Atay: Our Biggest Test and We’re Really Excited
Wednesday, 12th May 2021 06:00
Town’s U18s host Liverpool in an FA Youth Cup semi-final at Portman Road this evening (KO 6pm) and manager Adem Atay says his squad can already be proud of what they have achieved in the competition this season.
The young Blues secured their place in the last four with a 3-2 after-extra-time victory over Sheffield United in a remarkable quarter-final last month. The winners of tonight’s tie will play West Brom or Aston Villa in the final with the two Midlands clubs meeting at Villa Park on Friday.
Category two academies from sides playing in the third tier rarely getting this far in the competition these days and Atay says everyone at the club has a great deal of pride in his squad.
“Not just me, the whole football club is really, really proud of the boys,” he said. “It is an achievement in modern-day football where we don’t see too many category two football clubs or League One football clubs making it to the semi-finals of the FA Youth Cup.
“It’s certainly something to be proud of. I said in the interviews after the Sheffield United match, it wasn’t just getting to this stage that we’re pleased about it, it’s the way that we’ve got to this round.
“The identity of our group which has represented the football club. They’ve really done everybody proud.
“How are we feeling? Excited, there are bound to be nerves among some of the boys because they’ve never been in this position before. That’s the beauty of this competition. It puts them on a journey to what it can be like if you are in and around the first team.
“It’s obviously a cup competition so each game is a must-win because there’s no second leg. The boys are really excited and they can’t wait for Wednesday and we’re just going to go in and embrace the occasion.
“It will be the first time being on live TV for most of them, so that’s something that we’ve not had to experience yet in this tournament.
“We’ve obviously played in the stadiums, we’ve played against some other big clubs, but this is the first time they’re experiencing the occasion of it being live on TV.
“We’re not hiding away from that, we know it’s live, we know we’re playing Liverpool, it’s the semi-final of the Youth Cup with the final to play for.
“We are going to give it everything we’ve possibly got and on the night we’ll see who come out the winners.”
He says coaches from other clubs have been in contact to wish the Blues well, while Atay himself and manager Paul Cook are among a number of people at Portman Road who are Liverpool supporters.
“In the coaching world, we build friendships with clubs and staff through the courses that we go on. We’ve had communication with other coaches from other clubs that have also been on journeys with their own clubs themselves. There is that support there.
“It’s an interesting one for us as a club because there are a few Liverpool fans amongst us. But on the night, we’ll certainly be supporting the Blues and wanting what’s best for our players.
“It’s pure excitement, they’ve had support from other football clubs, which is nice and we are the only club at this stage of the competition that had to come in at round one.
“The fact that we got relegated a couple of seasons ago as a football club made us come into these competitions at round one, which was a new experience for us as a club anyway.
“That can always give you those curve ball games that you’re expected to win. If you don’t play well you’re disappointed and the boys get told off, and if you win it’s expected.
“There were no expectations on us other than certainly to get to the third round where you start to get the Premier League clubs.
“We then had Fulham when it got to round three, our biggest test of the season, which was an amazing night [Town came from 2-0 behind to win 3-2 in the last minute].
“We didn’t think it could happen again and then we got beyond the other stages and then had Sheffield United in the last round which was memorable occasion and that’s what this journey’s been about, creating memories.
“I’ve said it from the start, they’re just on a great run. We’ve got boys in the group that have got really good character, personality and obviously ability. They’re three things which have enabled the group to keep coming through.
“The unity and team spirit is so strong that they feel that they can deal with any occasion and any challenge that’s thrown their way. It is our biggest test and we’re really excited and can’t wait for the game.”
Liverpool, winners of the competition four times in 1996, 2006, 2007 and 2019, and whose squad coincidentally includes a young left-back called Luke Chambers, are in terrific form having beaten Arsenal 3-1 at home in their quarter-final.
The Reds are third in Premier League U18 North and are unbeaten in their last 10 in all competitions, netting 38 times, an average of almost four a game, over the course of those matches.
