Jason Dodd gave saintsfc.co.uk his reaction to the 2013/14 Barclays Under-18 Premier League fixtures, which were released yesterday.
Both the U18s and U16s will compete in newly formed, southern regional divisions which also encompass games against opponents in the northern equivalents, as Saints gear up to play 31 league matches against fellow Category One status Academies.
They will therefore, come up against some familiar foes, having previously tussled with Arsenal, Fulham and Chelsea on a regular basis in the old group format, whilst they also battled the top eight in the country last term after making it into the Elite phase of the national league.
This year sees Saints pitted against ten other teams in the Southern Regional League, each of whom they will play twice (home and away). On top of those fixtures, are a further eleven matches against sides from the north, who they will play just the once – home or away.
The top two teams from each group will progress to the semi-finals, with the winner of each league deemed to be the home team, facing the winners-up of the opposing division.
“We’re in a really strong league,” Dodd emphasised. “Competing with the likes of Liverpool, Chelsea, Newcastle, Fulham and Manchester United will be tough, but they’ll be good games, and everything else that goes along with it including travelling, will all be good experience.
“We have a lot of lads with good technical ability and they’ll be coming up against more physical players,” the 18s coach highlighted. “Now, we’ll take technique every time, but we understand that we’ll be a young team this year.
“We’re not setting a target as such, but we know how strong the opposition will be so we’re realistic, and it’s going to be a great learning curve for the players.”
The Saints Academy took on eleven full-time scholars in the summer, and Dodd will be looking to make quick progress with his new recruits, after seeing three of last season’s top performers from his team, move up into the Under-21 Development Squad.
“Ryan Seager, Jason McCarthy and Jake Flannigan were three of our bigger players so it’s a shame we don’t have them, but at the same time it’s great that they’re in the Development Squad now, and it shows that we’re doing the right things at this level,” said Dodd.
“Not having them has opened us up, so it will be tough for us, we know that, but we expect the younger lads to step up now.
“We’ve lost three players at the start of pre-season, albeit for a good reason, but it emphasises that we will be a young team this year.
“Fortunately, a lot of the new scholars have worked with us on day release programmes prior to this season, so we’ve trained a lot together, which is great.”
The 18s squad will travel to Denmark once again to take part in the Lyngby tournament from this Sunday, which will be a further opportunity to work on the demands that will be placed upon the youngsters in a long season ahead.
“So far we’ve trained at Brockenhurst and we’re on to Denmark this Sunday which is always good,” Dodd explained.
“We’ll have some games on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. It should be a good trip as we’ve really enjoyed it in last couple of years, and it’s great for the lads to all get together in that environment.
“We’re focusing on fitness at the moment. If I’m honest we’re struggling a little bit with how we want to play, but the understanding is there.
“We know how we want to do it so that we can prepare players like the First Team do, and I can’t fault the effort so far from the lads.”
Click here to see the 18s fixtures in full for 2013/14