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U18s set for kick-off

Our Under-18s kick-off their Premier Academy League campaign with a trip to Middlesbrough on Saturday.

Our Under-18s kick-off their Premier Academy League campaign with a trip to Middlesbrough on Saturday.

The benchmark has been set high for this season's crop of youngsters.

Last season's group lost only twice on their way to a first PAL divisional title since 2002 and went on to reach the final of the PAL national play-offs.

They were denied the national crown at White Hart Lane by all-conquering Arsenal, the same team that beat the lads in the quarter-finals of the FA Youth Cup in front of almost 20,000 fans at the Lane in March and went on to complete the treble.

As well as that form in Academy football, John Bostock, Jon Obika, Dean Parrett and Ryan Mason all made their first-team debuts.

So this season's squad have a lot to live up to - as suggested to coach Alex Inglethorpe before the lads travelled up to Teeside.

"The quality and standard of play was exceptional at times last season and it's a challenge for the lads coming in to try and match that and even go beyond it," said Alex.

"I think with the group of players we've got, given time, they can do that.

"We can almost roll back to where we were two years ago. I believe we have some really exciting players in the Academy but they haven't got the experience of last year's group, a number of whom have now made debuts in league football.

"Those players have the chance of starting their careers in a similar vein to someone like Jamie O'Hara and coming back with very bright futures.

"Once again though, I expect big things from this season's group. It will take them time to adapt and adjust but I expect good performances."

The signs have been positive in pre-season.

The lads just missed out on a place in the semi-finals of the prestigious Eurofoot tournament in Belgium but claimed fifth place overall with a 4-0 hammering of Standard Liege. Coskun Ekim, Kudos Oyenuga, Chace O'Neil and Cameron Lancaster were on target.

They missed out on the last four even though they beat Sao Paulo, Willem II and drew with Gent and Club Brugge - defeat in a key game against Anderlecht cost them dear.

They then performed well despite a few injuries to finish sixth in PSV Eindhoven's Otten Cup.

"We've blooded a lot of lads who had limited Under-18 experience and they all passed the test," he said.

"We just lacked that little bit of luck at crucial times and were made to pay for the errors we did make.

"But on the whole, I'm delighted with some of the younger players, for many of whom this was their first tournament experience, and they set a very high standard for themselves."

It's all been building up to Middlesbrough. "We went to Middlesbrough away a couple of years ago, got a 1-1 draw, played well but it was a tough one," said Alex. "We know what to expect there.

"Then we've Manchester United at home the following week and we know that will be a big test for these younger players, but a test we welcome at this stage."