BY SAM SMITH
Sit among six members of Crystal Palace’s U23 team and you quickly sense an element of frustration at the culture of the level they play at.
Nikola Tavares, Kian Flanagan, Nya Kirby, Gio McGregor, Lewis Bryon and Brandon Pierrick are in a classroom at the club’s academy training ground in Beckenham when the topic of heavy investment in the set-up arises.
“The excitement is more for the younger lot, not really for us. The 16, 17 and 18-year-olds coming through,” Flanagan explains frankly. “This is our fourth U23 season. We really shouldn’t be here this season. We should be out on loan, honestly.”
Flanagan made his debut at this level aged 15 when it was still an U21 league. The midfielder – last season’s U23 Player of the Year – is now 20 and is yet to experience football away from the Eagles.
“Even Shawsy [Richard Shaw, U23 manager] said it should just be two seasons. See how you progress from there, then look to get into a first team. When it gets to three or four seasons it just gets repetitive.
“Everyone is hungry to play but you want to play for three points, bonuses, all these kind of things. We’re all about 20 now, BP [Pierrick] is 17, the age group below us are pushing on. We could say we’re getting in the way of their development and even the players who aren’t playing. Some of us could have broken into the 23s earlier but there were players above us in the way.
“It’s a bit of frustration. Partly it’s our fault, partly the club’s. At the end of the day, we just have to come in and do what we do.”
Kirby is the only one of the six who has spent time away on loan. The 19-year-old midfielder – who won the U17 World Cup with England in 2017 – played 11 times for Blackpool last season. He echoes Flanagan’s point about needing something – points, bonuses, their futures, the manager’s job – to play for.
“It was about playing for the three points. I was playing with players whose bonuses meant a lot to them because they are not on Premier League wages. Playing around players like that is a big thing,” Kirby said.
“The style of play, they played more route one football so I had to adapt to that. If you didn’t perform, you wouldn’t play because the manager needed the points as well. You were just put on the bench.
“The standards were set so high and you had to be consistent for all the games. It’s massive, just to go and see the nitty-gritty side of the game and also to play for the three points.”
Flanagan adds: “They’re playing to survive. I haven’t been on loan, but you can just tell they’re playing for their lives, the bonuses. They have houses and stuff to pay for. In the U23s you just get a sense that it isn’t real.”
Bryon, a versatile midfielder or defender, has been unfortunate with injuries since joining the club aged eight. He admits that it is easy to get caught up in what he calls the U23 “bubble”.
The 20-year-old points out: “If you’ve played three or four seasons of U23 football, it’s so easy to become comfortable.
“It puts a stop on your development. It just shows how important it is to get out on loan. You’re standing still if you get stuck in the U23 bubble. It’s hard to get out of.”
Last season, Aaron Wan-Bissaka became the first academy graduate since Wilfried Zaha to truly occupy a regular place in Palace’s starting 11. The full-back has since completed a £50 million move to Manchester United, but his example gives these youngsters hope that there is still a pathway for young players into Roy Hodgson’s first team.
Defender Sam Woods and midfielder Luke Dreher have also made their senior bows in the last 12 months.
“To an extent [Wan-Bissaka playing helped],” admits Flanagan. “Before Aaron, it was Wilf. Wilf was the last one. I don’t think any of us actually believed that any of us could play for the Crystal Palace first team until Aaron went up. But even that took about five or six injuries. It was great to see because we have played with him since U14s.”
Kirby continues: “When you see someone your age playing with the first team you think ‘yeah, next time that could be me’. Everyone here is just hungry and aware of opportunities. It’s about once we get that opportunity that we impress and keep ourselves within that squad.
“It’s difficult [to break through] but good for us at the same time. In our U23 side there are a lot of midfielders so there is competition and everyone wants to play, so everyone gets the best out of each other. if everyone trains well, everyone will become the best that they can be.”
McGregor adds: “It gives us that hope. You want to impress the gaffer and you want to impress other players. Especially you want to impress other players because they talk a lot, so they talk in the changing room and the word will spread around the training ground.”
Flanagan, McGregor, Kirby and Bryon can all occupy central midfield roles. The first team have eight players who can all play in that position, the summer signings of James McCarthy and Victor Camarasa have added to their midfield depth.
There is a similar number in the U23s, with the injured Dreher also included. Do they find that to be an obstacle in their progression?
“There are about five centre-mids here and about nine centre-mids over there,” says Flanagan. “Maybe at first [it was frustrating], but not really now. I’m used to it.
“When someone new comes in, I think, ‘alright cool, I want to see how good you are’. I want to prove that I’m better than that player.”