.

Fearing that we would be left behind, we set off earlier than the others and made it back to our Matchroom Stadium just after midnight, but still had to wait for the others as, typically, Errol and Tommo, our academy manager, had decided to stop en route and reward the lads with a McDonald’s. And the boys’ other reward? Away to Swindon Town in the next round.


From Twitter…

“@JayLillington21: Why did LOFC name only 5 subs in the FA Cup v Southport when other clubs had 7?”

Answer: That 16 was everyone we had!

We have only got a small squad and a couple of the loan players we have weren’t eligible to play. I’ve done a lot of odd jobs at the club in my time so was a bit gutted I didn’t make the bench…

A pre-match meal at a hotel was a real novelty for them, as was playing under floodlights