“Thanks for that, that’s not a stat I’d looked at,” Atay, 35, joked. “We’ve not changed our approach just because it’s Liverpool or just because it’s the semi-final.
“Rightly or wrongly, each game that we lead into, the preparation for the boys is around what they’re doing on their own individual journey.
“Their ultimate goal is to make it as a footballer and hopefully that will be at our football club. Either improve our first team and get it into higher leagues or they become sellable assets and can go to a higher level that we’re at.
“Albeit it’s the FA Youth Cup semi-final, in terms of the players and the preparation we do for them it doesn’t actually change too much. They already know about the occasion and the opposition they’re playing against.
“We have done some prep that we’d normally do for oppositions but it’s not always the case of what they can do, it’s what we can do.
“And the emotions are going to play a big part on the night because that’s what they have to control. They’ve managed to do that in the previous rounds but this is a new experience for them all.
“They’re probably coming into it expecting to beat us but we’re here at this stage of the competition for a reason so I’m not saying they’re going to fear us, but on the night they’ll realise that they’re in for a really good game.”
Town have won the FA Youth Cup on three occasions, in 1973, 1975 and 2005 when Atay was at the club but too old to be involved. After a playing career which took him into non-league and to Turkey before returning to Playford Road as a coach in 2008.
“Some people will look at it as a good thing or maybe a negative thing that there are staff at the club that have been here for a long time,” he reflected.
“The nice thing for me on a personal note with this group of players is that there are about 10 players in the programme that were here from the age of eight.
“I had them as my first coaching role as U9s and U10s. Not just my coaching journey and growing up here at the football club, but I’ve watched these players grow up themselves as well, and then anyone that’s come into the programme later than the first cohort, they’ve just contributed to that team unity and cohesion.
“It’s not just the journey for the players, it has been a journey for me. I was here as a third-year in 2005 when the boys, my team-mates, my friends to this day, won it. It was an unbelievable occasion.
“Fast-forward 16 years, I could never have put myself in this position being with a group of players that I’ve known from when they were little kids to growing up in our programme.
“That on a personal note is something that I’m really proud of. I would rather see these boys progress and have a career in football than this one night.
“If you were to give me an option of losing on Wednesday but five players in the programme going on and making our first team better or kicking on to bigger and better things, then I’d take that option first.
“But on the night, with the occasion, it would be nice to get the win and try and make it into the final.”
He says some of those who won the 2005 final over a Southampton side including the likes of Theo Walcott, David McGoldrick, Nathan Dyer and Leon Best, with Gareth Bale an unused sub, have sent their good wishes.
“What was quite funny about that team was that there were five or six of them that were housemates of mine at the time. We were in digs all together,” Atay continued.
“I’ve been in touch with Cathan Lordan, Billy Clarke, Chris Casement’s here as a member of staff anyway, Sammy Moore, who played in the final.
“There are a few of them that I stay in touch with and they’re really excited by the club being in this position again and probably more so because we’ve still got a friendship that’s lasted these years.
“They’re really pleased for us. But that was their era and that was their time and these boys that we’re working with now want to create their own memories.
“I think it’s a win-win for the boys, in all honesty. The expectations were never to get to this stage from outside the club and from some inside the club as well.
“They can be really, really proud, as we all are when it comes to competition and being a sportsman, they won’t be happy with the semi-final, they’ll want to make it to the final.
“We’re all hoping that they can have one more performance that can give them that entitlement to get to a final, but worse case, if we don’t, we can still look back with real good memories, just like the team that did win it in 2005.
“I think it’s different. Back then it was an unbelievably tough final, I remember them playing Southampton with the likes of Theo Walcott in the team.
“We’d like to look back in years to come and see some of the squads we’ve played against and see if any players from the oppositions we’ve played have also gone on to have careers, and then you can reference how good our boys were. And obviously we want our boys to go on and have careers as well.
“I’ve been in touch with a few of them, we’re in touch anyway, but we want to take it one step further than just the semi-final.”
