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27 June 2013

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Hatters Under-18s set out on path to title

After a fine end-of-season run of form almost saw the Hatters’ Under-18s claim the Youth Alliance title last season, there are high hopes the youth team can go one better in 2013/14.

Manager Paul Driver’s squad, made up of nine first year scholars and eight second years, reported for full-time training on Wednesday.

Never has a youth team group been so highly-regarded. In his programme notes at the end of last season Wayne Turner said the squad can form part of a “golden generation” of young footballers developed by the Club. 

Driver agrees – and the expectation is high.

“We’re expecting to finish in the top two of the Youth Alliance – third at absolute worst,” Driver told Hatters Player. “We’ve outlined to the players the targets. We certainly want to reach the third round of the FA Youth Cup and the knockout stages of the League Cup.

“The second year scholars all have bags of experience. Almost all of them have played for the development squad. Tinashe Chabata played a lot in central defence, Charlie Smith featured heavily in midfield whilst goalkeeper Ben Barnes was on the bench for the first team for three matches.

“It’s a stronger squad this year and, on paper, it’s the strongest squad I’ve ever had. 

“It’s a lot different from last year. We now have the strength in the depth and a number of the first years who were under-16s last year have already had experience of under-18s football.

“Last season I would have taken a top seven finish. If you had offered me a top three finish this time last year I would have bitten your hand off.

“With the strength we have this year it should allow us to win it, or be right up there. I believe that a team has to be really good to finish above us.”

It’s a far cry from the level of expectation of this time 12 months ago. Indeed the young Hatters were lacking consistent results in the Youth Alliance and were knocked out of the FA Youth Cup by Stevenage on 30th October.

But of the following 15 games the Town only lost three times – a run that gave them a squeak of a chance of lifting the league title.

In the end Driver’s side finished joint top of the South East Youth Alliance table behind Leyton Orient on goal difference.

The championship, however, was awarded to Portsmouth who had played a game less and finished one point below both the Town and Orient in the table. But based on a points-per-game ratio  Pompey were crowned winners which relegated the Town into third spot.

While disappointed not to officially be classed as runners-up, Driver was delighted with his squad’s turnaround in form over the course of the last campaign.

“I was surprised by the change in fortunes,” admitted Driver. “We went from winning a few, losing a few and not defending very well to become a confident and consistently-performing side.

The turning point was undoubtedly winning 2-1 at Watford [on November 17]. We were trailing 1-0 at half-time and turned it around to win 2-1 and end their unbeaten home record. It was the first game we played with a new 4-4-1-1 system and we never looked back.”

Youth Alliance and FA Youth Cup glory is the aim but the ultimate goal is to produce footballers fit for the first team, and Driver believes many of players in the squad this year have a real opportunity of realising the dream of becoming a professional footballer.

“There is genuinely nobody in the squad who doesn’t have a chance,” says Driver. “And it’s rare that you can say that.

“There will be second year scholars who will be waiting to kick-on should any member of the first team pick up a knock.

“Wayne Turner has put the pressure on me and the players because he knows there is a lot of potential there. This really could be a golden generation of young footballers at Luton Town.”

For the 16 and 17 year-olds that will begin the season in the Youth Alliance, first team football is still a long way away. 

However, that’s not to say the squad won’t be taught to be professional.

“The players have already been in once a week for the past month,” explained Driver. “We set the ground rules.

“Each player is assessed physically, mentally, tactically and technically and that will be reassessed over the course of pre-season and during the campaign.

“The first year scholars will not have experienced the day-in, day-out routine before. In the past they have arrived for training in the evenings and go home again. At the training ground it’s almost 24/7 and we need them to understand it.

“The players need to learn how to look after themselves as well as realising what is right and what is wrong. 

“They need to know that there are standards, from behaving like the first team manager expects you to behave to your appearance around the place.”

Driver’s youngsters begin their pre-season schedule of friendlies with a trip to Brentford on July 9 and end their summer preparation with fixtures against the senior sides of Leighton Town and AFC Rushden & Diamonds.

“First we’ll play teams that are strong at our level before we move onto matches against senior men’s teams,” says Driver.  “Playing and performing in men’s football is what the players will be judged on – some players can be brilliant in the academy but not so good playing senior football. 

“It’s important that the players are ready for that because we want to produce players who are fit for the first team.”

Hatters Player subscribers can now watch 10 minutes of talk with Paul by clicking here.

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