BY ANDREW MCSTEEN
Crystal Palace’s well-documented injury crisis, which has seen a number of senior first team players out – currently Andros Townsend, Jeffrey Schlupp, Christian Benteke, Patrick Van Aanholt and Mamadou Sakho – has seen an unexpected bonus for the next generation of Eagles’ players, with a number of academy players stepping up to the first team matchday squad.
Not since Watford away on 7 December has Eagles’ manager Roy Hodgson been able to name an 18-man Premier League squad which did not feature a current member of the Palace Academy with the eight league games since all featuring at least two U23 players on the bench.
But Hodgson revealed to the South London Press that despite their relative inexperience and young age they receive no special treatment, having made the step up on merit and are treated just like any other member of the first team.
“I don’t single them out for anything special,” he said. “We try to make it clear to them by saying ‘you are here because it’s a position that you as footballers deserve. I want to choose the best 18 players for this game, and you are amongst them. Just be ready, and if your chance comes be ready to take it because you’re here on merit.’
“I can’t do more for them as a manager, or Ray (Lewington) or Dave (Reddington) as coaches, then to show them that we believe in them and put them in the squad; there could well be a chance that we’re going to ask them to go on the field and play and we tell them, ‘that’s your moment to shine’.”
In seven of those eight games, defender Sam Woods was on the bench, with midfielder Brandon Pierrick named in six squads, coming on late against Norwich City to help in the build-up to a late Connor Wickham equaliser. Other academy players with the first team on league matchdays have also included Giovanni McGregor, Nya Kirby, James Daly and Tyrick Mitchell.
While Pierrick remains the only player to have seen league match action since the Watford game, he started against Derby in the FA Cup in early January and was joined by Woods, who came on as a late substitute, with Hodgson well aware of the next generation coming through.
“They’ve been training with us over quite a long period because we don’t have that big of a squad, so even when injured players return you don’t have a massive squad of players,” he explained to the South London Press.
“Quite often we’re looking to bolster that squad with extra bodies to help us do the extra training sessions we want to do and all of these youngsters have been involved, particularly Woods, who has been non-stop [with us] and Kirby too, when he’s not been injured.
“Players like McGregor, Pierrick, Daly and Kian Flanagan, Nikola Tavares – all these guys are really more than used to training with the first team but what we don’t want to do is keep them with us when we need 18 players and 18 seniors are there. They then have to go back and train with the U23s because there is no point having them on the sidelines doing a bit-part job – it’s got to be a role for them.
“Also we have the very young Malachi Boateng, and David [Boateng] too – they train with us as well,” he added. “I actually know all the U23 players basically now because I have worked with them and when any of them are with the first team squad, they just become like any others of the first team squad – they prepare for the game just like everybody else.”