Third-round opponents Fulham have a category one academy, as do Middlesbrough, who were defeated 1-0 away in round five, while Sheffield United are in the Premier League despite having a category two academy.
“We obviously played Fulham, Premier League and cat one, at the moment I think they just need one win which will make them league winners of the cat one programme [Premier League U18 South].
“Then we played Middlesbrough, who are in the Championship, but are recognised as a category one academy. And then in our last game against Sheffield United and, to be honest, it doesn’t matter what category and what league they’re in, they’re a tough club to play against, no matter what.
“Those experiences and challenges that the boys have faced, hopefully they’ll be able to bring it all together in Wednesday night’s game.
“The exposure that these boys have had in this competition is why we want to be in it and why we want to progress each year.
“We don’t get to play Fulham, Middlesbrough and Liverpool, the last time we played Liverpool was years ago, and it’s not always the case that it’s in competition, it’s pre-season friendlies in which you never know what age group the squad’s going to look like.
“Whereas a Youth Cup game, you know that it’s going to be their best squad where possible against our best squad, where possible.
“It’s been a great run with really, really good experiences. When the time’s right, we’ll look back at it and probably assess and evaluate and reflect on it.
“I keep saying the same things, we’re just on a journey at the moment as one big club and everybody here is wishing the boys well and hoping for a good performance.”
He says manager Cook has given the players his enthusiastic backing, as was evident in the post-match celebrations after the Sheffield United tie.
“It will be amazing, for some of them it’ll be a dream to get to the final,” he said. “What has been good is the support which has come directly from the manager himself and his staff alongside him. They’ll all be at the game supporting us.
“You obviously saw the celebrations after the Sheffield United game in the changing rooms. That was real. It was pure emotion, those of you that spoke to me after the game will understand that as well, there was real pride and passion, and that’s what we want to bring to potentially the last game, hopefully not the last game, Wednesday night.
“So those that are watching on the telly or are lucky enough to be at the stadium can see a group of boys, and staff, that are passionate about the football club, want the club to do well. Not just the youth team, that’s the academy in general and the first team.
“A lot of negativity’s been dished out over the last few years around the football club because of the league we’re in and sometimes the style of play etc. But there’s a lot of people at this football club that really do care about it and want the club to do well.
“And it’s the same supporters and the same for you guys [the media]. We want to show that and in the last game we did and we want to finish on a really positive note, whether that’s Wednesday or after one more game.
“They’re lucky enough that they’ve also got another semi-final, our league play-off on Saturday [Professional Development League Two play-off at Wigan] coming up as well, so they’re there for a reason. They’ve got ability, personality and character and these boys are passionate about the football club, which I think we all want to see and are pleased to hear.”
Goalkeeper Antoni Bort suffered a knock to the head in the early stages of the Sheffield United match which led to a 16-minute stoppage but Atay says the Lowestoft-raised Pole is now fine.
“He’s OK. It wasn’t as serious as we first thought. He’s through all the protocols that need to take place and he’s on the right path and he’s got the green light each day. I think that will be a decision on the day whether he’s available or not.
“But he’s in and around and he’s getting a haircut today I got told, so he must be feeling that he’s going to be in front of the cameras!”
Regarding fitness concerns going into the match, he added: “We’re no different to the previous rounds. Since Christmas we’ve had three injuries to some boys that could have been in contention to start, Harley Curtis, Ben Wyss and Zanda Siziba, who were heavily involved in some of the other games.
“They’re long-term injuries, so they’re not available. That just means that other players get an opportunity on an occasion like this.
“In the previous rounds, those that have stepped in, they’ve contributed and they’ve had some good performances.
“We’re excited, anyone that gets selected or contributes as a starter or comes on as a sub or is squad member or is out of the squad that’s sat behind the dugout, as you saw after the quarter-final, everybody’s got one goal and that is to try and get a result with a performance that we can all be proud of.”
The match is being shown live on BT Sport 1 in the UK and on ESPN+ in the US as well as on channels elsewhere in the world.
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