Opinion: From relegation to champions in one year – The rebirth of the Spurs academy

On May 7 2023, a young Spurs U21 side was relegated from the Premier League 2 (PL2), hampered by injuries and a lack of experience in U21s academy-level football.

Jamie Donley
(Credit: Myles Magidsohn / @mylesmphotos)

There was no doubt that the team struggled to get to grips with the step-up in pace and occasion. The results reflected this, losing by a three-goal margin on five occasions across the various competitions. Despite this, the team showed snippets of potential in wins over Chelsea, Arsenal, and a talent-filled Liverpool.

Although the relegation brought frustration and despair on the final day of the season, it was not all gloomy in N17. In the weeks leading up to that moment, the U17s and U18s were set to play in the respective Premier League Cup finals.

First up were the U17s, who faced Nottingham Forest away from home. Nevertheless, disaster seemed to strike, with Forest scoring 10 minutes into the game. Spurs responded quickly and kept the pressure on, finishing the game as 5-1 winners.

It was the U16 talents that ran the show, with Mikey Moore and Oliver Irow linking up to provide Spurs with a plethora of high-quality goals. The side was driven by U21 and U18 regular Jamie Donley, who provided himself as the engine for the side. 

Mikey Moore Radu Dragusin
(Credit: @2silverrainn)

Just over two weeks later, the U18s, lined with a very similar team to those in the previous game, took on Aston Villa away from home. Yet again, Spurs conceded first, but heads didn’t fall and Rio Kyerematen scored to get Spurs back into the game. After dispossessing the Villa front line, Alfie Dorrington drove up the pitch and supplied a perfectly weighted through ball for Donley, who fired it home.

The game was finished off with a Kyerematen trivela around the near defender, which also beat the keeper to make it 3-1. Spurs keeper Luca Gunter then hoisted up the second cup, marking a historic season with a league cup double for the U17s, U18s, and manager Stuart Lewis.

For the academy, it seemed strange that a double-winning side could have such a dark cloud overhead, yet the prospect of relegation held such weight. This is due to the fact that the quality of opposition they would face every week would diminish, therefore potentially limiting the development of those players coming through.

Nevertheless, the Premier League felt that the academy system needed to change as it had become outdated. Its traditional system consisted of two divisions made up of category-one academies with a relegation and promotion system.

It felt it was best that for the 2023/24 season, there would be only one division made up of clubs with Category One Academies. They believed that “the removal of relegation introduces positive jeopardy; it supports clubs making development-first decisions, and minimises the impact of relegation on future groups of U21 players.” (Premier League)

As Spurs has state-of-the-art training facilities and meets the criteria for a category-one academy, it was able to continue competing in the PL2 and could prove its worth against opponents of similar ages and experience. The summer also marked the arrival of Blackburn defender Ashley Phillips, who went on loan to Plymouth Argyle alongside Alfie Devine in the January window.

Alfie Devine
Credit: Ollie Watkins (@watkinsstudio)

Previous U21 captain Matthew Craig also went out on loan, arriving at Doncaster Rovers. Additionally, two academy goal scorers departed on loan: Troy Parrot to Excelsior and Dane Scarlett to Ipswich, both looking to gain valuable minutes at the senior level in the top leagues. 

The summer also saw the arrival of Ange Postecoglou and a new play style for the first team. Under Antonio Conte, there was little integration of academy prospects, with Devine left to warm the bench for almost the entirety of the season.

Many fans hoped for cohesion between both the first team manager and academy manager, Wayne Burnett. The infrastructural change at the club hoped to complement this relationship, with Scott Munn arriving as chief football officer and Simon Davies as academy director. 

To kick off their campaign, Spurs faced Manchester City in what would be an early mark for what was to come in the upcoming season. They shocked the defending champions with a 5-0 dominant performance, spearheaded by a potent attack by Donley, Jude Soonsup-Bell, Yago Santiago, and Damola Ajayi. They continued this rich vein of form into the following week and came away with a 4-1 dismantling of Newcastle United (Match report).

Jude Soonsup-Bell
(Credit: Tom Cusden / @cusden)

This momentum continued into the EFL Trophy, where they showed their level in senior football by beating Colchester 4-0. The squad also defeated London rivals Chelsea and, in the following week, started their Premier League cup campaign, looking to add the two from the previous season. Soonsup-Bell snatched all three points from the penalty spot in the dying seconds, taking up responsibilities while much of the squad was missing on junior internationals. 

However, the team was shown they were not without fault and faced a strong Peterborough team who were able to better them across 90 minutes. A week later, Cambridge United beat Spurs 4-1, and that unfortunately marked the end of the EFL Trophy journey. Nevertheless, the squad could then set their sights on the league and the cup. 

The team proceeded to go on an unbeaten streak, which was complemented by both the U18 and U21 leading their respective tables at the Christmas break. A true sign of growth over the summer and throughout the season. Donley, Santiago, Phillips, and Dorrington all trained with the squad and featured on the bench for a series of fixtures in December as there was a large volume of injuries in the first-team squad. Donley was given his Premier League debut against Manchester City in a 3-3 draw, a day that he would have dreamed of after joining Spurs at the age of eight.

