Steve Davis is expecting an entertaining FA Youth Cup tie this weekend when his Wolves under-18 side travel to Selhurst Park to face Crystal Palace in the fourth round.
Having overcome Salford City in December, Wolves will be aiming to repeat the success of the 2019/20 season, in which Davis’ side beat the Eagles 2-1 at Molineux at the same stage of the competition.
Despite having a full-strength squad of scholars being made available to him to work with – many of whom have since become regulars for the under-23s this season – Davis is expecting a difficult match as the two teams currently sitting fourth in their respective leagues (Wolves in U18 Premier League North and Palace in the South) go head to head for a place in the last 16.
On a lack of competitive preparation
“With the under-23s’ game getting postponed at the weekend, it’s enabled all the players to be fit and available, but there’s also the fact they wouldn’t have had a game since before Christmas, so wouldn’t have got that much-needed match preparation.
“They wouldn’t have had the chance to get that little bit of sharpness back in their legs as some of the lads wouldn’t have played since the middle of December, so it’s been a month for them.
“But on the other hand, you can say they’ll be nice and fresh, so it depends what you prefer as a player. There’s no right or wrong preparation leading up to a game that you want to win.
“Whether players are sometimes better for not playing because they’ve got no aches or pains, there are also those who like to play games as it helps them with their mental lead-in to the game. All players are different.
“It’s all about finding the balance leading up to the game, because each individual player would prefer a different approach.”
Enjoying being involved with first-team training.— Wolves Academy (@WolvesAcademy) January 7, 2022
On having a full-strength squad at his disposal
“We’ve had a 60-minuite practice game with the under-23s on Sunday when we found out their game was going to be off, which was played with a very high intensity, so that would’ve helped the lads as it was played at a good tempo.
“Then they came back in this week and Tuesday was quite a hard day, and then we eased off a bit yesterday and did a bit of work on set-plays.
“At the moment, everyone is looking fine and we’re only missing one or two players, so we’re almost at full strength in terms of scholar numbers for Saturday. Now comes the challenge of picking the team which we believe will win the game. We’ll probably name the team today and spend some time working on specifics with that group.”
On planning to face the Eagles
“We always respect our opposition, whoever it is, and we’ll do all the due diligence we need to do with our analysis leading up to us. We watched the two previous games Crystal Palace played against Barnsley and Chelsea on Tuesday and they play a similar sort of shape to us.
“We saw what they do, where their strengths are and where their weaknesses are. It’s the same analysis that we’d do for any other team, so we’ve not treated them any differently than our other opponents because we respect every team we play.
“We respected Salford when we played them because we thought they might give us different types of problems, and they did, second-half in particularly.
“Similarly to us, Palace are quite a physical and athletic group, so I envisage it will be a good game between two teams with good individuals and lots of power and pace, so it will be a tough game for us.”
On regular changes to under-18 squads
“We can’t look back at that game because the teams are completely different. Every season we look at the squad we inherit, the new scholars, the incomings, the lads who have moved up and the dynamic of the group and base our work on the needs of the individual.
“Every year is a challenge because this group we’ve got now is very physical, very strong, a lot of pace and a lot of athleticism. As most of those are now moving up to the under-23s, we’ve got to look at what’s coming through, and these players are probably a little bit more technical and less physical, so we have to tailor our programme to them and change the work we do within the coaching unit every day because it’s going to be different.
“I’m going to more of an individual base now, so taking a closer look at each individual, what their needs are and if that means taking somebody out of the game who needs more physicality, more work in the gym. It’s trying to tailor what we’re doing for each player with their development plans, so it’s based around the individual rather than the whole team.
“Every year is different at under-18 level, and every month is different from the last because you have to keep changing things, but the thing that remains constant is doing everything we can to meet the needs of the player to improve them.
“We review the players every eight weeks to see if we’ve improved them or not, and if we haven’t, then we need to start working on the things we haven’t improved on, so it’s a constant process of analysing what their needs are.”
On Lembikisa making the first-team squad
“Dexter was never a player who was top of the list and didn’t have massive expectations put upon him because he was regarded as an ‘elite’ player, so he’s gone under the radar and come through in his own time.
“What he does is that he listens, he picks up things well and he has a great belief in himself. He’s got a great temperament, a great personality and he does what you want him to do. That’s a bit skill to have as a kid, to follow instruction.
“It’s not easy to do that because most kids want to be their own player and do their own thing, but he’ll do what you want him to do because he knows we all want what’s best for him and that’s what will get him to where he wants to be. He’s a good listener and a good learner and that’s why his development has gone a lot quicker than others.
“Every player has their own pathway and speeds of development, but a lot of people at this academy have done a lot of good work with him, not just the under-18s and under-23s. Previously, Sharpsy [Ian Sharps] before me in the under-16s, the psychologists, and all the people involved in his development up until now have done a fantastic job with him and Saturday was a proud day for us.
“We all went to watch the game at Molineux hoping that Luke Cundle would get on, and he did, so that was brilliant for him. It was good for the under-23 staff and under-18 staff to support the players, and was great to see Dexter warming up and being on the bench, and Luke getting on.
“That’s why we do the job and these are the pleasures we get out of the job. But there’s a lot of people involved in Dexter’s progression and it’s the same with Luke, because we’re all very proud when our young players get their opportunity in senior football, especially when it’s with Wolves.”