Despite only getting a few minutes, Burnett felt that “whenever an academy player gets anywhere near the first team, we celebrate that.” It proves for the other youth players, “that if you do prepare, and commit and get ready for what is coming, you might have an opportunity”.

With the end of the group stages in the Premier League Cup, Tottenham finished at the summit of their group, and they would face Villa in the first round of the knockouts. Spurs kept their unbeaten record until March when they lost against Everton after going down to 10 men. Nevertheless, they kept the standard high in both competitions, beating both Villa and Forest in the run to the final. 

During this period, we saw the integration of U18 star Mikey Moore, 16, who began to train with the first team in April after impressing both Burnett and Lewis. Moore featured in 14 games for the U18s in the league, and he dazzled in spectacular fashion, scoring 14 goals and picking up 8 assists. However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing, as he picked up a fractured leg and injured ankle ligaments. (Football.London).

Despite the setbacks, Moore had done enough to impress Postecoglou and joined the bench for the Chelsea match in May. Despite not being used, he was serenaded by the away supporters (Chris Cowlin) and was on the bench for the next two games. In the dying minutes against Man City, he was given a short run out, becoming the youngest ever Spurs player at 16 years, nine months and three days. This moment was a culmination of not just Moore’s hard work and talent but all the coaching staff along his journey from joining Spurs as an U9. Moore summed up the surreal moment:

“As a young player coming through the academy, it’s all you want really to make your debut. Coming on is probably the best feeling I’ve ever had.” (Tottenham Hotspur

Tyrese Hall also featured on the bench for this game following the injury of Yves Bissouma. Hall has enjoyed a superb season, playing as the No. 6 for the U21s. Earlier in the year, he described his own game as similar to Bissouma, which made his use as a sub even more fitting. Moore also played the final minutes of the closing game against Sheffield United, where he looked dangerous with the ball at his feet, trying to drive the team goalwards. 

Tyrese Hall
Photo by @AlfieNicholsonJournalism

On a cool evening at Craven Cottage, Spurs faced Fulham in the Premier League Cup final, looking to add to their previous two in the season prior. However, we didn’t see the dominance Spurs showed across the season, but a tired side that couldn’t keep up with Fulham’s pace. Despite a gutting 4-0 loss in the final, heads couldn’t drop as they had a league semi-final to play in the following week.

After the season closed for the first team, the focus shifted towards the academy, who faced Chelsea in the semi-final of the PL2 playoffs. The game was intense, but the unstoppable Will Lankshear put Spurs ahead in the opening 15 minutes. Unfortunately, Chelsea reacted in the second half, thus shifting the momentum in their favour. With the mounting pressure, it was Gunter who kept Spurs in the game with a series of reaction saves. Nevertheless, Nile John coolly fired a shot goalward, beating the keeper to the bottom corner in the 96th minute to send Tottenham to the final.

The rise of the Tottenham Hotspur academy

A short trip to Australia saw a number of academy prospects play some senior football in a friendly against Newcastle. Phillips, Devine, Abbott, Donley, Santiago, Scarlett, Kyerematen, and U18 Leo Black all picked up valuable minutes with the first team. Hall, being the standout, played the role of the No. 6 flawlessly, connecting the buildup play to the wingers with ease and driving forwards into pockets when he saw the moment fit.

Upon the return to the N17, all eyes were on the academy to rise to the occasion of the PL2 final. If Spurs were to win, they would receive two trophies, one for the league win and another resembling the Premier League trophy for winning the playoffs.

From minute one, the Spurs looked prepared and held control of possession for the vast majority of the first half. Sunderland attacks were disrupted by the double pivot of Hall and Abbott, who launched threatening attacks on the break after dispossessing their opposite numbers. Sunderland made use of their attacking outlet and tested Gunter on a number of occasions, forcing the keeper to make some impressive saves. The counter proved fruitful for Spurs as interplay from Abbott and Soonsup-Bell worked their way down the flank. It was then Abbott who found room to cross, and it bobbled its way to serial goalscorer Lankshear, who hit it the first time past the keeper.

Will Lankshear
(Credit: Tom Cusden / @cusden)

Once again, the right-hand side allowed Soonsup-Bell room, and his baseline pass found Lankshear arriving at the penalty spot. Lankshear delayed his run, found space, and fired it with a first-time finish into the top left corner. A stunning move was capped off with an unsavable finish. 

Spurs exploited the right, this time with substitute Akhamrich, who was able to find a marauding Ajayi who poked it at the keeper but was denied a goal by a late reflex save. The keeper’s parry didn’t get far, nor did the defenders’ attempted clearance while on the ground. In a moment of pure madness, it was the captain who found composure, drove around the defender, and launched it into the corner to most certainly ensure Tottenham Hotspur would be engraved on the trophy. Just as Spurs were relishing the win, Sunderland got a consolation goal, but it was not enough to modify the result, as Spurs were 3-1 winners.

After an unfaltering league campaign, Abbott lifted the PL2 Playoff trophy after losing just one match in their league pursuit. It was a season that none of those players will forget, as they all played a major role. From Dante Cassanova playing the entire season out of position to Will Lankshear winning the Golden Boot and Player of the Season, the team was dominant and played fluid football from the start.

After relegation last year with a remarkably similar team, the side showed the utmost growth and experience to go from second-bottom to league winners. A credit to the players, staff, and manager, Wayne Burnett.

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